Every person is unique, like a snowflake, a fingerprint, the ever- and infinitely changing ripples of water running through a stream. That uniqueness is a challenge and a gift, the likeness of you never seen before or ever after, like a custom-designed suit to be discarded after you are done wearing it.

It should be one of our life’s missions to discover and live into that essence. There are two big hurdles.

The first is to find it. That should be easy, you’d think, because it is there – our individuality, our personality, our being – inside us when we are born and carried with us throughout our lives, tempered of course by environmental forces. But surprisingly, that essence is not always easy to find, and many people resist it. They too readily assume the identity other people like their parents or siblings or peers assign them.

Peer pressure is especially strong in the teen years, because young people are still growing into their life identities and are frequently confused by its emerging shape and scope.

For a lot of kids it’s trial and error: trying out first this and then that personality, donning the suit of class clown or class valedictorian, class bully or class nerd. Am I serious and steady or silly and goofy? Am I a helpmate and comforter or selfish and uncaring? A warrior or a pacifist? A scholar or an idler? A little of both or all of the above? It can be confusing.

But even as people grow older and settle into an adult identity, they may find that that identity is a misfit.

When I was a kid I was famously forgetful, which my family never let me forget. The image they projected onto me, of a lazy goofball – the “chicken brain, turkey brain, feather brain” of our crowd – became affixed, and I carried it with me for many years. Only much later did I realize it wasn’t true, that it could be outgrown and overcome, that in fact that wasn’t really who I was. The early label I accepted was one of the reasons I didn’t write fiction for a long time: because goofballs couldn’t manage the challenge.

We’re all born with certain traits, some of which, like eye and skin color, are fixed. Most of the rest are up to us to find. Our friends and family can assign them to us, but we don’t have to accept those designations.

So the first hurdle or challenge is to find out who we really are. Not so easy.

The second is even harder: to adjust and improve who we are in pursuit of the best version of that self, the ideal me.

Many years ago I joined a fiction writing workshop that featured an annual visit from a well-known writer whose works the class had read and analyzed. In our case the visitor was Russell Banks, the award-winning author of 12 novels, two of which, “Affliction” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” had been made into movies. Mr. Banks joined our class for a day, reading from and talking about his work and answering questions. One thing he said jumped out at me. “As writers, you are never better than when you are writing,” he told us. Yes! I thought, because writing demands so much of us – all our focus and energy and passion and intelligence. One cannot write seriously while doing anything else. It is intense work and also transformative: done well it transforms us into the essence of who we are and who we want to be.

 

But sometimes there’s a problem: after working hard to locate our essence, we discover it’s less than satisfactory. We find we are inherently selfish or cruel or violent. Then our challenge is to adjust that essence, by dint of intense rehabilitation, like rehabbing a house to make it better. Thus we improve who we are until we are finally satisfied with the version we have become.

The work of finding and improving our essence never stops. It’s a lifelong occupation, being the best person we can be. It’s like the sculpture inside the rock that Michelangelo could envision and was always trying to create. We chip away daily to reveal and release the masterpiece within us.