|I take three blank sheets of paper and put them a few inches apart, side by side. I leave the center one blank. On the right one, I draw a small diamond-shaped dot in the middle of the page. On the left one I draw an irregular squiggle.
Which sheet of paper is more like your real self? I am asking which of the three sheets seems like a better picture of all of you, with all your hopes, fears, and weaknesses, as you are at this point of time. Which comes closest to representing the way you feel about yourself?
The majority of people choose either the squiggle or the blank sheet. Almost none chose the diamond-shaped dot. Yet, the sheet with the dot is the most centered and solid and has the most feeling and potential. The blank sheet feels empty and meaningless. The one with the squiggle creates an impression of disturbance and incoherence.
You may wonder if the descriptions are accurate. To convince you, let me propose a thought experiment. Suppose you are with the person you love more than any other person on the face of the earth. And suppose you just made the three pieces of paper we have been looking at. Imagine that you are asked to give the sheet of paper that most represents your love to the person. Which of the three do you give? Most likely, you will give the one on the right because it feels valuable, feels worth giving, and feels the most meaningful of the three.
The majority of us feel an emptiness and incoherence in our lives which is why we think of ourselves as blanks or squiggles instead of diamonds. Yet we know the diamond-shaped dot was what we wanted to select but, in some way, our sense of self made us feel unworthy and so we rationalized why we selected the squiggle or the blank. It is the same way in life.
We are tacitly taught that we exist and just are. We have been taught that all people are true to their own genes, environment and nature. We are conditioned to be objects. We are taught to be “Me,” instead of “I.” When you think of yourself as “Me,” you are limited. The “Me” is always limited. When you believe how others (parents, teachers, peers, colleagues, and others) describe you, you become that. You might want to be an artist, but others might tell you that you have no talent, training, or temperament to be an artist. The “Me” will say, “Who do you think you are? You are just an ordinary person.”
There is a Japanese masterpiece film IKIRU about the life on an old man that captures the essence of what it means to be a “Me.” Ikiru is a civil servant who has labored in the bureaucracy for thirty years. He determines his self worth by how others see him. He thinks of himself as an object and spends his life preventing things from happening. He is a widower who never remarried, as his relatives told him he was too old and unattractive to remarry. He is the father of an ungrateful son who despises him because he is not rich. He does not strive to better his career as he has been told by his supervisor that he lacks the education and intelligence to be anything more than a clerk. In his mind, he pictures himself as a worthless failure. He walks bent over with a shuffling walk with defeated eyes.
When he is told that he has terminable cancer, he looks back over the wasteland of his life, and decides to do something of note. For the first time in his life he became the “I,” the subject of his life. Against all obstacles, he decided to build a park in a dirty slum of Tokyo. He had no fear and felt no self-defeating limitations, he ignored his son when his son said he was the laughing stock of the neighborhood, he ignored his relatives and neighbors who begged him to stop. His supervisor was embarrassed and pretended not to know him. Because he knew he was going to die, he no longer cared what other people thought. For the first time in his life he became free and alive. He worked and worked, seemingly without stopping. He was no longer afraid of anyone, or anything. He no longer had anything to lose, and so in this short time gained everything. Finally, he died, in the snow, swinging on a child’s swing in the park which he made, singing.
Ikiru became the subject of his life. He became joyous instead of miserable; he inspired instead of being indifferent, and he laughed at himself and the world instead of feeling humiliated and defeated. How about you? Are you the subject or the object of your life?
(Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck; and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net)