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Whitman: Song of Myself

My grandfather never graduated high school. He dropped out and, having been rejected from the army twice, spent World War II working in one factory. The War ended, and he went to another factory where he would spend the rest of his professional career. One employer, gradually moving up the ranks until his retirement.

But he was much more than that. He was the smartest, most self-educated person I knew. He could recite Shakespeare, knew all of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment and Verdi’s Rigoletto. We would drive around in his Buick listening to cassette tapes of remastered old radio recordings — The Shadow, Philo Vance, Johnny Dollar. When he died, I spoke at his funeral and quoted two sources. One was my grandfather himself: In college I was working on an biographical essay and wanted to focus it on him. After some stunted conversation, he said (in his dry-as-toast way), “I was born, I grew up, I had a family, and now I just want to eat my supper.”

But he was also a man of immense love. And so, reconciling all of these elements (to say nothing of those I still don’t know about his life), I also quoted Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Earlier in the same work, Whitman says “I…am not contain’d between my hat and my boots.”

The minute we stop telling ourselves and others “that’s just the way I am” is the minute we can begin to recognize the multitudes we each contain. There’s never just one way, just one story. From there, we can begin to recognize how many qualities and how much autobiography we share with others in our lives — those we know as well as those we don’t know (to borrow from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, this is sonder: the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own). From there we can recognize our actions have reactions. We are not only beyond our hat and boots in terms of our interior lives, but also in terms of the effects our actions have beyond our own person.


Today’s Contemplation: Consider the last time a truth you held fast to was challenged. Consider the last time your opinion changed in a surprising way. The next time you pass a stranger, perhaps on the street, or across from you on the subway, or in line at the coffee shop, consider that they, too, are in a period of constant evolution. Consider how your actions may affect one another. Consider how you’re both boundless.