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The past and present wilt — I have fill’d them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a
     minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through
     with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too
     late?

— Part 51 From “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

I’ve seen this quoted a couple times in different places, and it’s that middle bit, that third thought, that always grabs my attention.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I’m not sure what it is about this that fascinates me, though I gather from my google search for the whole poem section that it’s a pretty popular quote from “Song of Myself.”

I haven’t read much Whitman, though the few bits I’ve read have always struck me as strangely disjointed, as though it was written by several people who didn’t really communicate well with each other.  Maybe that’s what this small stanza is supposed to refer to.

But I do think that it’s a succinct definition of what it means to be human.  We talk about teenagers and young adults trying to figure themselves out, trying to work out who they are and who they will be.  I’m not sure if, at 26, I still count as a “young adult” or if I’m just an “adult” now (probably depends on who’s describing me and how much older than I am they are!).

What I’m trying to say is, I don’t think the process of figuring ourselves out ever ends.  I can say some things definitively about how I am now, but I know deep down that there’s no guarantee of permanence.  Some things seem likely to stick around, since they’ve been true for as long as I can remember – I like having a lot of quiet time, I don’t like crowds, I sometimes have trouble controlling my temper – but others may change.  I mean, I remember at age six or seven gagging on pickles or mushrooms.  I still don’t exactly love mushrooms, but I can eat them without being sick.

I’m reminded a little of a particularly troublesome question of Spanish-language grammar with which I struggled when I first started trying to learn Spanish in middle school.  My school experience had, shall we say, limited lessons that were clearly about grammar rules.  The topic tended to get worked into other things and we picked up a lot through osmosis and example.  Spanish class was the first time I had to sit and work through clearly written-out rules of grammar, and I was puzzled by the concept of what the teacher called “the verb ‘to be.'” This got worse when I discovered that Spanish has two different verbs that mean “to be.”

Estar and ser have the same literal meaning, but they are more complicated. The primary distinction between them, as I understand it, is in permanence.  For instance, you would use “ser” when identifying yourself, because in theory your name is permanent.  Let’s leave aside the question of stolen identities/legal name changes/witness protection for right now and just go with the simple idea that your name is permanent.  On the other hand, “estar” would be used for a temporary state, like being cold or hungry or excited.  Those things will pass.

In defining ourselves, we often encounter contradictions that can range from the slightly disconcerting through embarrassing and all the way to insurmountable.  But then, we are large, and contain multitudes.

A few years ago, I reconnected with a friend from high school I hadn’t seen since I graduated.  It didn’t take long for him to tell me I hadn’t changed a bit, and I’m still surprised by the vehemence of my reaction.  The girl he knew in high school is still within me, but I am not only her anymore.  I can’t reconcile all I’ve experienced, both good and bad, in the years since high school with the idea that I haven’t changed.

The eighteen-year-old version of me is still there, inside 26-year-old me, and she makes an appearance sometimes.  It’s not like rings in a tree – those are too static for the feeling that I can look back at how I was at eighteen, twelve, ten, or six, and call that self to the surface for a moment.

What can I say, other than:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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