“You’re not the age you are. You’re all the ages you’ve ever been.” Fred Rogers
“I am cumulative.” Wallace Stegner
“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child.” Madelene L’Engle
When my son Westley turned three, we had a moment together that I still think about. In the weeks leading up to his big day, we worked on how to hold up three fingers. That switch from two fingers to three is more difficult than one might think. Getting your thumb to pin your pinky in place takes practice. But soon enough, he got it with smiles and giggles. To help him show off his new finger skills, I asked him, “Okay, how old are you going to be, Westley?” He said, “Two.” I corrected him and said, “No buddy you’re going to be three.” He shot back real quick. “I’m going to be two AND three!”
Something about that sounded so right. I couldn’t argue with him. Who would want to stop being two anyway?
It drummed up a quote that has been with me for nearly twenty years. Back when Fred Rogers died, I heard a tribute on NPR where he said, “You’re not just the age you are. You’re all the ages you’ve ever been.” That line disrupted my sense of time. It took me out of a linear track of existence and told me that time is creature I don’t get. Apparently, much more than I know is still with me. And coming from Mr. Rogers, a man who stood for the good of youthful innocence, I could feel him fighting for all the young places within us all. Maybe my two year old self is still bopping around somewhere.
Time and our Brains
Neuroscience can confirm this as true. Time is not simply linear, but cumulative. It becomes embodied, imprinted in our brains, and built upon. Somewhere in your brain, stored in pockets of cells, is the experience of being 6 and 12 and 20. Those ages are with you. Its not that we remember everything that’s happened to us. But we are shaped by all that’s happened to us. Neuroscience calls this the difference between explicit (what we consciously remember) and implicit memory (the embodied shaping of experience). As they say, you never forget how to ride a bike though you may not remember the moment you learned. Your body remembers.
In other words, our years build up more like rings of a tree than miles on a highway Experience builds on experience. Time passes in layers.
What does that mean for you and me? Well some are apt to say that something is in the past and therefore its gone. Let the past be the past. But the past is with us all the time, in implicit and embodied ways. And that may sound very scary. Its not that the worst of the past is there to haunt you in the night like the ghost of Christmas past.
I find its more helpful to know that not one bit of who you are is lost. Your whole self is still with you; your whole heart is there to find again. Its YOU that’s with you most. And yes, this may come in the form of flashbacks or pain or grief or anxiety or fear or embarrassment. It may be a part of you lost in a story. And that can be difficult work. But you can get that self back.
Selves and Stories
Last week my wife said in a conversation that something was lame. I hadn’t heard that word from her maybe ever and it was a strange comment in the conversation. When I asked about it, she laughed and said, “Oh, I think that was my 17 year old self. She just needed a chance to speak.” Her matter-of-fact kindness to her younger self was so inviting. I want that way with myself.
What part of you needs to talk?
Okay, here’s an exercise for you. When you get space, sit for a few minutes in a peaceful place and breathe deep. Then when you feel ready, think of something that’s troubling you right now. It could be a recent conflict or hard conversation. It could be a disappointment or on-going struggle. Notice what that conflict stirs in your body. What emotions are there? What sensations? Name them if you can. What does the issue-at-hand feel like?
Now reflect: Is that feeling familiar? To where or when? Can you remember that story? Or maybe you need to ask: How old do you feel? What do you remember about that age? Stay with it. Don’t minimize it or think its too weird of a connection. These aren’t logical connections per se, but bodily, neurological, heart connections.
What have you done with that story?
God’s Commitment to You
“I thought I already dealt with this.” I hear this a lot in counseling too, with sighs of frustration or even deep despair. The reality is you may already know the big story being surfaced by your life events. And quite possibly you did deal with it before. But if life happens in layers not miles, then healing will come in layers too. Healing is iterative. God always invites us to deeper passes at the same stories.
It could be said that Jesus calls us directly to this work. One time, he invited a child to stand among his disciples, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Another time he said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” This is a direct call to stay connected to our earliest of selves, those beginning layers of life. And here in is the promise of God: Not only will we find ourselves again—though that would be good in itself. There’s a promise that in doing this work to recover our younger selves, we will meet God.
May those young innocent places within bring you to a fresh experience of God and yourself.
If you’d like to learn more about healing through story work like this, I wrote an e-book about it. And when you sign up for that, you’ll get a link for the a live event recording I did in Jan 22. We went even further than I am here into this exercise. You can get all that free by going here.