By the time a baby is four months old, parents should, according to developmental psychologists, be able to discern which of three temperaments applies to their child: easygoing, slow to warm, or difficult. These categories more or less sound like what they are–easygoing babies adapt easily to change and are generally contented; slow to warm babies are initially cautious of new situations but warm up to them as they gain experience; and difficult babies are more sensitive and respond more intensely to upset. To a fascinating degree, these initial observations of human beings who have only been on this earth for only a few short months holds true through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood–a “difficult” baby may turn into a boundary pushing child, an angsty teenager, and a demanding adult; an “easygoing” baby may turn into a carefree child, a likable teen, and a well-adjusted adult.
Of course, such labels do not hold universally true, nor does the complexity and richness of any one human being fit into a neat and tidy box, but the continuity of our individual struggles throughout life and where exactly they begin is interesting to consider. From a Buddhist perspective, there’s a fine line between looking for habitual patterns and becoming attached to very specific narratives of ourselves, between making observations about what we have experienced and identifying so closely that we become trapped inside an idea of who we’ve ‘always’ been rather than giving ourselves the chance to experience ourselves fresh with every moment.
I’ve been thinking about this fine line quite a bit this past week as I’ve found myself experiencing higher than usual levels of anxiety for no concrete reason to which I could readily point. There was nothing particularly dramatic or worrying about the anxiety, just an ordinary period of restlessness and discontent. My experience was mostly marked by irritated bewilderment and the repeated thought: “This isn’t like me.” This phrase is a common one we use to describe dips in mood, and in an everyday context in which we try to account for shifts outside the observed norm of our experience, this description serves a certain function. It notes the difference and also expresses a certain nonplussed quality of being in the midst of an intense emotional state without an immediate, external cause. However, at the risk of falling down a metaphysical rabbit hole, what does it say about our expectations of ourselves and of others that we alienate ourselves from certain experiences by labeling them as ‘not us’?
For myself, the category of “easygoing” has mostly held true from infancy and beyond. My entire life, I’ve marveled at what seems like an innate drive to return to a cheerful disposition, no matter how deeply I might experience pain or worry or anxiety. There have been times when these spells have lasted longer than I have been comfortable with, but even as I live inside of those intense states, I can feel myself balancing out little by little. Over time, I have developed a certain fundamental confidence that I will find my way ‘back’ to that even-keeled, basically contented existence that I recognize as ‘me’. This last week, though, I found myself wondering if days like these, when the landscape is bumpier and I feel more raw and vulnerable, if days like these are actually a more accurate representation how I am doing, of ‘me’. I wonder how much of my perceived cheerful ‘nature’ relies on the structure inherent in a busy life that keeps me from dwelling too much on the the bumpier aspects of my internal landscape. Perhaps the days when the intensity of feeling overwhelms these usual distractions are the days in which I have the opportunity to take a good, long look at myself in a moment when I’m unable to locate a familiar ‘me’. What a shame, then, that I typically spend these days rejecting the discomfort, telling myself to ‘snap out of it’, waiting to ‘get back to my old self’.