Her words have been on my mind since I saw her at breakfast. Seated on the verandah of her retirement home, in between sips of tea and nibbles of toast, she uttered a phrase that I had heard from her many times before: "I just want to be a real person again." She talked longingly about her life outside of the retirement home; her eyes lit up as she described the willow trees in the park steps away from her old condo or the days spent bustling around the streets of Toronto. What does it mean to be a "real" person? What is it that provides us with a sense of certitude about our own personhood?
It is the rare being who can be fulfilled by the Descartian notion "I think, therefore I am". Throughout time, we have chosen to see our image reflected via our possessions or our achievements. For my friend, her "realness" is inextricably linked to freedom. The freedom to live life on her own schedule, to walk without assistance, to make her own tea and toast. Recently, for me, my freedom arrived on four wheels in the form of my first car.
To come and go as I please affords me the independence to go, to seek, to find, to do. Yet ironically, my going, seeking, finding, and doing comes at the price of a litre of gas. In order to sustain my newfound independence, my freedom is subject to my paycheque. When I turn the key in the ignition, I question whether my new possession is truly liberating, or have I become ensnared by a new reality?
The allure of shiny new things fades fast; more lasting is the seductive power of personal achievement to define a person’s reality. The euphoria that comes with gaining the next promotion, gold medal, top score, or accolade can certainly make one credible. Yet this euphoria is only sustained by constant achievement, and that credibility is so fragile that unexpected failure can cause us to question our very purpose in life. So how then do we become "real"?
All bodies age, all minds become foggy, and all hearts will eventually stop beating, but when it is my turn to sit on that verandah, and contemplate my "realness", all I can hope is that my life will have been lived to prove that my realness, my dignity exists through my participation in the "light and power" of a Spirit far greater than I. Whether I choose to grasp it or not, freedom is always within my reach.