It is an ongoing mystery: What makes you and your childhood self the same person. Across a lifetime of physiological and psychological change, some center holds. Eudora Welty called it “the continuous thread of revelation.” Walt Whitman saw it as something “independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal.” Complexity theory traces it to the quantum foam.
The best shorthand we have for it is soul.
“One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes,” Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) lamented in her diary. But writing directly about the soul, and with tremendous insight, is precisely what she does in a wonderful essay about the essays of Montaigne — his epochal “attempt to communicate a soul,” a “miraculous adjustment of all these wayward parts that constitute the human soul” — included in her classic Common Reader (public library).
Contemplating the soul — that most private part of us — as “so complex, so indefinite, corresponding so little to the version which does duty for her in public,” she writes:
Beyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there is the supreme difficulty of being oneself. This soul, or life within us, by no means agrees with the life outside us. If one has the courage to ask her what she thinks, she is always saying the very opposite to what other people say.
That courage is what Whitman celebrated when he decreed to “dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.” Only by listening to the voice of the soul — a voice by definition nonconformist, rising above the din of convention and expectation and should — do we become fully and happily ourselves. To be aware of ourselves is to hear that voice. To be content in ourselves is to listen to it. Woolf writes:
The man* who is aware of himself is henceforward independent; and he is never bored, and life is only too short, and he is steeped through and through with a profound yet temperate happiness. He alone lives, while other people, slaves of ceremony, let life slip past them in a kind of dream. Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul. She becomes all outer show and inward emptiness; dull, callous, and indifferent.
Observing that the souls we most wish to resemble “are always the supplest” — for “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living” — Woolf arrives at what it takes to be fully oneself:
Let us simmer over our incalculable cauldron, our enthralling confusion, our hotch-potch of impulses, our perpetual miracle — for the soul throws up wonders every second. Movement and change are the essence of our being; rigidity is death; conformity is death: let us say what comes into our heads, repeat ourselves, contradict ourselves, fling out the wildest nonsense, and follow the most fantastic fancies without caring what the world does or thinks or says.
Complement with E.E. Cummings on the courage to be yourself, Tracy K. Smith’s short, splendid poem “The Everlasting Self,” and the poetic science of how we went from cells to souls, then revisit Woolf on self-knowledge, the remedy for self-doubt, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, the consolations of growing older, and her epiphany about the meaning of creativity.