I Wasn't Anything

David Cowles

Oct 15, 2022

Every day is Halloween…Every day I get to make the decision anew: who am I going to be today?

When my world was still magical (ages 6 through 11?), Halloween was the most important day of the year. Thanksgiving and Christmas were great fun, and we benefited handsomely from each, but Halloween was our holiday. We got to make our own fun! Plus, it was the only night of the year when we were allowed out after dark, with friends, and, in those days, without any adult supervision.


By the time I was eight years old, Halloween season stretched from October 1 through November 2 (All Souls' Day in the Roman Catholic Church and the day the candy ran out in our house). There was no time to spare. The logistics were daunting. Who’s in my wolf pack this year (for Trick-or-Treating)? What streets will we hit and in what order? And, most importantly, what will we be?


Now I am a grandfather 10 times over, and one day I made the mistake (sadly, one of many) of saying to a grandson, “I hear you’re dressing up as Captain America this year.” Crestfallen, he managed, “No Grandpa, I am Captain America.”


I had forgotten! Choosing our Halloween ‘character’ (‘avatar’ today) was not a matter of putting on a costume for a few hours or experimenting with an alternate identity for a day. It was more like choosing, or being chosen by, a totem animal. Your Halloween character is ‘who you are’…until the next Halloween rolls around.


“Who should I be?” That is the question! “And how should I be it?” Store-bought costumes are sleek and shiny, but they are usually made from some sort of plastic material that makes noise when you walk and has a faint chemical odor. A home-made costume, on the other hand, could be much better…or much worse. It affords more room for novelty, but that is tricky. How ‘novel’ do you want to be at eight years old? Plus, you’ll need Mom’s help, and that means surrendering some creative control.


You’re eight; you’re not used to making life or death identity-determining decisions, and this is the most important decision you’ve made in a year; and it will be another year before you have a chance to do it again. There is no margin for error.


And yet, I erred. The decision was of such monumental significance that I simply couldn’t pull the trigger; I procrastinated. Sure enough, Halloween morning came, and I was still not settled. Over breakfast, Mom nudged, “Do you know what you’re going to be yet?”


And again, after school. Finally, around 4 o’clock I turned to her in desperation, “Mom, what can I be?”

“Well, you could be a mummy. I could wrap toilet paper all over you and tape it.”


I wasn’t happy, but it was too late to be anything else. “Mummy me up please, Mommy!”


It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as you’re imagining. In fact, it was ‘kinda good.’ I hit the streets in high spirits, and everything would have turned out ok, except for one thing: after about an hour, it started to rain, not hard enough to disrupt our mission but enough to soak us to the skin.


I’ll let you put two and two together. Suffice to say, I returned home at the end of the evening, a rain-drenched child with wet toilet paper hanging all over him. I couldn’t hold back my tears, “Mommy, I wasn’t anything!”


I didn’t get over this disappointment quickly, and it was many years before I appreciated the momentous lesson of these events. The words still ring in my ears today, “I wasn’t anything!” and that realization, that experience ended up forming the cornerstone of my later adult thinking. (Freudians welcome!)


“I wasn’t anything!” Of course, I wasn’t. I wasn’t anything on Halloween night; I wasn’t anything six months later, and I’m still not anything today. Neither are you, neither is anyone.


The day I become something, is the day I no longer am. But it goes even deeper. What I am is precisely that I am not anything. Neti, neti – not this, not that! For human beings, being is a matter of not being what we’re not.


Is this surprising? How could it be otherwise? If I truly was Captain America, then I wouldn’t be me, would I? And if I am me, how can I be anything else?


I am neither Captain America, nor a Pirate, nor a Mummy. Neither am I an eight-year-old boy…nor an 80-year-old man! I am what nothing is and what nothing is. So…


So…everything! On the one hand, I don’t have to waste time “finding myself” because there is quite literally nothing to find. But that reprieve comes at a great price. I am nothing, but I am nothing in the context of the world. In myself, I can be nothing, but I cannot be nothing in the world. If I were, then I wouldn’t be in the world at all, would I?


So, it’s back to Halloween night after all. Because I am nothing, I am free to make myself anything I choose. My identity is not dictated by my genes, by my socioeconomic class (sorry Karl), by my upbringing, or by my education. “I know who I am, and I know that I can be whatever I want to be.”

But with such freedom comes an awesome responsibility. I don’t have the luxury of living life on the sidelines. I cannot pass through life as a spectator. I see the world as it is, and I must decide who I wish to be in this world.


I might choose to be a recluse, but that, too, is a choice, and being a recluse is still being something vis a vis the world.


At eight years of age, there are three sentences that you long to hear:

 “Daddy’s bringing home a puppy (or a pony).

 “School’s out…forever.”

 “Every day is Halloween.”


Well, I never got a pony or a dog (strike one), and I did get a college education (strike two), but, good news, every day is Halloween. Home run! Every day I get to make the decision anew: who am I going to be today?


 


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.

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