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We Are Shaped

“We, I would venture to guess, are the books we have read, the paintings we have seen, the music we have heard and forgotten, the streets we have walked. We are our childhood, our family, some friends, a few loves, more than a few disappointments. A sum reduced by infinite subtractions. We are shaped by different times, hobbies, and creeds.” — Sergio Pitol, The Art of Flight

What we experience matters a great deal in our lives, for these are the building blocks to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. What we experience defines us, making us more inclined to learn more, which in turn prompts us to leap into another unknown. That accumulation of experiences is our sum. Our sum is us at this moment, with more to come.

What shapes us is most interesting in the context of omission. For what we miss also shapes us. Perhaps explaining why FOMO (fear of missing out) is such a common experience, but more likely just leaving us not fully fleshed out in an area where we sense we don’t have the full picture. We all wonder at what might have been at times, thinking about pursuits cut short, excuses we made about time or money or priorities that created a void of omission that nags us still. Friends offering a quarter berth any time I want to visit their sailboat is a tantalizing draw even as I write this, wondering if the opportunity will ever present itself again. Omission haunts us, even as life fills in around us.

“We must resist the temptation to drift along, reacting to whatever happens to us next, and deliberately select targets, from activities to relationships, that are worthy of our finite supplies of time and attention.” — Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

The trick is to avoid the drift. Put aside the insignificant distractions that relentlessly steal our time and attention and decide what will shape us. Life is short enough, we ought to set our sails in the direction we want to go in, and accumulate the experiences that will define our identity for the rest of our days.

As our accumulation of experiences grows it naturally builds momentum. It makes us more interesting at cocktail parties, perhaps, but it mostly puts wind in our sails. We become more confident in our ability to handle the unknown, to make it known, and in turn make it part of who we are. When done well, we become deliberate in what those experiences will be. In this way we create our identity while we define our lives. That’s something to aspire to, don’t you think? For it leaves us wanting more, which is a great way to begin each day.

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