Finding Ourselves In Biographies

What makes us into who we are? I wondered about that early on, thanks to four rows of biographies in the children’s section of Porter Public Library. They were shelved separately from other books, even other biographies, in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. Each featured a different person of importance, yet the worn spines looked very much the same when same lined up — as if to say greatness is consistent.

I rode my bike, played with friends, spent time in the woods behind our house,  and indulged in make-believe. I also read for hours every day. I took a stack of books home each time we visited the library. Usually a book or two about animals, a biography, and as much fiction as I could carry. I also brought books home from the school library each week. Typically I finished all the books before it was time to get more, then suffered without reading material.

I carefully selected books from the biography shelves. Initially I chose life stories of anyone Native American, any scientist, any artist. This was a smaller selection than I would have liked. Next I chose any book about women. Also a smaller selection that I would have liked. I worked my way through these shelves, skipping only the volumes about sports giants. Each book, written by template, found significant factors in the subject’s childhood that presaged their future greatness. Of course this led me to consider my own not-so-unique childhood. Being an introvert, I was somewhat relieved that greatness wasn’t in my future. Being  a child obsessed with suffering in the world, however, forecast that I might not grow up to make things better. This added to the burdens of my elementary years.

In my teen years I read well beyond those tired old juvenile biographies, finding books that illuminated these luminaries while showing them as human sized. I realized that people considered leaders in public life were quite likely, just like ordinary people, to be morally weak or otherwise plagued by common failings. My parents weren’t happy when I mentioned these revelations at the dinner table. “There’s nothing wrong with looking up to someone,” they told me. “What do you gain by diminishing heroes?” I thought it helped us see that people considered important aren’t so different from the rest of us. (I didn’t win those dinner table debates.)

I also began to read deeper, more revelatory biographies of people I admired. I watched plants grow through the mystical eye of George Washington Carver.  I hiked  into euphoric vistas with John Muir. I sank into despair with Jane Addams and rose from it as she found her purpose in a dream. I traveled and healed with Albert Schweitzer. I wondered if I might have survived, growing into wisdom as Elie Wiesel had. I fell into Huey P. Newton’s stark revelations about racism in America. I considered my own silence in relation to Maya Angelou’s childhood choices. I examined my dreams after reading Carl Jung’s insights. I crouched behind trees with Jane Goodall, considering our oneness with all creatures.

I suspect each of us is seeded with all sorts of abilities and possibilities. And when challenged, we are likely to do good. What we call “heroism” is explained, by those who exemplify it, as “I was just doing what anyone would have done.”

I remain fascinated by what makes us who we are, beyond neat templates. We can explain this as individual callings, ancestral legacies, trauma-encoded behaviors, archetypal journeys, the grand mystery of each life’s catalysts. Or not explain it at all.

I also remain fascinated by the stories that called to us in childhood, what those stories mean in our lives today,  and how stories of our own ancestors affect who we are.

What “important person” did you look up to as a child? What template was imposed on your childhood? How do you see “greatness” differently from an adult perspective?