I Think I Found Myself

Song of Myself
1
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

Walt Whitman from “Song of Myself”

For years when I thought of “the concept of myself,” I would automatically think of Whitman’s long poem “Song of Myself.” Upon first reading this poem in college, I fell in love with it. It stated more eloquently than I could ever hope to express an image of myself that I hoped to attain in my lifetime.

Yes, I knew even then that this was a romanticized, idealistic view of mankind, just as the Christianity I was brought up with offered an idealized view of man’s ability to attain perfection if only we could follow Christ’s example. But this view also fit in quite well with the Transcendentalist view of the world and the Romantic tradition in England that I admired so much in my early years in college.

Though my later experiences with people, particularly as a soldier in Vietnam and as a caseworker, would certainly call into question this view of human nature, I think I still held to it unconsciously. It was my inspiration for my work as a caseworker and as a teacher. I felt, given the right opportunity, people would find the best in themselves and become better people.

Perhaps it wasn’t until I taught a literature class that included Lord of the Flies and When the Legends Die that I really re-examined these beliefs. I grouped these novels and accompanying short stories into two opposing views of human nature. The first group suggested that man was inherently evil and that only society’s rules kept mankind from slipping into anarchy and crime. Having taught 9th graders for several years, I could certainly see where Golding got his inspiration. The second group suggested that man was inherently good and that society’s evils corrupted some men and drove them to crime. The story of an Indian youth nearly destroyed by the “white man’s” school seemed just as convincing as Golding’s vision of boys run amuck on a deserted island.

When students wrote essays justifying one view or the other, I accepted either answer as correct because intellectually there is little convincing evidence to prove one view’s superiority over the other.
Deep down, though, I knew I was living my life believing that man was inherently good and society corrupted him. That was probably the only way I could have operated as a caseworker and as a teacher. I couldn’t have taught if I had had to maintain absolute discipline in the classroom and crush any student who dared to challenge my authority. I was there to help students, not control them.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I have been immune to the apocalyptic vision of mankind. It’s hard to reject out-of-hand visions like those in Road Warrior or Matrix. It’s even harder to ignore the capitalistic greed that continues to sacrifice the environment to meet an insatiable need for things, useless or not. It’s almost as hard to believe this will ever change considering that Emerson decried over a hundred years ago that “Things are in the saddle/And ride mankind.”

In moments of despair, I even envision a Malthusian world where the nature can no longer support the hordes of people overwhelming it. With such a vision in mind, it’s hard for me not to justify environmental radicals who defy the law to preserve the wilderness. In the end, though, my faith in man’s ability to learn from his mistakes hand, causes me to contribute generously to environmental groups rather than to pick up my shotgun and defend what’s left of my favorite western wildernesses.

My intellect at times goads me into believing this is a corrupt world driven by individual and corporate greed, but my heart, defying all logic, still wants to believe Whitman’s view is right on the mark.

Doc Searls offers a tribute to Whitman and an interesting compilation of lines from "Song of Myself."