Meditation for Saturday of Week 22 in the season of Growth

Experiences and Identity

 Our experiences, coupled with our innate make-up, make us what we are. We form self-conceptions, which we call identity. Sometimes these are enabling but sometimes they are constricting and destructive in a variety of ways. Early childhood experiences, in particular, are important parts of our narrative.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory (1931)






Octavio Ocampo, Forever Always

Octavio Ocampo, Forever Always

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True Narratives

Mickey Mantle's male ancestors having died young, he was convinced that he would too. The product of a domineering father (who had insisted that he learn to bat from either side of the plate), he drank heavily, eventually causing him to die in his sixties - decades older than his male progenitors. As his liver disease progressed, he commented that if he had known he would live so long, he would have taken better care of himself. Mantle was among the pantheon of gifted athletes. His is a tragic story of a man who soared in his chosen field but squandered years of happiness with a negative and narrow view of his identity. Billy Crystal captured the theme of regret in Mickey Mantle's life in his film "61*" but the essential lesson for me is his life story.

Mickey Mantle

On memory, identity and amnesia:

Jews have long maintained identity around their culture and religion as Jews. Here are a few of the many histories on that subject:

Narratives on national and cultural identity:

On gender identity:

Here are other stories of people whose experiences and sense of identity shaped their path in life in remarkable ways.

Technical and Analytical Readings

Most of the works on this subject are in a popular idiom.

However, more technical books are also available:

Here are two books on failure as a necessary part of success:

Documentary and Educational Films


Fictional Narratives

Jean Valjean came from a poor peasant family of Brie. He had not learned to read in his childhood. When he reached man's estate, he became a tree-pruner at Faverolles. His mother was named Jeanne Mathieu; his father was called Jean Valjean or Vlajean, probably a sobriquet, and a contraction of _voilà_ Jean, "here's Jean." Jean Valjean was of that thoughtful but not gloomy disposition which constitutes the peculiarity of affectionate natures. On the whole, however, there was something decidedly sluggish and insignificant about Jean Valjean in appearance, at least. He had lost his father and mother at a very early age. His mother had died of a milk fever, which had not been properly attended to. His father, a tree-pruner, like himself, had been killed by a fall from a tree. All that remained to Jean Valjean was a sister older than himself,--a widow with seven children, boys and girls. This sister had brought up Jean Valjean, and so long as she had a husband she lodged and fed her young brother. The husband died. The eldest of the seven children was eight years old. The youngest, one. Jean Valjean had just attained his twenty-fifth year. He took the father's place, and, in his turn, supported the sister who had brought him up. This was done simply as a duty and even a little churlishly on the part of Jean Valjean. Thus his youth had been spent in rude and ill-paid toil. He had never known a "kind woman friend" in his native parts. He had not had the time to fall in love. He returned at night weary, and ate his broth without uttering a word. His sister, mother Jeanne, often took the best part of his repast from his bowl while he was eating,--a bit of meat, a slice of bacon, the heart of the cabbage,--to give to one of her children. As he went on eating, with his head bent over the table and almost into his soup, his long hair falling about his bowl and concealing his eyes, he had the air of perceiving nothing and allowing it. There was at Faverolles, not far from the Valjean thatched cottage, on the other side of the lane, a farmer's wife named Marie-Claude; the Valjean children, habitually famished, sometimes went to borrow from Marie-Claude a pint of milk, in their mother's name, which they drank behind a hedge or in some alley corner, snatching the jug from each other so hastily that the little girls spilled it on their aprons and down their necks. If their mother had known of this marauding, she would have punished the delinquents severely. Jean Valjean gruffly and grumblingly paid Marie-Claude for the pint of milk behind their mother's back, and the children were not punished. In pruning season he earned eighteen sous a day; then he hired out as a hay-maker, as laborer, as neat-herd on a farm, as a drudge. He did whatever he could. His sister worked also but what could she do with seven little children? It was a sad group enveloped in misery, which was being gradually annihilated. A very hard winter came. Jean had no work. The family had no bread. No bread literally. Seven children! One Sunday evening, Maubert Isabeau, the baker on the Church Square at Faverolles, was preparing to go to bed, when he heard a violent blow on the grated front of his shop. He arrived in time to see an arm passed through a hole made by a blow from a fist, through the grating and the glass. The arm seized a loaf of bread and carried it off. Isabeau ran out in haste; the robber fled at the full speed of his legs. Isabeau ran after him and stopped him. The thief had flung away the loaf, but his arm was still bleeding. It was Jean Valjean. This took place in 1795. Jean Valjean was taken before the tribunals of the time for theft and breaking and entering an inhabited house at night. He had a gun which he used better than any one else in the world, he was a bit of a poacher, and this injured his case. There exists a legitimate prejudice against poachers. The poacher, like the smuggler, smacks too strongly of the brigand. Nevertheless, we will remark cursorily, there is still an abyss between these races of men and the hideous assassin of the towns. The poacher lives in the forest, the smuggler lives in the mountains or on the sea. The cities make ferocious men because they make corrupt men. The mountain, the sea, the forest, make savage men; they develop the fierce side, but often without destroying the humane side. Jean Valjean was pronounced guilty. The terms of the Code were explicit. There occur formidable hours in our civilization; there are moments when the penal laws decree a shipwreck. What an ominous minute is that in which society draws back and consummates the irreparable abandonment of a sentient being! Jean Valjean was condemned to five years in the galleys. . . . Towards the end of this fourth year Jean Valjean's turn to escape arrived. His comrades assisted him, as is the custom in that sad place. He escaped. He wandered for two days in the fields at liberty, if being at liberty is to be hunted, to turn the head every instant, to quake at the slightest noise, to be afraid of everything,--of a smoking roof, of a passing man, of a barking dog, of a galloping horse, of a striking clock, of the day because one can see, of the night because one cannot see, of the highway, of the path, of a bush, of sleep. On the evening of the second day he was captured. He had neither eaten nor slept for thirty-six hours. The maritime tribunal condemned him, for this crime, to a prolongation of his term for three years, which made eight years. In the sixth year his turn to escape occurred again; he availed himself of it, but could not accomplish his flight fully. He was missing at roll-call. The cannon were fired, and at night the patrol found him hidden under the keel of a vessel in process of construction; he resisted the galley guards who seized him. Escape and rebellion. This case, provided for by a special code, was punished by an addition of five years, two of them in the double chain. Thirteen years. In the tenth year his turn came round again; he again profited by it; he succeeded no better. Three years for this fresh attempt. Sixteen years. Finally, I think it was during his thirteenth year, he made a last attempt, and only succeeded in getting retaken at the end of four hours of absence. Three years for those four hours. Nineteen years. In October, 1815, he was released; he had entered there in 1796, for having broken a pane of glass and taken a loaf of bread. Room for a brief parenthesis. This is the second time, during his studies on the penal question and damnation by law, that the author of this book has come across the theft of a loaf of bread as the point of departure for the disaster of a destiny. Claude Gaux had stolen a loaf; Jean Valjean had stolen a loaf. English statistics prove the fact that four thefts out of five in London have hunger for their immediate cause. Jean Valjean had entered the galleys sobbing and shuddering; he emerged impassive. He had entered in despair; he emerged gloomy. What had taken place in that soul? [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Second – The Fall, Chapter VI, Jean Valjean.]

Javert had been born in prison, of a fortune-teller, whose husband was in the galleys. As he grew up, he thought that he was outside the pale of society, and he despaired of ever re-entering it. He observed that society unpardoningly excludes two classes of men,--those who attack it and those who guard it; he had no choice except between these two classes; at the same time, he was conscious of an indescribable foundation of rigidity, regularity, and probity, complicated with an inexpressible hatred for the race of bohemians whence he was sprung. He entered the police; he succeeded there. At forty years of age he was an inspector. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Fifth – The Descent Begins, Chapter V, Vague Flashes on the Horizon.]

Stieg Larsson’s trilogy about a young woman with a brutal past:

Other authors:

Visual Arts

Film and Stage

Based on Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of novels about a resilient young woman with a physically and psychologically brutal past:

Music: Composers, artists, and major works

Venison, asparagus, eleven thousand virgins. . . Who would have thought that these apparently un-symphonic items would have their special place in the best loved and most frequently played of Mahler’s symphonies? The Fourth is ‘about’ childhood, in the sense that most of his music seems to be 'about' profound issues of life and death.” Drawn consciously from his experiences, Gustav Mahler’s music is intensely personal. His adoration for his wife Alma is a recurrent theme in his symphonies and songs, and the tragic death of his daughter in her childhood, as well as his own terminal heart condition, were prominent themes in his Sixth Symphony and his Kindertotedlieder. Mahler’s childhood was difficult. He saw seven siblings die at an early age. His mother repeatedly forgave an abusive husband. Yet Mahler became a successful composer, who married a much sought-after woman he adored. Mahler was also a man who was capable of feeling deeply; in fact, he could not help himself. We hear all of this in his Symphony No. 4 in G Major (1900) (approx. 57-64’). Great performances were conducted by Mengelberg in 1939, Walter in 1945, Kubelik in 1957, Kletzki in 1957, Reiner in 1958, Bernstein in 1960, Klemperer in 1961, Britten in 1961, Barbirolli in 1967, Szell in 1967, Horenstein in 1970, Maazel in 1983, Boulez in 1999, Gatti in 1999, Zander in 2001 and Tilson Thomas in 2004.

  • The symphony opens with the sound of sleigh bells (1:00), a sound Mahler surely heard in his childhood, and then a romantic theme is explored. The theme begins to spin out of control (5:16), then this first movement ( Nicht eilen.) turns aggressive, with sounds that would surely frighten a child (6:31 and 7:15, for example). Before that, Zander maintains, Mahler intends the sleigh bells and the strings to diverge in their tempi, with the clarinets slowing down to introduce the strings as the sleigh bells maintain their tempo: many conductors, including Bernstein (4:52) do not observe this but Zander argues that Mahler intended it to announce our entry into a world of uncontrolled forces that are often out of sync. Repeatedly, ideas are cut off abruptly by contrasting ideas (0:00, 2:15, 4:36 and 5:13); yet everyone seems thoroughly satisfied at the end of the movement. As Zander puts it, the music shifts from exuberance to catastrophe without warning. This first movement seems to reflect Mahler’s childhood traumas and their resulting anxieties, coupled with a sense of excitement in a curious and eager soul who simply could not help himself from enjoying life to the fullest and yet wanting more.
  • In this second movement (In gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast), Mahler wastes no time introducing the scherzo, with a deliberately contorted sound in the solo violin (0:20) and the typical scherzo rhythm (0:46). Mahler flirts with dance but the dance is dark (1:11), suggesting death. As it often does, the violin represents death or the devil. As in the other movements, the mood shifts from light to dark, and back again, without warning (1:45 - 2:54 - 3:40 - 4:05 - 4:42 - 6:36). The solo violin reminds us that disaster awaits at any moment (8:45). This appears to be the primary musical idea: life offers no guarantees and can turn toward us or on us in an instant.
  • The third movement (Ruhevoll {Poco Adagio}) begins in sweeping romanticism. Buddhists say that such things lead to attachment; sure enough, sadness colors the romanticism (0:55), and then romanticism turns to despair (2;14). The music then returns to the initial theme (3:36), and new variations are tried out (4:18, for example), only to meet again with tragedy (4:44 and 5:52). Life and love are serious matters, Mahler tells us. As this movement continues, the symphonic tone becomes more assured. Finally, the orchestra announces the opening of heaven’s gates (4:12) and the flutes and clarinets (6:42) join the strings gently to usher the child, as Zander puts it, into “such a life as we would wish for every child right here on Earth.” That blissful life is what the final movement is to be about.
  • In this final movement (Sehr behaglich) the singer brings forth images of abundance: foods of every kind, being enjoyed as though we were in Paradise (0:36). Yet these images are interspersed with blaring trumpets (2:03 and 3:03), perverse woodwinds (2:10 and 3:12) and barely controlled strings (3:50). In the end, the chaos, and joy, fall away into silence (beginning at 4:51 and again at 7:44). Mahler has presented life in its fullness and in its deprivations and want, and in so doing has captured the vagaries of life.

Roberto Gerhard lived in “self-imposed exileafter Franco took power in Spain in 1939. His music referenced this background throughout his career. “. . . Gerhard introduces allusions to Catalan folk music as a way of humanising his bleak landscape . . .” He “developed a wholly individual musical language that drew equally from serial techniques, traditional tonal syntax, and the powerful Spanish tradition into which he was born.” His music portrays a world fraught with peril – not calamitous events, and not entirely dark music, but only music that suggests how he saw life.

Several composers have written an opera based on August Strindberg’s play, “Miss Julie”, including:

Other works:


Few things influence personality development more than family of origin. We can often see this in music, as it is passed from generation to generation. Malian guitarist and singer Ali Farka Touré was known at the “King of the desert blues”. He was an important player in bringing this style of African music to the world. He created many albums, and left a substantial playlist. Known as “the Hendrix of the Sahara”, Vieux Farka Touré is Ali Farka Touré’s son. He gives a softer, more nearly urban edge to his father’s desert blues. Yet the core remains. He is distinctly Malian, and Touré. He too is building an impressive playlist.

Benedicte Maurseth is a Norwegian folk musician, composer and writer. She started playing the Hardanger fiddle at eight years old with Knut Hamre, and has traditional music from Hardanger as her specialty.” Here is a link to her playlist.

Other albums:

  • Airto Moreira, “Identity
  • Pete Rodriguez, “Obstacles”: “In the time-honored fashion of turning life’s struggles into art, Obstacles reminds us that sometimes our fraught experiences can provide the best inspirations.” [Ammar Kalia, Downbeat magazine, September 2021, p. 57.]



Two poetry collections by Jenny Xie: “The title of Jenny Xie’s second collection of poetry, ‘The Rupture Tense,’ announces her lover’s quarrel with all our continuous pasts, presents and futures. Born in Hefei, China, Xie entered the rupture tense at age 4, when she immigrated to the United States and began to learn English in, of all places, Piscataway, N.J. Many years later, a melancholy sense of exile from the present continued to haunt Xie in her first book of poetry, ‘Eye Level’ (2018), in which she ruefully observed: ‘the present tense gets close, but doesn’t enter me.’ This chronic sense of untimeliness may be traced to the generational upheavals of the global Asian diaspora . . .”

Other books of poems on identity:



Books of poems on Past Life Experiences:

Music: songs and other short pieces

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