‘maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea’
- e. e. cummings
Edward Estlin Cummings was no cream-colored children’s book author. This twice-Harvard graduate was the United States’ first modernist poet who, with his surrealist, avant garde style, tried to create a new way of seeing the world through language. His satirical poems addressed love, sex, political and social issues. This one is perhaps the most heartbreakingly simple, raw thesis on self-discovery in modern literature.
Four little girls went on a little journey one day. Four different girls found four different things: a shell, a starfish, a horrible thing, a stone. Whatever each found, and whatever it meant, it was herself each girl discovered in the sea.
The term ‘journey of self-discovery’ refers to a travel or pilgrimage undertaken by an individual to understand oneself and attain happiness. Today a prominent theme in philosophy, spirituality, psychology, literature, and indie travel brochures, the discovery of the individual was actually a revolutionary cultural development in the years between 1050 and 1200 A.D:
‘[…] An interest in the relations between people, and in the role of the individual within society; an assessment of people by their inner intentions rather than by their external acts. […] This interest in self-discovery was intimately related to the conviction that humanity, and human relationships, were things of real value.’
- Collin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual
Theologians of the Western Church introduced the concepts of individual self-awareness and responsibility, and soon all manner of thinkers were captivated by self-discovery:
Herman Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha,’ son of a Brahmin in ancient India, left his home on a quest of spiritual illumination that took him far and long, across the river and back. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s ‘Little Prince,’ the little boy with sunshine golden hair, bravely traveled from planet to planet in an allegory of Exupéry’s own quest to understand human nature and life. Richard Bach’s ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ found ‘a higher plane of existence’ when he left his flock of gulls to follow his love of flight. And Paolo Coelho himself, before writing about the Andalusian shepherd Santiago’s voyage across Egypt in search of ‘the Alchemist,’ embarked on one of his own through Spain to Compostela.
Joseph Campbell, who conducted a comparative study of the archetypal hero across world mythologies in a book called ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces,’ found that almost all followed a similar journey of self-discovery and self-actualization:
‘A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.’
It was understood that to find yourself, you had to leave; ‘journey’ was not a metaphor. So on a journey people went. First, only a few; the desperate and poor, the curious and rich. Then came the Industrial Revolution, and with it, money and leisure time. The middle class could afford to go find itself, and it did. ‘Find and ye shall become,’ became the order of the day.
The more time passed, the more we found. The more we found, the smaller the world became, the further we had to travel to ‘find’ ourselves some more. By dint of so much mountain climbing, shrine worshiping, and guru seeking, our aimless wanderlust, a ‘lust for roaming,’ turned to fernweh, a ‘lust for distance.’ We could no longer find ourselves without leaving home.
Now journey is necessary, and to journey is good. Louis-Ferdinand Céline said: ‘Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination.’ Experience does mold us, and in the quest to find ourselves, these journeys we embark on shape us into new and different people. The self we discover is never the same one we set off to find.
‘Seek and ye shall find’… what is already within you. maggie and milly and molly and may went on the same journey but discovered different things. They chose what they saw, what they saw was tinted by their predispositions: reverie, compassion, fear, or loneliness.
‘it’s always ourselves we find in the sea’
There is no such thing as a journey of self-discovery. All journeys are ones of rediscovery. We can always dream of a pastel-hued, soundtrack-infused trip around the world, but if what we seek is already within us, our most beautiful journeys need not go much further than an evening stroll in the park.
‘Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.
It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined.
You just have to close your eyes.
It’s on the other side of life.’
- Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night