This semester I’m taking a class on Walt Whitman, who I understand to be considered the ubiquitous American poet. I am new to reading Whitman, but he has already piqued my interests with a philosophy I have found to be consistent in my own life. In the preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman leaves no distinction between the past, present and future. The past (who we were) and the present (who we are today) interact together in order to place us in the future (who we will become):
The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is. He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them on their feet again…he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you. He learns the lesson…he places himself where the future becomes the present.
The “consistence” of what has been (the past) and what is (the present), places us in our future. Whitman expresses the necessity of revisiting the past, insisting that the “dead” speak for the consequence of action and provide us with lessons. Think about the old skeletons in your preverbal closet; what did you wish you hadn’t done? Did you learn a lesson from that? Of equal importance, Whitman suggests a consistence of the present: who we are today. How do you react presently when faced with the skeletons in your closet? Did you learn your lesson, and what does that say about who you are now?
Whitman suggests that the “great” poet awakens these skeletons consistently; in other words, we cannot ignore the past. We cannot ignore who we were yesterday. It is an awareness of our past that makes us who we are today because we learn life lessons from the consequences of our actions, good or bad. Because Whitman suggests the event of awakening the dead occurs with a “consistence” for the great poet, I believe he means to say that humanity is in constant revision. Because the past is in consistence with the present, we are constantly in contact with the cyclical nature of life. History repeats itself, and thus we find ourselves presently confronted with conflicts from the past often. The individual (poet) also finds themselves with this consistent and necessary confrontation of their own past identity. To be “great” requires a self-realization of who we’ve been.
Whitman insists that from learning the lessons of the past we place ourselves in the future; learning from our mistakes places us ahead of who we were yesterday. However, moving forward is determinant on deciding to place the lesson into action. We can only move forward as better versions of ourselves if we decide to make the changes we see necessary to suit our fulfillment. This is the consistence of “what is”; we can only find ourselves in the future if we make the choice to place ourselves in it. In simpler terms, the future is now. We must constantly be moving, shifting, changing, adapting, and learning if we want to give birth to a more self-realized version of ourselves. How we adapt in the present moment to conflicts we’ve seen before determines the outcome of who we are to become. To be “great” also requires a self-realization of who we want to be; we must move forward from what no longer presently serves us in order to create a gateway to the future.
The only thing that Whitman does not grant a consistence to is the future. We are not fortune tellers and we cannot anticipate what has not happened yet. We do not know who we will become. The only thing with a consistence of identity is who we were and who we are now. I find this to be a much more fulfilling way to live life because Whitman grants us wiggle room to grow; he does not expect perfection, but rather an awareness of identity. We will always encounter struggles and unhappiness, but it is how we presently react to what we’ve already seen that tells us who we are. We cannot expect to achieve perfection by simply moving from one lesson to the next with the hope of ultimately reaching an end goal. Life is not a video game; the game isn’t over once you’ve achieved all 8 gym badges and defeated the Elite Four. We are instead in a consistence of progressions and revisions; sometimes we will have setbacks that deter us from the path of who we want to become, but there is always time to press reset on the game and keep on playing.
Know who you’ve been. Know who you are. Don’t anticipate. Be unassuming.