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Imagining An Authentic Life

05/05/2015 10:57 am ET | Updated May 05, 2016

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I am the boy whose first word was "ball." I am six and sitting at dinner with my parents and two-year-old brother. We are eating chicken-and-cream-of-mushroom casserole, Del Monte green beans, and Brown' n Serve dinner rolls. On the Zenith in the other room, Cronkite drones "And that's the way it was." The overhead bulbs glare on the pine-green plates and the charred candle-wicks we light only on steak nights. Earlier that day, my best friend John had said that his first word was "bubba." We found this funny, since the only man we knew by this name was a limping three-hundred pounder who stank and cackled while draining thirty-footers during the halftimes of junior high basketball games. I didn't know my first word. So I asked that night. My mom was pouring iced tea, and dad was reaching for the butter, and they said, in unison, "ball."

Dad, still wearing his whistle at the table, was the head football coach at the local high school. The game consumed him, and he passed the obsession to me. In my childhood photographs, I'm wearing football jerseys in all colors, usually numbered in the quarterback-favoring teens. I'm also hugging NFL-size footballs. By the age of five, I'm already collecting Topps trading cards of pro players, though I don't yet possess the picture of my favorite, Fran Tarkenton, quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. The coach makes up for this by giving me a Tarkenton jersey for Christmas, purple polyester, white number ten, gold and white stripes on the sleeves, and best of all, printed on the back, spanning my shoulder blades, "Wilson." This begins a holiday tradition, lasting until the eighth grade, a new jersey of a new favorite QB. And always along with the jersey: a fresh football.

"Ball" proved prophetic: I spent my early childhood training to be a quarterback, played the position well on my middle school's team, played it better in high school -- leading the '83 team to the school's only undefeated regular season -- and ended up being recruited by West Point to play for Army.

But now I wonder: did I really blurt that word? Surely the coach wanted so much for my first word to be "ball" that he translated my blubbery random "b's" and "l's" into his favorite sound. Doing so, with my agreeable mom cheering on, he thrust me into a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end satisfying to his soul: my boy was born to the gridiron.

What if he had converted my babble into "ma-ma" or "da-da" or "dog" or "duck" or "car?" Would I be crashing in derbies or blasting mallards or suffering serious Freud-lashings? (Which I actually am.) What if I'd said the first word of poor John, and found myself shuffling around gyms fat, lonely, and mocked? John escaped this destiny, became fast, lean, and popular and cool and got all the girls my neurotic self (is "Hamlet" ever a first word?) never could. His parents didn't make a big deal, I guess, over "bubba." They eased him into other plots, loose and casual, and so his narrative was open-ended, more Tristram Shandy than my Great Expectations.

Regardless of form, digressive or linear, by the time we become aware of ourselves we are already trapped in fictions not of our making, and our only hope of escaping the text is to write our way into a story of our own. Our self-fashioned narrative, however, no matter how original, has already been determined by the tale we inherited: we can define ourselves somewhere on a spectrum running from "whatever, old man" to "I'm a chip off the old block." Whether I become a footballer, a poet, a doper, or live fast and leave a fine corpse, I am always the boy who first said "ball."

More goes into a self than grammar, syntax, semantics, plot: atoms violently birthed in the Big Bang, the make of our species, millennia of history and culture, DNA. Each of us is a braid whose strands range from the oldest hemp to most recent nylon. But only one line elevates us from mere being to abundant meaning, from bare existence that is what it is, nothing more, to purpose, yearning, failure, love, writing books and comparing cell phones. That line is language.

At the dinner table that night in '73, encased in our rancher in tiny Taylorsville, NC, my dad, my mom, my brother, and I: we were all informed by stories ancient and near--the Biblical myths, the parables of American Christianity, dreams of the Democratic party, Southern Gothic lore, small-town tales, the fantasy scripts of parents, our own earliest gurgles and coos. We were (and are) each a node in a vast textual network, crisscrossed by thousands of narratives, out of which we in our own way were (are) trying, fated and desperate, to weave a cogent "I."

How many moments have you lived so far? Ten years contain about 5 million, so do the calculations. (I'm somewhere between 20 and 25 million myself.) How many things have happened to you during those minutes, or have you made happen? Billions and billions. When you piece together an identity, a story of who you are, you choose only a fraction of these events as components of the narrative, a narrative already determined by millions of pre-existing ones, and you emphasize some episodes over others, and slant the tale to support your idea of self.

You find yourself a character of a great gloomy luminous novel composed for you for untold centuries, and you labor most of your days to seize the pen for yourself, form your own plot, burgeon into your heart's hero. The work is in progress: You revise earlier passages to conform to your current feelings. You do the same with the present moment, altering your self-definition in the "now" to correspond to memory's eruptions.

This is authenticity: not finding or being true to a stable self (that great American illusion), but rather fostering awareness of the endless editing that we are always unconsciously doing anyhow, taking charge of the changes, growing responsible for them, and generously interweaving our texts into multitudinous networks of the world.

Eric G. Wilson is the author of Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life.