Memorable Darned Socks
I still remember the time when people did not throw away socks with holes but patiently darned them. I used to love those darned socks. Their history and appeal made me prefer them to new fancy ones. Let us imagine for a moment that I love a pair of socks so much that I keep darning them for years to the point that, in the end, nothing of the initial wool they were made of remains. Are they still the same pair of socks? Materially of course not. In terms of what makes them unique for me, however, they are the same and yet their identity has evolved, has become richer: they carry a unique set of memories and evoke feelings which explain why I have a deeper emotional bond with them.
In his book The Force of Character, and the Lasting of Life, James Hillman uses this example to illustrate a well-known aspect of our human physiology, namely that basically the whole of the material we are made of is replaced every seven to ten years, even though we remain the same person. The persistence of our identity is not a question of external shape, as with socks.
While retaining some recognizable physical features from birth to death, we vastly change in size and appearance. Hillman quotes an inspiring sentence by the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman who described the form that maintains sameness in this way: “ The thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance.… The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance and then go out—there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday”.
The example of the socks shows that, while remaining the same, that which maintains our identity throughout physiological changes becomes more and more distinctive with the passing of time, acquires more meaningful connections, is capable of having a greater impact. This is Hillman’s main argument in his book: as we grow old, that which defines our identity, the difference we make in the world, that which is unique, singular about us, grows exponentially. As we get older, we acquire an ever greater ability to have an influence thanks to what, somehow frivolously, I called “style” in my previous reflection. Impact, and therefore legacy, is a question of style or, more precisely, of character.
The meaning of character I have in mind here is not simply this mixture of partly innate and partly acquired dispositions which has been incessantly classified (whether we are introverts or extroverts, intuitive or observant, thinking or feeling, judging or prospecting, assertive or turbulent). The various combinations resulting from this categorisation are fascinating and can help us to understand ourselves better and interact more fruitfully with others.
However, we use the word character also to talk about the way things have an impact, especially as they grow older. When I say of a wine that it has character, I mean that its feel is instantly identifiable, has unique personality and complex flavours that remains on our palate long after we have drunk the wine. The combination created by grape variety, terroir, climate and winemaking techniques is such that it produces something noticeable, which startles and is memorable.
The interesting thing about this aspect of character is that it cannot be easily expressed in words. Hence the fanciful variety of images used by sommeliers to describe wines. The more distinctive a character grows, the more it appeals to the imagination and becomes unforgettable.
Even when I have to resign myself to throw away a pair of old socks, their character, that is all the images they evoke in me, remains – this is their legacy.
Character understood in this way does not depend on our will, is not something we can control. We can act more or less virtuously in life, improve traits of our personality through self-knowledge and discipline – but this effort only is part of what eventually gives us character. In the end, our distinctive flavour depends just as well from the part of ourselves which we cannot control. “Some of what I mean by “ force of character” -says Hillman- is the persistence of the incorrigible anomalies, those traits you can’t fix, can’t hide, and can’t accept … a force that cannot succumb to willpower”.
The traits of our personality that earlier on in our lives we might have tried to constrain, as we grow older and more forgiving with ourselves, end up becoming our legacy. Whenever I think to the people I have loved and are now gone, what comes to my mind first is their eccentricity, their oddities, their imperfections – just that which explains my old attraction to darned socks.
Older age becomes a privileged time to reconcile ourselves with our anomalies and welcome their contribution to what in the end gives ‘force’ to our character and makes our legacy long-lasting.