Wednesday, October 21, 2015

[Memphis Reads 2015] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Tristan Barton

What is the What
Tristan Barton

There are many “Whats.” I believe that “Whats” depend on the situation as well as the individual. Our Whats differ as we go through life and experience certain circumstances. Before we can answer the initial question, we first have to ask, “What is a What?”
Donald Winnicott introduced the concepts of the true and false selves to the world of psychoanalysis in 1960. Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr talks on the true and false selves. He calls the false self the ego, the part of us that is self-manufactured, but we find the most socially acceptable. The true self, as Rohr puts it, “is what makes you… You do not create your true self, or earn it, or work up to it…” From what I can gather, a “What” is something that is truly and purely reflective of our true selves, forever binding us to who we really are, despite the nature or the prominence of our false selves. It is not often something that we can determine for ourselves. It is that place within us that always finds its way into our psyche, whether we know it or not, and never succumbs to the dangers of the outside world. In the novel, Deng’s father states, “You have to choose between the cattle and the What.” In other words, to display the true self or the false self is a choice, one we often choose out of desire for instant gratification. To put it simply, if our souls are distant islands, our Whats are our telescopes. And without our Whats, all we see is the vast expanse of water around us, rather than the shore ahead.
In saying this, what is Deng’s What? Deng’s situation involves immigration, constantly moving from place to place. However, amidst the commotion, confusion and persecution in his life, Deng remembers his home in Sudan: the surroundings, his friends, and his experiences, all with great detail. I believe home to be Deng’s What throughout the novel. Of course Deng finds comfort in recalling his early life in Sudan. However, home is more than the house or city he is from. While home takes on a physical form, it also exists in metaphysical form, just as love does. Home, even more than a place, is a sense or an idea. Home allows Deng to feel a sense of belonging, no matter where he is. Most importantly, it is that part of him that is indicative of his true self. His What tells him that all is not lost and that he does belong.
The decision between “the cattle and the What” is perhaps the most difficult for anyone to make. We tend to gravitate towards the cattle in most cases, our materialistic false selves. However, we do have the ability to choose the latter. I remember a time where I had a tough choice: to give something of value to someone in need or keep it for my own gain. The item was a guitar, my only one at the time, and the person, whom I was not too attached to, was too poor to buy one. Looking back now, I realize that humility is what led me to give it away; humility was my What. By putting me in that person’s shoes, my What reminded me of my true self and the things my heart truly desires, beyond the material and temporary. Now, I carry that memory with me wherever I go, reminding myself how my What saved me.
--Tristan Barton

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