When I was ten or 12 I heard the review of a play by SJ Perelman called The Beauty Part which summarized the story more or less, as “A young man sets out in search of truth and justice and beauty and keeps finding Bert Lahr.” I can’t say that I have often come upon Bert Lahr, nor have I looked behind and found God chasing after me, as did the poet Francis Thompson. Robert Benchley recording looking in a mirror and seeing Wimpy, Popeye’s friend, looking back. That experience has not been mine either (though it may yet).
Instead, in going through the many things my father left behind, I keep finding that thoughts I believed entirely mine were his first, but often expressed better and felt more keenly. There is a picture of my mother at the beach when she was two or so. She has a mop of yellow tousled hair and is squinting in the sun. I never thought I looked much like her, but this picture might have been of me at that age, or my brother.
This is both fascinating and disconcerting. I have apparently come to a time when I’m finding out that who I’ve been has not been entirely – perhaps not even mostly -- who I thought myself to be. Emerson wrote that if he had a thought once had by Plato it was now Emerson’s; the road is no less mine when it is one my father walked before me. And it is good to be humbled – within reason. Shakespeare said it first – or perhaps he had it of his father who heard it from his great-aunt – but a man may be ever a stranger to himself, and it is useful to be reminded of this.