The elastic self

Don’t ask me why, but I was listening to a podcast on elasticity the other day. (I blame being married to a physicist. It’s ruined my sense of fun.) Maybe I just more successfully avoided science classes than everyone else in high school (#winning), but there is a LOT I did not know about elasticity.

First, the definition: the quality of being elastic means having the ability to resume or retain one’s shape after being stretched or compressed. Obviously we think of a rubber band — when we stretch a rubber band, it springs back to its original size and shape once we stop applying the stretching force. Rubber bands are elastic. Memory foam pillows are elastic (they bounce back even after being compressed all night by my husband’s big ol’ genius noggin’). Glass, on the other hand, is not so elastic. (#rip, like, 3 of our wine glasses hashtag oops)

BUT what I found fascinating is that HARD objects are elastic! Hard objects like rocks retain their shape (very, very, VERY well) even when forces to stretch or compress are applied. The atoms in hard objects are bonded together and very, very, very much want to stay together. (#awww)

Look at that elastic rock arch! So elastic-y! So committed to staying in one piece exactly in this shape!

Atoms in non-elastic objects, by contrast, like my stupid brittle can’t-survive-a-fall-to-the-floor-from-a-clumsy-hand-held-waist-high wine glasses, are not bonded well and break easily. Their atoms are not as cohesive, not as strong.

Another interesting facet of elasticity is that you can feel the “restorative force” in elastic objects when you try to deform them. Rubber bands “push back” when you stretch, and at some point you can’t stretch them much farther. Memory foam “pushes back” when you press into them. They don’t change shape without a bit of a fight, without some push-back. Their internal bonds are both attractive and resistant: they push away from each other when compressed, and pull each other back towards themselves when they are stretched apart. The atoms push or pull each other back into place, into the arrangement that originally formed and which constitutes the object, according to the bonds that define the object, give it shape and boundaries, declaring what the object is and also what it is not.

I love this analogy for our sense of self. There’s a certain sense in which we have and are a self, an identity, an “authenticity” we recognize fits whatever we are doing or trying to be at a given moment. (We’re not always conscious of this, of course.) We change a lot over our lifetimes, but those changes tend to come with a recognition of how “authentic” our new or old ways of being are. In other words, throughout the changes, we still have a self and are trying to be what best reflects that core, authentic self. We seem to have a certain wholeness and “identity with self” feeling that, depending on its strength, results in our elasticity or our brittleness.

I think the idea of elasticity has an interesting connection to the popular idea of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways, to compensate for injury in one area of the brain by “learning” how to do the functions of that injured area in another area. It’s kind of a “brain reorganization”, a way of learning and growing and adapting to new situations and in the face of new limitations.

Elasticity is what I would characterize as the under-girding whole or foundation that is kind of the “norm” according to which neuroplasticity attempts to re-conform our brain. Neuroplasticity doesn’t just happen willy-nilly — just because I’m not good at physics doesn’t mean another area of my brain is going to pick that up. There are certain functions that the brain seems to “want” to do or is built to do, and those are the standard functions that neuroplasticity may help to preserve in some form; things like second-language learning, alertness or attention, musical ability, navigation, and naming/language.

When we have a strong sense of self, the typical pressures of the world will stretch us, compress us, but won’t fundamentally change us. They won’t be able to change us, because we are stitched together in our own experience and understanding (in our own experience of self) in a way that preserves a sense of wholeness, that preserves a certain “norm of self” to which we intuitively try to conform. I think it’s a rather lovely goal to get to the place where my internal parts, my core beliefs about who I am and the ways I can live authentically, are stitched together so well and so securely that I can bend and stretch and compress with the pressures of life and still “bounce back”. I want to be able to apply some internal restorative force to deforming pressures, to those people and situations that try to change me or those around me in ways that feel false, unfair, or harmful.

All this is not to say that elastic objects are destruction-proof. It is possible to apply so much deforming force that an object is permanently changed. Rubber bands break. Springs can be stretched so far so that they don’t “spring” back. Buildings collapse during earthquakes. In reality, all bonds can be broken, no matter how strongly (elastically) they are bound together. I think this aspect of elasticity provides a good ethic for our behavior towards others. We’re all exerting pressure on others to some extent, whether it’s through assertion of boundaries, expressions of need, requests for time, teaching little ones how to be good humans, etc. I like the idea of working hard only to apply the kind of pressure that stretches or compresses (aka, challenges) others, but doesn’t deform them. Pressures that recognize and honor their authentic and inner self (one we may not even recognize if we saw it, but know is there nonetheless) while recognizing and honoring our authentic and inner self, and a provision of space for others to exert the resistance that preserves their identity, and a provision of time for them to be able to “bounce back” free from pressure when needed. We should give this to others and we should give this to ourselves.

The idea of elasticity is important because we don’t fit together neatly like so many puzzle pieces that form a cohesive and tidy whole, but rather like a pile of jumbled pieces from a thousand incongruent puzzles, pieces that are all at turns slightly too large, slightly too small, possessing edges too sharp and others too curved, trying to form a different picture but all somehow forming a chaotic, beautiful, confused, painful, searching mess of a whole that requires both the honoring of the preservation of self and an ability to bend and shift with the world and with others as needed. Elasticity is the ability to return to self, to respond to the challenges of others by bringing new behaviors and ways of thinking into alignment with our authentic way of being ourselves.

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