Learning to Be Ourselves

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How I eat at home now is quite different to how I ate when I was young. And yet, I don’t have a sense that my younger self wasn’t me — quite the opposite. The story of my learning which foods I like is “my” story.

To be who we are seems simple and straightforward: we just follow our inclinations. What’s the problem? I think there are a couple.

Problems

First, it seems to me that the world is bigger than I; there will always be stuff that I don’t know.

The sharpest formulation of this I’ve heard is: What we don’t know is always infinite. This is a very sharp lesson in intellectual humility, even if a bit of an exaggeration.

In our family home, when I was young, we had a very “meat and three veg'” diet; tinned fruit and ice-cream was our usual dessert. A pasta dish (like Tuna Mornay) was exotic. This has meant that I have had a whole world of food to explore and find out about: the clean sparseness of Japanese, the wonderful combination of flavours in Thai, the balance of courses in French or Italian eating. All this I had no real knowledge of while young. I was quite ignorant about food, and it has been very enjoyable learning more about it.

My ignorance about food remains infinite: I don’t know anything about the food of mainland China or Africa, or, shamefully, the food of the first Australians. (I’m an Australian.)

Second, sometimes we’re not clear what our inclinations are — we are in ‘two minds’ about something or too confused to even know our own mind.

Over the last three decades, since I moved out of home, I’ve got a good sense of how I like to eat. It’s mostly vegetarian, not too many pulses; if I want to eat out and don’t know the local eateries then Thai or Japanese will almost always be a safe bet. (In all my years of eating out I have only once been disappointed by a Thai restaurant — it’s in Bay St, Brighton-le-Sands, Sydney, and had best remain nameless I suppose.)

Sometimes though, I still don’t know where I’d like to eat out or what to have for my next meal. It’s not ignorance that is the problem but ‘not knowing my own mind’ (or more appropriately, stomach).

Taking time, Wandering, Playing

To learn about ourselves (such as our food preferences), to acquire knowledge, will usually take time. As we try out different foods and cuisines our taste develops. If we come across a new ingredient that tastes quite different to others we know (like truffles or asafoetida) we may not know whether we like it or not. Some things are an acquired taste.

I have also learnt that taking my time can help me sort out my inclinations. I may have slipped into the habit of thinking, “I’m going out so Japanese or Thai” but find that I want a hearty soup because it’s winter.

I have also found that wandering can play a role in knowing who I am. It can help me get a sense of the terrain, the big picture. For instance: trying out Mexican and Indian I find that lots of chilli and spices don’t agree with me; that an omelette can be both light and satisfying; that dosai (like a pancake but made with fermented chick pea flour) are just fabulous. Gradually I find my way to a diet centred on grains, with Mediterranean food for wheat and South-East cuisine for rice.

If I can’t decide where to eat out I can go ‘wandering’ through the phone book or an internet site or food court and see what grabs me.

Taking time and wandering can be fairly receptive. Playing is a more active way of finding out what I like and who I am.

If I am not entirely ignorant and have gained some sense of my inclinations I can play with ingredients. I can start swapping the different elements around: finding which cheeses go best with an omelette, and if ginger goes well with fish then perhaps chilli might. Play is not goal directed, it is focused on the enjoyment of the process — which means that some of the combinations I think up won’t work: I can’t think of a way to combine garlic and sugar that would taste any good.

If I’m not sure where to go to eat out maybe I can go to a food court and combine different options (spring rolls for entre, curry for main, French pastry for dessert) or go to a deli and purchase whatever takes my fancy (perhaps some slices of ham, a wedge of cheese, and some dried fruit).

The “Me” That Learns

This process of learning about food has involved “me”: someone with inclinations and preferences. Some things I didn’t like the first time I tasted them and still don’t (mangoes, pumpkins and bananas for me). This process is not just learning about food but at the same time learning about me.

Gradually my palate has developed, and my tastes have broadened and in some ways have changed. How I eat at home now is quite different to how I ate when I was young. And yet, I don’t have a sense that my younger self wasn’t me — quite the opposite. The story of my learning which foods I like is “my” story.

Learning to Be Me

As a newborn or young child I wasn’t me in the sense that I am now. I had not the slightest knowledge of all the foods in the world or which of them I would come to enjoy or loathe. Through this exploration I have learned about the world and learned to be me.

I have used food as an example because it is fairly straightforward and part of our daily lives. I think this process applies to all the areas of our lives — exercise, relationships, intellectual frameworks and so on.

I would like to hear what you have learnt about you. What have been the realms you have explored, and what have you learned about you? Let me know in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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