The season of pomp and circumstance has left behind echoes of such post-commencement queries as “What’s in your future?” and “Who are you going to be?” Hearing graduates try to answer, I’d feel twinges of sympathy. It’s confusing enough figuring out everyday life, let alone what is one’s future. By the time someone sports a cap and gown, they’ve been asked a version of this open-ended cavern of a question for years. 

It begins when we ask children, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” Somehow, they’re trained to answer in societal and gendered categories like “doctor,” “fireman” and “smokesmodel.” That last one was my 6-year-old’s response after watching Star Search and the spokesmodel competition. I tried correcting her repeatedly lest she grow up to sell cigarettes. But, within a week, her answer had changed for the worse – she wanted to be a princess! This caused a re-evaluation of the selling smokes business; at least that was a vocation and better than what my neighbor’s kid wanted to be – a potato.

Asking anyone who they will be in the future feels like a cloaked riddle masking a normative expectation, that somehow we should all have a fabulous answer that would satisfy the asker – as if we peer into a crystal ball, fast-forwarding through the decades to see how our lives turn out. I don’t know about you, but my ball is more of the Magic Eight variety that says, “Reply hazy, ask again.” 

No matter. We have all answered the “Who will we be?” question throughout our lives. For some of us, it’s a stab-in-the-dark response in order to end the conversation. For others, they actually know the answer! And it comes with a roadmap! I say good for them while wondering what combination of genes they have that gave them the super power to know their future. I must come from a different gene pool, one where I tread water madly, longing for a life preserver while I figure things out.

I’ve recently seen the light – there is no answer to “What do you want to be?” and it wouldn’t matter whether you ask an 8, 17 or 50-year-old. There’s no answer. Or, more accurately, no single answer. This was a revelation and a relief. Also, a big fat, “Of course, there’s not!” We complex humans, who go from stumble to glide throughout our multilayered existence, are never-ever one thing. We are a multitude of things and always have been. Mother, son, sibling, writer, lover, athlete, cook, accountant, mechanic, organizer and disorganizer – the list goes on. Moreover, these roles change and even disappear while we evolve and renovate our lives. Who I am today is not who I was 10 years ago, and, I suspect, won’t be who I am 10 years from now. 

My friend Karen said it best one day when we discussed how much her life had changed. Asking if she missed the gorgeous landscaping she used to create, she simply responded, “That was then.” For me, those three words released years of pressure, while possibility floated out of my core. “That was then.” Yes, indeed. We do not need to carry all the things we were with us. Let us continually become anew. The poet Diane Ackerman wrote, “We are all shape-shifters and magical reinventors. Life is really a plural noun, a caravan of selves.”

My husband espouses that the quality of our lives is given by the quality of the questions we ask. I’ll add to that truism that the answers matter as well. Maybe, instead of answering “Who we will be?” with job descriptions and labels, we answer with purposeful aspects of being human, like, “I will be loving, curious and kind.” That way, it’d be easy to tell someone who we plan to be and way more meaningful.

Carole Vasta Folley is an award-winning Vermont playwright and columnist. Visit carolevf.com.

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