The SELF is born (and other notes of a particular day)

THURSDAY, 8 APRIL 2004

Our physical birth arrives months after a microscopic beginning. Shortly after our birth we become aware of things around us. We become aware of the difference between objects, and the distinction between living and non-living things. Some time later we become aware of the category “human” – and that this label is also attached metaphorically speaking to our foreheads.

A few other insights penetrate our consciousness: each person is physically detachable from their environment, and also from other people (that is, a free entity, not connected to something like the leg of a table is connected to the rest of that piece of furniture); some objects are more important than others (a TV is more important than a spoon); and the hierarchy that exists between different creatures (a human is more important than a dog), and also among people (a strong man is treated with more respect than a little girl, and everyone is more important than the homeless guy).

With the passage of time, our awareness of ourselves intensifies. We realize that we, like other people, have somewhat unique physical features and characteristics, and that we have the ability to make choices regarding our speech, appearance and behaviour. We also learn that all of these things affect how other people in the environment react to our presence. We learn that names are necessary and that we have to constantly identify ourselves to others.

It soon becomes clear that we must also identify ourselves, to ourselves: “I exist, but I do not exist as the lawnmower; I am a man, but I am not the neighbour.” Because these statements are never sufficient, the particularities have to be explained, so to speak, in more detail.

We also learn to define our own identity (or to describe it), to make the process by which we identify ourselves to others, easier. The latter is done with two considerations in mind: 1) our need to confirm our own uniqueness, and 2) we must simultaneously ensure we are not too unique, because that might undermine the fulfilment of another deep-seated need, namely the need for companionship and belonging.

You need to be convinced of your own name and personal identity so that you can function as the separate entity that you are. Yet we also need to be “one” with others “like us” which again influences the process of defining and identifying.

So, in order to function as the separate entity of which you are aware you are, you need to define yourself in terms of your environment – to a large extent in negative terms: “I am not a table; I am not a dog; I am not a homeless person.” You also need to identify yourself to others and to yourself – again there are both positive and negative elements to this identification: “I am fat, not thin; I am academically inclined, not athletic; I prefer heavy metal to superficial pop.”

Ultimately, after years of functioning and defining and identifying our person to others and to ourselves, only the results stay behind from what and who we were – the final products of our blood and sweat, all our efforts and failures and successes, after we once again become part of the Great Invisibility one by one.

I got up 45 minutes ago with the idea that we appear out of nothing, that we become aware of the fact that we are something among other things, and that we must eventually define ourselves as a specific someone so that we can, as I wrote between sips of black coffee and bites of mixed cereals, function as a separate Something and Someone.

[And just to make sure I understand it correctly, here it comes again.]

After we are born we become aware of the fact that we are something among other things and someone among other someones, and that it is expected of us to function as the something that we are (don’t act as if you’re a table or a pet) and also to function as someone.

Superficially, who we are is harder to define than what we are, and the process takes much longer. Ultimately we need to be a separate somebody just as we need to be a separate something, and because we cannot be a different somebody every day, we need fairly constant identity.

It is now 10:56. I can now start my day. Many of these things have been said earlier, but to have said it in this way, on this specific day, gives today a particular quality. It also gives me a little result to leave behind …

* * *

By the way, result is tremendously important for “evangelical” Christians. They expect to be rewarded for their “faith” with, among other things, the life that follows this earthly existence.

I wonder how many people will still go to church every week and say the things that they say, if they learn from a source that they regard as credible that the results of their lives stay behind in this world, that they cannot take it with them as testimonials for a world and a life that comes after this one.

“Evangelical” Christians are actually good business people. (There is, incidentally, an interesting historical relationship between capitalism and Protestantism.) They say, “I give this, believe that, and do these things, then I get those things, right?” and the ministers and pastors keenly nod their heads (more “believers”). If the potential “Christian” is then satisfied that he or she understands the matter correctly, only then will they say, “Right, count me in. Where do I sign? What should I do or say?”

I wonder how much of the attitude these people have towards their religion will change if they must learn from a reliable source that they have misunderstood it all this time: that an earthly life that glorifies God is the beginning and the end; that it is simply better than an earthly existence where God was not glorified; that it gives you a more fulfilling life while you are on this cosmic speck of dust; when you physically expire, you are dead, and that no further reward awaits you.

I can’t make a definitive statement to this side or the other on what happens after you die. I am merely expressing curiosity about the motivations of some people, and what their response would be if it would appear that certain things are not the way they have always believed.

* * *

One final note: you must function as the something you are – it will not work if you try to operate as a bread toaster or a fridge. You should also function as the someone you are … but here it gets complicated, because who are you? You should, therefore, initially not attempt to function as someone you are not. In the earliest phase of your life you just know you are not your dad or your grandmother or your sister, so you know it will not do to attempt being one of these other someones (even though you may try to emulate their behaviour or their way of speaking or doing things).

To put if differently, initially you just know you are not someone else. You may know you prefer dogs to cats or that you like chocolate flavoured cereal, but we continually seek more information about ourselves, in order to identify ourselves better, and preferably in the positive sense, “I am …” rather than the negative, “I am not …”

You often find yourself saying the same thing over and over, revisiting certain themes a dozen times. At the end, it is not only what is said or written, but how. Many of the things that I wrote this morning have been touched upon in earlier notes, but this morning’s formulation has a remarkable simplicity.

Two points in our lives: What Was Before Us, and What Will Be After Us, and then of course there’s the in-between What and Who We Are. What remains are the results of the latter.

Are these results good or are they bad? Why is it important?

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