Now, on to the Self, Part 3. If you’ve haven’t been following, for the last couple of columns I’ve been using Walker Percy’s 1983 book “Lost in the Cosmos” as a springboard into an examination of the curse/blessing of human self-awareness, a disease with which humans appear uniquely afflicted. Our cats, Maddie and Annie, have been offering by contrast their lives of unexamined contentment: play, sleep, eat, cuddle, and catch-and-munch-the-fly.
Frankly, I want not to be just like them but to actually turn into a cat. With me as their owner. Yes, this is a paradox, rather like Leonard Nimoy talking to the younger Spock in the latest two “Star Trek” movies. Never mind the sheer impossibility and think about it. If you could turn into one of your favorite pets and live the kind of life it has vs. your own, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?
The essential problem of the self, as I see it, is that my best moments occur when it ceases to exist. “I” go away and something, well, better takes “my” place and has at it. Writing, for instance, this column. I could name more paths of transcendence but I’m sure that you have your own list and one of the biggies, God, may even alleviate the problem (almost) entirely for you. Hey, it worked for Albert Einstein, although it was science not God that sent him into the cosmos.
But, as I put it in my last column, this orbiting/transcendent self has to eventually leave its lofty plane and descend to mere earth. Reflect on this: Don’t you feel both exhilaration AND a slight feeling of disappointment when a really great movie ends?
However. Be that as it may. In any case. Regardless. Most of us do appear to be stuck with ourselves. So, what to do about it? And are there any saving graces? Bill Watterson, writer/illustrator of one of the best comics of all time, “Calvin and Hobbes,” resolves the matter better than I can.
Speaking through Calvin, he says, “Do you know why birds don’t write their memoirs? Because birds don’t lead epic lives, that’s why! Who’d want to read what a bird does? Nobody, that’s who!”
So there you have it. Grand as Annie and Maddie’s lives are, they will never be “epic” because no matter how lengthy their saga, no deeds of heroism or legendary myths recording their adventures will be told. It would appear that one must have a self – be an “I” – before the word “hero” can apply. As an example, using a popular genre right now, can a zombie be heroic? Self-evidently, no.
This still doesn’t solve the riddle of what the self is and I think the dilemma is inherently unsolvable. It seems to me that to understand our “I,” we would have to somehow step out of it, to look at it from an alien’s perspective, so to speak. I think of “me” as the entity who does the doing when the self goes away, and “I” – that is, the self – is the observer who then steps in to examine and record for memory’s sake the deeds of the me.
In other words, the “I” is a fraud. It does absolutely nothing while imagining that it does everything. Modern neuroscience has shown that we do before we think. And even though the illusion of the self holds, saying “I did it,” that turns out not to be the case.
Whatever we are, we’re more than our selves, and that’s the best I can do with me. Case closed, for lack of reliable witnesses.