Hurray, it’s still available. Even in a Kindle edition, not that I’m Kindley-inclined (if that’s a word). I recently reread – for the umpteenth time – one of my probable top 10 nonfiction books ever. Geez, 30 years old now? Can I possibly be 30 years older, too?
Unbelievable. I just had another birthday, and I’m now looking at the backside of my 50s. Unreal. Birthdays suck. I’m anxious, depressed and generally hacked off as one approaches, and the last thing I want to hear is “Happy birthday!”
This is a problem, you betcha, one that I address by getting past it as soon as possible. And often by picking up this particular book for a wry laugh, as it reminds me that solutions to birthdays and other human maladies are unsolvable riddles. I haven’t checked out the self-help section in many, many years, but all it really needs is one book.
Which necessary volume reminds me of my favorite “Far Side” cartoon of all time: There’s a rack of VHS titles in the foreground, and a devil behind a counter in the background, checking out movies with a smirk on his face. A fire blazes in an opening in the cavern. (Just to make sure you know it’s Hell.) A customer stands by the rack, perusing the movie jacket, which reads “Ishtar.” I’m sure you can see what’s coming. Yep, Ishtar’s the only movie available. No one deserves that kind of punishment.
But I digress. To the only book you need in its category, appropriately titled “Lost In The Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book,” by Walker Percy. Or, among the possible alternative titles he gives, “The Strange Case of the Self, your Self, the Ghost which Haunts the Cosmos.”
I’ve wondered about, and studied, the nature of self-awareness for several decades now. I think that nearly all great literature is concerned with this question, in one way or another, and that it’s the central dilemma of being human. How do we deal with having a self? As opposed to being a self?
Let me illustrate the difference by way of Annie and Maddie, our two young cat-siblings. They’re cuddled together on a little dresser right now, about 8 feet from my computer desk, feeling the breeze and looking out at whatever. It’s window-ledge height, so they can sit right next to the screen if they want, or just settle on their pillow.
I know without the shadow of a doubt that they’re supremely satisfied. They’ve been fed. I’m close by. (They often relocate to whatever room I happen to be in.) They’re together. Life is good.
Their main concerns? Eating. Playing. Sleeping. Being curious. Oh, and loving and being loved. It should go without saying that all their desires come true. Well, they’d eat more if we’d give ’em more, but we treat them better than we treat ourselves. Almost no junk food, only occasional indulgences, and they’re frisky as can be.
They are totally content in being themselves, as they’re totally unencumbered by looking at themselves. They don’t observe what they are, they just are. How do I know this? Anyone who’s ever had a pet, or watched any animal in any activity knows this. For that matter, parents and children communicate perfectly until the infant begins to talk. It’s all downhill from there. Why? Easy: Self-awareness is a curse and talking is a harbinger of the emergence of the self.
Question: Is there a cure? Answer(s) next month. Meantime, do your Self a favor and don’t worry about it too much.