Donald Clegg: Words, essential to our selves, separate us from ourselves
Note: This column is not about cats.
My wife and I recently took a little trip to the Oregon coast, staying four nights, which is sufficient time for our two kitties to, well, worry about us. And do they ever want extra attention after we get back. No problem, we’re more than happy to provide.
As it happened, I was sitting at the dining room table a couple of mornings after our return, reading a few excerpts of what I’ll label non-dogmatic religious writings sent to me by a reader. (Thanks, Martha.) I found myself in near-complete agreement with a good deal of it, save some conceptual differences and a few semantic quibbles.
Which is to say, only the things that make one appear religious or not; I am, although because I consider God and the infrastructure of established religionism as irrelevant, some might disagree with this assertion. In any case, Annie was sprawled across the table, partly over what I was trying to read, and Maddie settled into my lap, burying her head in the crook of my elbow, as she does when totally content.
Now, let’s set my purring pets aside, for the moment. In his 1983 classic, “Lost In The Cosmos,” author Walker Percy says that the first question we should ask, upon encountering intelligent alien life, is not “How advanced are you?” or some such, but, “Did it happen to you? And if so, how did you survive it?”
“It” being self-awareness, the sense of being an I, a me, a not-you: a separate and unique being. But we also long to be together, one and another. We hold fiercely to our selves while all the while wishing to lose them altogether. Quite the conundrum, isn’t it?
I would say that most all of the world’s literature, past and present, is an inadequate response to the dilemma of the self-aware self. Not to mention, art, science and religion. In short, language. It’s part of our problem because, at least up to now, it offers only an inadequate solution to the whole self dilemma. Now, having put that out there, let’s return to cats.
When Annie was still small, she used to make little “Where are you?” noises, and I’d holler out, “I’m in here, Annie.” Then her totally endearing “Areep!” of pure joy, and she’d come running, with her favorite catnip pillow in mouth. She was quite the “retriever kitten” back then, and her favorite game was chasing that little square and returning it to me, something she’d do until … well, I would usually call it quits before the cows came home.
And so to my point, which is that I’m a different self entirely, with Annie and her sister. I appear to be a unified self in association with the cats, in some way almost an extension of them, which I am not with my wife. Or people, period. Why? Once again, language, and the self-aware self. Language is the barrier, but I don’t use real language when communicating with Maddie and Annie, just sounds. Oh, I’m talking, but the words don’t matter, as we all understand each other perfectly well.
And so it is with people – at first. When a baby is born, mother and infant understand each other perfectly. Then something happens: The child begins to talk and a permanent rift emerges. Unfortunately, it appears that until humanity transcends language, we won’t ever even know what anyone else means when they say, for example, “God.”
I do, however, know for myself. To Annie and Maddie, indubitably and without doubt, God is me.
Donald Clegg, a longtime Spokane resident, is an author and professional watercolor artist. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.