Who Knows?


Does this ever happen to you?

From time to time — although not nearly so often as when I was young — I am overwhelmed by the feeling that I can’t possibly be stuck in this time and place. In this body. I’m not talking about a thought, but a deep-seated conviction. It’s as if I were about to blink my eye and afterward discover myself in another world, myself another person. I feel quite faint when this happens.

There is nothing spiritual about any of this for me, but I can see that it might lead some people to ponder religious possibilities. The illusion that your consciousness is greater — much greater — than the body from which it looks out on the world is divinely grandiose. Curiously, this is the only time that I sense what Descartes is getting at with his famous dualism. Ordinarily, my notion of who I am is rooted in my neatly attired body, not in some imaginary homunculus running a control booth in my brain.

Lately, I have been savoring an enticing thought, one unaccompanied by vertiginous sensations. If, as seems indisputable, we never know all about one another — we don’t come even close — then what a great freedom that mutual ignorance confers! And yet it, too, is an illusion. The idea that I might somehow be different from the person I appear to be — the person who behaves in such and such a way — is closely related to the idea of the novel that I would write if only I had the time. Both ideas are imaginary. St Anselm to the contrary notwithstanding, just thinking imaginary ideas does not imply a reality beyond the imagination. My idea of who I really am turns out to be unknowable (to other people) because there’s no existence behind it! In the end, everyone else knows me perfectly well; it’s only I who am in the dark.

Thank goodness that’s not what it feels like!

3 Responses to “Who Knows?”

  1. Yvonne says:

    When you were a baby, your body was very different from the way it is now; when you’re 100 years old, it will be very different again. Every day of your life, you’ve learned new things and forgotten some things; over time you have changed your mind about important things. For every adjective you can think of to describe yourself, you can probably, in honesty, think of at least one example of yourself as the opposite.

    That which is constantly changing can’t possibly be “you.” So what is unchanging? What is the through-line that determines “R J-ness”…?

    Should I tell my answer, or leave you to ponder the question?

    And, most importantly, are there exciting career opportunities available for me in fortune-cookie writing, or what?

  2. 1904 says:

    I agree with Yvonne, but mostly I think the pondering is the interesting part. Ah, RJ, that we could have the same experience and come up with such seeming divergent responses! Hindu mystics would say the illusion, of course, is our seeming separateness from everything around us, which results in endless play and mayhem and confusion, all dissolving once we let go of the ego, once we let go of the idea of our ‘apart-ness’.

    At least, that’s where I go with the experience.

  3. Father Tony says:

    Want to find the real you? Be careful. Remember that when you peel the onion layer by layer, eventually all you have left are the tears it makes you shed.