Saturday, February 4, 2012

The we of you and me.

Some time ago I published a book, The Non-Identity Crisis—The crisis that endangers our world. You can order a copy by clicking on the link at the right. The topic of the book concerns a common mistake that everyone makes: we confuse function with identity and since we attach ourselves with functions we create unending hardship for others and ourselves.

Let me illustrate what I’m talking about with a small example. In the course of a day we perform many different functions. We get out of bed, go to the bathroom, prepare and eat meals, drive to various places, talk with people, assume certain roles and do things. While we are walking from our cozy beds we are performing a function called walking. During that time we could rightly say that we are a walker. One who walks is a walker. One who prepares food is a preparer, driving/driver, talking/talker so on and so forth. As our functions change our sense of being changes accordingly.

This matter is compounded with other forms of more enduring activities that lead to mis-identification. Some functions are vacillating and short-lived such as eating or walking. Sometimes we eat, sometimes we walk, but these functions come and go on a frequent basis. However, other functions are more enduring such as being a parent, a spouse or a volunteer. But even these can and do change. And there are further matters that we take on that define us such as national, economic, political, religious, or ideological identities. All of the foregoing can be, and are, combined. And all are changing and morphing. None of it stands still, but we do. That much is clearly evident and doesn’t require further explanation. So what’s the issue?

The issue is one of attaching our sense of being and worth to moving targets. If we ever took the time to truly understand ourselves (at the fundamental level) everything would be OK. We don’t however; take the time to understand ourselves at this fundamental level. Instead we understand ourselves based on these changing dimensions of mis-identity and we suffer and create trouble because of this error. For example, we may consider ourselves (by way of illustration) as a prosperous American Democrat, Christian, spouse and parent. That is a complex combining and each part of that combination changes. When we identify with each part (or the complex combination) we feel like our beingness is defined and vulnerable to attack. And then we take the next step and defend these forms of identity against others who define themselves in different ways.

Prosperity is then opposed to the disadvantaged; American is opposed to non-American; Democrat against Republican; Christian against non-Christian, etc. It is quite true that we flock together with birds of a feather so that we can attack and get rid of birds with different feathers. If you wanted to articulate and characterize the core problem we are facing at this point in time, worldwide, it would emanate from this tendency to mis-identify and create forms of hostility against others not like us. This tendency makes it nearly impossible to break the logjam of dysfunction in Washington and around the world and that tendency is jeopardizing our mutual welfare.

What’s the solution? Actually it isn’t that difficult to figure out but it is difficult to solve. The solution is to take the time to find out whom we are, at the fundamental level, because when we do that we discover that we are one common human family. Each of us adopts different ways of living. Each of us thinks different thoughts. Each of us performs a nearly infinite breadth of different functions but none of that is who we are. Who we are is a matter of being, not doing.

So let’s spend some time examining this matter of beingness. Who and what are we? Well one part of us is clearly changing flesh, bones and related physical stuff and if you haven’t noticed, all of that is in a continuous state of replication.

The speed of DNA replication for humans is about 50 nucleotides per second per replication fork (a Y-shaped part of a chromosome that is the site for DNA strand separation and then duplication). The physical part of us is comprised of trillions of chromosomes and each and every one of them is constantly being lost and replaced. Some times I look in the mirror and wonder who that wrinkly old guy is and where the young, handsome fellow went. The answer to that is that we are all sloughing off trillions of cells each and every moment of our lives. There is nothing of our physical being that is permanent and one day that part of us will go the way of all flesh. But that’s OK because that is not who we are.

The other part of this identity matter is enduring, permanent and invisible. It is never born and can’t die but since it is invisible we can’t detect it through ordinary sensory means. For sure what we are not is an idea or image. Ideas flit about like fire-flies but there must be one who is watching these ideas. Thinking doesn’t happen independently from a thinker but as previously pointed out, thinking is just a function: something we do, not who we are. This thing we call an ego is an idea, otherwise known as a self-image. It’s a fabricated construction that has been bouncing around probably forever and is recorded in literature as far back as 3,500 years ago in India and in ancient Greece. Freud co-opted the term as a part of his mapping of the psyche. The Greeks understood it in various ways ranging from the soul, to a sense of self. The Buddha understood it as an unreal obstruction that was the source of suffering that blocked access to our true self and if we’re honest we can see that egotism is the source of much corruption and greed. The ego is a divisive manifestation that emerges from this matter of identifying with functions that leads to alienation and hostility against other not-like-us birds.

So we are neither purely physical nor ideas. We are something much more fundamental that doesn’t change. And what we discover when we thoroughly consider the matter is that this non-identifiable being which is each of us is exactly the same. That is our point of commonality and that is the only thing we have in common. All of us are as unique and different as snowflakes and all of us are fundamentally just snow.
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