Identity is strangely elusive. We spend much of our lives thinking we know who we are. On the surface identity appears to be self evident; our name, gender, nationality, culture, where we live, our schools and the work we do tend to establish our notion of who we are. We become what is expected of us and perform according to the brand we create. Brand has become synonymous with identity but is just a label of identification and classification that does not reveal the quality of the individual. When we speak of identity we are really trying to bring attention to the multifaceted ‘being’ behind the label, calling for recognition of the substance of who we are not what we do.
This desire to be known at the level of being is something we need to do for ourselves before handing the burden of doing so to others. Love and being are closely related. Falling in love is the feeling of our ‘being’ noticed. We expect such attention to sustain our sense of self and when it does not the “honeymoon” ends. Only we can sustain our sense of self. Lifelong companions love not the identity but their partners tenacity of being and exploring being. It is why most people are acquaintances and not friends; why partnerships fail-we expect others to know us when we do not know ourselves and to present us with evidence in the form of devotion when we are not capable of such devotion to our selves. Friends are the people who have the stamina to participate in the excavation of being and then to come to terms with the offerings of this discovery. Crisis has a way of re-imagining our lives for us, of demanding from each of us the minimum excavation of being, of soul . Soul seems an appropriate word for the stuff that constitutes our being. It is intangible, has quality but no clear form and yet has the gravitas which weighs us down in this world. Death, retrenchment and the variety of losses that loop through our lives confirm that we are more fragile than we initially imagined. We also learn that we are stronger and better than we imagined. We are more than what we do; more than where we work, live or how much we earn. However, what this “more” is … well that’s the big question isn’t it?
Identity, like branding is a surface symbol to differentiate things. Being is the substance of the thing. I do not yet fully understand being, but I am learning to embrace it. It is a mystery because its essence lies just beyond the realm of words and I think philosophers, as archaeologists of language, point us in its direction. Jacques Derrida (click on his name to watch a short interview with him) speaks most eloquently on the subject of love and being.
Such discussion is difficult because one must unpack the preconceived notions attached to the words used before they say for the first time what one wants them to say. The world is understood, or perhaps misunderstood through words since we do not all hold in our minds the same thing when we hear the same word. Words operate within a rigid system of duality. Each word is defined by its opposite; by what it is not and language, albeit limited, is the best tool we have to do the job of understanding what it means to be. It is wonderful in its ability to form into words the experiences of living, but it is hard work. It is why a successful society needs writers and philosophers as much as tradespeople, engineers, doctors, farmers, artists and teachers to develop. It is not enough that we as a species prosper for if we do not understand who we are then 4.5 billion years of evolution amounts to little more than altered geography and organic shifts.
We need to write existence. Why? I’m not sure; it is a bit of a mystery. I am however beginning to understand what Wittgenstein meant when he said “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.” Sometimes it feels like we are still learning to speak.
Here the Swan River infuses with the sea and holds still for a while. Unoccupied boats are moored and bob on the gentle undulation. Where are the people who sail them? A pier slices the water and on it children practice the rituals of youth. Their play strikes me as huge acts of faith in themselves and the world. I marvel at their sense of adventure and their bravery. Before I stepped onto that pier there would be a multitude of probabilities, possibilities and consequences to consider, not the least of which would be the my position of intruder in a world to which I no longer belong. I suspect that sometimes I think too much. Are other adults watching from the edge as envious as I am? How brave we once were. What spirit we had; how little fear. For the children there is the pier, the water, friends and the invention of something beyond themselves that will soon transform the pier into a battleship, a castle surrounded by a moat, a galleon rising to the surface of the sea after centuries of slumber … or maybe it is always just a pier?
Now the paddlers, strollers, runners, walkers pass momentarily. A grandfather takes his hesitant grandson to the water’s edge. Two little girls pick up stones and sticks and hurl them into the water thereby rendering themselves unbalanced but rise quickly still determined to empty the beach of its pebbles.Two mothers elegantly dressed, wearing sunglasses and wide brimmed hats pass pushing prams. A grandmother demonstrates to her busy brood how to entice Black Swans closer to the shore with bits of bread. Bread, some discover, is more fun to throw at screaming girls. Today all human activities seem elevated to acts of defiance against mortality. The coffee sipped, the crust broken for the seagull or the ice cream licked before it falls onto sandy feet that press the grass of the shore are acts performed in faith; faith that with things as they are, all is well with the world. Perhaps it is? Maybe this is the world; enough of the world for today.
Ambivalence is the skin of the world pulled tight over everything. It creates an interesting tension of opposites that govern the world. It is the slim thread woven into the tapestry of life and we do not like it. We have been taught to see contradiction as the enemy of clarity, reason and problem solving. This is a pity.
The most glaring contradictions are so obvious they are invisible. They are clunky and dull and we all know them. Our age has embraced democracy as the ideal form of governance since it safeguards the rights of all of its citizens. Yet the choices we have are presented to us and governments monitor us to protect our right to choose between the options they have presented us with? Television, film, social media are the modern day equivalent of the circuses of ancient Rome; a distraction creating the illusion of participation in something grander than the mundane reality of everyday life. Contradiction cloaks international politics. States proclaim allegiance to God and then claim moral justification for murder. The central tenets of love, tolerance and allegiance to humanity as laid out by various teachers are replaced by cultural ideology. Democracy is delivered by force and submission to God’s love brought by explosives, bullets and blood. Billions of dollars change hands daily while people starve in faraway places. The first world cares, governments care, politicians care-everyone cares. ‘Care’ is becoming an obsolete word.
The more interesting contradictions are more subtle. Loss informs our sense of what we have. The inevitability of death enlightens our perspective of life. Dark nights of the soul prepare us for renewal and extra crunchy peanut butter is enhanced by silky syrup. Ambivalence is inescapable since the words comprising our language are each strung taut between opposites; each defined by what it is not. Having two opposing or contradictory attitudes simultaneously is generally considered as flimsy or weak; an inability to decide. I think we would all be better off if we embraced ambivalence more often and lost the need to always have an opinion. Science may shed some light on the matter.
Quantum mechanics had fame thrust upon it when photons (particles of light) were seen to operate as waves and particles-a contradiction called the wave-particle duality that has opened up more avenues of scientific exploration than Newton’s fabled apple. Today the study of atoms, their composition and how they behave is riddled with fascinating contradictions like the fact that matter is composed more of empty space. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle implies we cannot measure the momentum and the position of a particle at the same time, much like tracking teenagers?
Children can swing from saying “I love you” to “I hate you” in seconds with unflinching intensity and integrity. When adults do the same we feel betrayed by the words; as if for the first time words have been able to detect and accurately measure the delicate frequency of our hearts. The constants in our lives exists beyond the reach of any language that must snake and ladder between positive and negative poles. When we struggle to articulate we sense the collision of two worlds of certainty-up/down; positive/negative; good/bad and the panic that ensues we have come to term ‘contradiction’ and regard this as an invalid state of being. A pity, there’s so much good stuff in between. Our humanity shines through when we rebel against this two dimensional tendency.
Holding two or more contrary thoughts at the same time ought not to be called ‘confusion’. Sometimes a thing is neither right nor wrong but what Richard Bach calls the “Isness”; it just is what it is. Contradiction emerges when we try to pin an idea or perception to a fixed place and keep it there. Ideas that become fixed as constant and unmoveable are called dogma and dogma that insists on allegiance is called propaganda. We like certain constants because they make our world seem more stable and deep down we all know that things always change. The only constancy is change.
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” 49 , 1324-1326.
It’s easy to see why Sylvia Plath compared gentle and shy people to mushrooms. They arrive quietly without announcement, are hardly noticed and they do not stay very long. I was sufficiently excited by the presence of this elegant fungi to take a photograph of it. I suspect my fascination with mushrooms and certain insects lies in their brief existence. They stubbornly arrive and live in defiance of their imminent demise; much like most humans. In a world where success seems to be measured by how many people notice our achievements, there is a refreshing reminder here that the value of life is not in the degree of attention we receive but rather in the quality of our presence. It’s about being not being seen.
Sometimes I feel like a lumbering grouse panicked by hunters popping buckshot. Friends are falling all around me and I despair. When friends die we talk of them as having passed because we cannot bear the finality of their loss. It reminds us that we too shall pass, that everything passes. Heaped on top of the anxieties of making mortgage payments, managing credit card debt and earning enough money for present needs as well as for retirement-the loss of people we love seems grossly unjust. It feels tragic even though tragedy, strictly speaking, is reserved for significant lives and if we are honest, life has a way of making the best of us feel utterly insignificant. The news of death generates (sometimes briefly, sometimes for longer) an existential survey. We review our lives, measure our accomplishments; we try to quantify success and qualify our presence. We do this because in the rush of daily duties, lists, must do’s and have to’s we forget that we will die. We all seem to understand that the nature of life is the ever looming and implicit clause of brevity. What we struggle with is that a life lived in servitude to employers does not guarantee the fulfilment of dreams which have sustained the countless days, months, years on the treadmill of economic survival. It does not feel right that a lifetime of service is cut short with such indifference to the soul that has endured bending to the callous god of material sustenance.
Maybe we busy ourselves more from a desire to avoid such painful inventories of the soul or maybe because exhaustion makes us feel that we are accomplishing something? I don’t get more sentimental with age, I get angrier at what I am coming to regard as a fundamental flaw in the design of the human mechanism, the body that is at once capable of such grandeur and beauty is also susceptible to the degrading onset of decay, that we call old age. It’s not old age; it’s a catastrophe. Against the backdrop of this rage there is, ironically, the emergence of a gentler voice that looks at the absurdity of the human condition and smiles because there seems little else to do in the face of annihilation. This is what makes us so remarkable, so grand and so incredibly lovable and worthy of respect and admiration. With our backs against the wall, we humans do not give up. We go hell-for-leather into the abyss and I think for that alone, we are a bloody marvellous species. I am proud to be human. I am above all proud of my friends, grateful to my family; exceptionally humbled by the love I receive on a daily basis. Because of that, loser or hero, something or nothing, I don’t regret a second of my dappled existence. With every ounce of sincerity I can muster, I say these words and hope they are heard as true and honest, despite the obvious negativities of life, I am happy to be alive and to have lived. I try to reserve the anger and channel its energy into activities that are life affirming. Henry Kissinger once said: “nothing clarifies the mind like the lack of alternatives.” There is no alternative to death but life and therefore those of us who have it should make every effort to use it with conscious appreciation and if we can do that, the living of it may someday resemble elegance. We may be awkward buckshot-dodging grouse, but with a bit of luck, some days we may feel like swans.