It seems to me that the feature that most distinguishes human beings from other animals is our ability to look upon our lives as we live them. In short, to be subjective. Evaluative. To have values to measure ourselves by.
A horse can’t think about what it is to be a good horse. An ape can’t think: “that wasn’t nice, what I just did.”
Life aware of itself is a big part of the evolutionary leap we made way back when, around 200,000 years ago. It was a new power, to be sure, but a double edged sword. Self-awareness is also self-consciousness. It makes us feel awkward, unnatural. Half nature. Half above nature, thus guilty, disappointed, since who lives up to who we wish we were or want to be.
In the Garden of Eden myth, the first thing Adam and Eve do after eating the fruit of the tree of [self] knowledge is to cover their nakedness. After self-awareness comes hiding, deception. We hide our true self from others; or worse, from ourselves.
I like the depth psychology definition of mental health that goes as follows: persons are mentally healthy in terms of how close our ideas of ourselves coincide with who we really are. The greater the gap, the greater the disturbance.
The gap may have its first roots in the delusion that we aren’t really animals, when in fact we do urinate, defecate, breed, and give birth like animals. And if we don’t bathe a lot, we smell like animals. And bathe as much as we like, we still die like animals.
For those of us that make it out of the kindergarten here (yes, even though we can self-reflect, we remain animals), the work of becoming honest and comfortable with self-awareness continues. In a world where we all are hiding to some degree, the first thing you have to be aware of is that hiding is not compatible with significant self-awareness, of the kind Socrates meant when he said “know thyself.”
A developing self-awareness will be to some degree be hard on itself, will say things like: “did I just see myself being unkind?” Or, “look how quick I am to judge.” The ground floor of mental health is to recognize that we’re not as “up there” as we wish we were. It’s not easy. How rare is the self-reflective person who is not to some degree a pretender, a hypocrite. “What should fellows as I do, crawling between earth and heaven,” Hamlet says. “We are arrant knaves all. Believe none of us.”
If we should fancy ourselves, say, Christians, and read depth literature like “The Sermon on the Mount,” the questions we are asked to ask ourselves get frighteningly hard. Do I even want to love my enemies? Do I do good for intrinsic reasons, or just to be seen as doing good? Do I experience giving as my blessing? (And not just giving to my family and friends, which is almost like giving to myself, but giving to the stranger knocking on my door, as if he is Jesus himself.) Do I live in such a way that I see storing up wealth — even savings for tomorrow — as an impediment to my higher development?
“Oh, ye hypocrites,” was a phrase frequently on the lips of Christ, back when he was alive.
Take these tendencies to kid ourselves into the bigger picture — humans in the collective — and we start to see the overwhelming trouble we’re in. Scratch the surfaces of any country that thinks itself great, and hypocrisy is running amuck. Start with our own country. Far too many dishonesties along the way, as far back as the numerous broken treaties with the Indians (100 percent of them actually), remain largely unacknowledged. What we did to the civilian populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima — out of sight, out of mind. Our tyranny in Vietnam, three times more bomb tonnage dropped on this small country than the allies dropped in all of WW II — somehow rationalized.
So many lies, and as the lying continues into modern times, ever new ways to deliver them. If Hamlet is right, that we are arrant knaves all, the troubles that have slowly built up over 200 centuries, as the human population rose from a few hundred thousand arrant knaves to going on eight billion, look insurmountable. I see no hope that suddenly there will be political answers to our ever compounding knavery. As our knavery filled planet grows exponentially more perilous, to the point of threatening our own survival, our attention span grows shorter, more shallow, more consumerist, more easily distracted, fooled by appearances.
In the collective, it’s a pretty bleak picture. At best we’ll muddle along until our wishful thinking smacks us in the face.
. . .
In the meantime, how is a person with a modicum of self-awareness supposed to live. Poet Robinson Jeffers said, now almost a hundred years ago, in “Shine, Perishing Republic,” that “as America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, thickening into empire,” he would have his children “keep their distance from the thickening center.” “Corruption never has been compulsory,” he said. “When the cities lie at the monster’s feet, there are left the mountains.”
But a hundred years later, do we even have any such mountains to retreat to? In the last hundred years, it has become pretty clear: no place to go, no place to hide.
Of course, Jeffers may have been speaking symbolically here. We have the mountains within still to climb. That may have been what his fellow poet, Walt Whitman, also meant, a century earlier when he said: there are plenty of worlds left. Whole universes within, that we’ve barely begun to explore. Little by little. Step by step.
Forget about getting anywhere in the collective, except like lemmings, over the cliff. But I myself don’t have to be pointed in the wrong direction. I like the old Turkish proverb: “No matter how long you’ve gone down the wrong road, turn back.” And one from Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see.” As Leonard Cohen says, “day by day, thought by thought.
Recently, at Sheetz, I was approached by a man in need of a few dollars for a couple gallons of gas. He wasn’t some street urchin, he assured me. He was driving his wife to the hospital and left home without his wallet. My first reaction was to stiffen ever so slightly. “Unlikely,” I was thinking. But in the middle of that thought, I caught myself. Pulled out my wallet, looked at him smilingly in the eyes, and gave him five dollars. I could have been more. If he had asked for twenty, I would have given him twenty.
He thanked me, called me “a good man,” gave me a hug.
I know this small generosity was no big deal. Cost me nothing, really. It was something only in that I caught myself in the act of feeling superior. Saw for an instant more deeply into the truth that the opportunity to give is my blessing. Took a wobbly baby step up the mountain of breaking a bad habit.
Why think too much in terms of the collective, when one’s own part in it is still so undistinguished. Has yet to find its way. Is bogged down in the foothills.
I know this. It will be one hell of a long climb before I give all that I have.