Thursday, March 27, 2008

Do You Know Who You Are?

I mean really. Do you?

Are you smart? Funny? Ethical and principled? Do you grab whatever opportunity floats by and let the consequences fall where they may?

Would you pocket a wallet you saw someone drop? If so would you keep it if the person came back looking for it? Would you lie if asked about it? What would you say now, and what would you say if someone asked next week, or next year?

Do you really know who you are? Maybe, but I bet you're like everyone else and keep changing to fit your environment. Try this sometime.

Meet your friends for pizza and beer. Change the situation around to match your own life. If you don't like pizza and beer, then make it a picnic, or a birthday party for someone's eight year old daughter. Whatever works for you.

Be yourself. Don't try to do anything unusual or out of character. Just remember what happens, how you feel, and what you do. Store the memories away somewhere. Keep them handy.

That's easy enough.

Now walk into your boss's office. If you don't have a boss, then use your bank, your church, or some place that gives you the same kind of feeling, like a dentist's office.

Let's say that it's your boss and today is your performance review. What happens will vary from place to place, from boss to boss and from individual to individual. But it won't be anything like having pizza and beer with your friends.

Are you relaxed? No. Do you feel like all the pressure is off? No. Are you sure that you can say absolutely anything at all and they will get it? No. Do you just walk in and expect things to unfold perfectly? No. Are you sure that whatever happens, you will leave happy and satisfied? No. Are you behaving differently? Yes.

You are a completely different person right now. Who you are depends on where you are and what is expected of you. You may think that you are one distinct person and you just do different things at different times in different places, but that isn't true.

Not at all.

You are a collection of roles and behaviors. You think different thoughts, say different things, experience different perceptions, produce a distinct physical presence depending on where you are and what is expected of you. It isn't so much that you are an actor pulling on a different costume as you are a consciousness waking up inside different stories.

This is a subtle process, a delicate realization, a revelation that may take some thought, but it isn't really too far out. Once you get used to the idea that there is really no one home inside you, no real you, it's pretty simple. You are a bunch of learned responses and some little-used potentials.

That's why you surprise yourself from time to time. Something in "you" comes bubbling to the surface every now and then and you learn a little more about who "you" are and what "you" are capable of. It can be nice, or not.

It can be that you like avocados after all, though you never did before. Or maybe you say something that makes everyone laugh until wine squirts out their nostrils, something that never before crossed your consciousness, or theirs. But there it is, all over the table.

If you're married, would you ever have guessed it would be to THAT person? Really? Or did things unfold, and then one day you finally realized what was going on, and admitted it, and that was OK?

If you're still not too sure about all this, that you're not really in control because you're not really here, then try a few things.

Try regulating your heartbeat. Consciously. You can't.

Lying down and staying very still is allowed, but won't work, nor will running up and down the stairs.

Unless you want to make it really clear. If so, then go ahead and run up and down those stairs for a while, and in the middle of it go ahead and change your heart rate to one beat per minute. Or 10, or 50. All the same. You can't, because you aren't home. "You" are only a visitor.

You are not in charge here. You never have been.

The part of you that you think of as you is only an occasional guest. Your consciousness wakes up from time to time when it's handy, and swirls its fingers around in the soup of thoughts, images, smells, sounds, and emotions that is always cooking, and pretends that it has something to do with them.

Well, it does, but not much.

If you sneeze and shoot goop all over, it's nice to have a hanky already out and in place. You sneeze into it, no one sees the goop, the goop stays in the hanky, you fold the hanky, discretely wipe your nose a couple of times, and put it away. Handy but not a big deal. A tool.

Like consciousness. Or rationality if you prefer. It's handy but not a big deal. It's a small part of you, whomever "you" are anyway.

Still not sure?

You can try some things. You'll probably get bored and give up pretty soon, but that is proof too.

Ready?

OK. Be rational then. Pick a vegetable or fruit you've never eaten. Read up on it. Make lists. Take notes. Learn everything you can about it, and then decide if it's a good thing to eat.

It will be of course. It's not like they just throw random objects into the bins at supermarkets. Any food you pick will be a good thing to eat, so that's what your conclusion will be. You are allowed to look at photos too, but not to smell, touch or taste your target food ahead of time.

Now for the test.

Because once you've reached your rational conclusion, you have to go eat the food. Let's be generous here, and add a time dimension. A fudge factor. Let's say that you have to eat this new food at every meal for a week, and then once a day for the next month, and then decide.

You won't be able to do it. Probably not. But even if you do, what happens will not be based on your research and your decision. What happens will be based on the animal you inhabit.

It will taste the food, and feel it and smell it, and it will let you know if it wants to take the first bite, finish that, and have so much as one more. There is a really good chance that you won't even get through the second day of your plan. Food is like that. Especially food. Even if you think you like it.

You can eat a new food and gag every time you try it. No thought required. Then one day you have to have it. The same food. It tastes the same but now it's good. Huh. No thought required, and any thought you might have had would not have helped anyway. Your animal decided, along the lines of ancient animal principles, and you go along for the ride.

You like that, do you?

It's even better. What's going on is not "along the lines of ancient animal principles" because there aren't any. Protoplasm and slime and squirming blind things do not have principles. They have something or other but we can't fathom what it is. Not really. It happens. It works. We live with it. We have to.

Still not sure about all this? Try another idea: your body is dark inside. Every thing a millimeter or so beneath the outermost layer of your skin is living in the dark, and has no eyes. It doesn't think, or go for a walk. It has never been to school. You don't know it, yet you are made of it. And it is in charge.

Dark meat.

So you don't want to screw around with strange vegetables or your internals. That's OK. Try something else. Things taken by mouth are especially good since they go straight to the mindless snuffling animal part of us. We relate immediately to taste and smell. We have to. We are exquisitely tuned to accept or reject anything entering the mouth because of billions of years of practice which has taught our blind selves to make snap decisions about what works and what does not.

Or else they die. In ugly ways.

So beer is good to experiment with. Try a Guinness. Better yet, a bottle of Theakston's Old Peculier, "The beer that made Masham famous! A dark, strong beer Old Peculier is justifiably famous for its rich and complete character, its sheer strength. Brewed using the traditional Fuggle hop."

Bet you haven't tried either on of them yet. Bet you won't like either. It took me a dozen or so tries at Guinness until it became tolerable. This was a rare case of rationality working, sort of. It was history what done it.

My boss at one time was an expert on Colonel Custer, and on his post, Fort Abraham Lincoln, south of what is now Mandan, North Dakota. (This is the same guy who is always called General Custer, but he wasn't. That was a brevet rank, in effect for only a few days. He went back to being a colonel very soon, and stayed that way until he died. You know the rest of the story.)

The soldiers at the fort were especially fond of tinned oysters and Guinness, which in the 1870s came to them in clay bottles, and my boss had made a specialty of finding them. The soldiers drank, and then threw the empties over the river bank and a hundred years later Norman dug them up. He even wrote to the Guinness company to identify exact years they had made specific bottles with specific imprints stamped into them.

So I thought I had to like it. Didn't. Like drinking strange yeasty molasses. But if they had liked it so much in the 1870s there must be something there, I thought, and kept at it. After enough effort I started liking it.

So you might say that this invalidates my whole premise here, but it doesn't. The forced drinking was a rational act, but the dislike wasn't, nor was the liking that followed. My animal got used to it and decided to keep it up. All I did was to supply the stuff. If "I" had never acquired a taste for it, "I" would have given up on it. It's pretty nasty after all. Old Peculier is nastier yet but does have a great name. Tastes something like Guinness but more so. More peculiar. The Fuggle hops and all.

Don't like vegetables or beer, go ahead and buy some shoes, or take up mud wrestling. Do something you know "you" won't "like" and see what happens. Either you won't be able to change the thing you think of as your mind or you'll find yourself surprised by what happens, and your mind will go along for the ride.

Either way it will not be the result of dividing a sheet of paper into two columns, labeling one "Pro", the other "Con", and listing ideas. Toting up a score does not make anything work out. Only the animal decides, and it can't count.

You aren't home and there is nothing you can do about it. Other than waking up into a conscious state every now and then and enjoying whatever show is playing on your retinas.

Life is so weird innit?

person: c.1225, from O.Fr. persone "human being" (12c., Fr. personne), from L. persona "human being," originally "character in a drama, mask," possibly borrowed from Etruscan phersu "mask."

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