Friday, November 16, 2012

Who Are We?

     Have you ever thought about what it is your personality is based on?  Did you forge it yourself--that basis--or did you borrow it whole-hog without reservation or even the scantiest reflection, from something circulating in the culture--or, terrible to consider, from something on TV or the unending waves of advertising hype, the tidal flows of glossy, pretty, affecting, hollow imagery that just keep pouring over us, day after day, to give us the shoddy impression that our lives really are about something sort of important?
     Is your life about something sort of important?  Is mine?  Do our lives matter one bit in the grand scheme of this noisy, populated, free-floating, amoral era in which we are sharing, all of us together, in a manner of speaking, a version of community?
     For many of us our lives are mostly focused on what other people think of us.  We need admiration, or at least constant acceptance, and to get it we think we have to suppress aspects of our personalities that are kind of dark, dragon-like, hungry, ugly, sadistic, willing to tear one another apart for a bit of the flesh of the carrion that got left on the ground when some poor soul got ripped apart by the world and still had a little meat left on its bones.
     The problem with defining yourself by what other people think of you is that most people aren't thinking about you at all, ever, or about anyone for that matter--they're thinking about themselves and what other people think about them, in a strange, recursive, empty, falling-back-on-others way--or else they're not thinking at all.  They're punching words into their cell phones, or checking Facebook pages, or wondering what to buy next, what to eat next, what movie to see or song to download.  They're communicating to everyone they know, "I'm here!  I'm here!  And next, I'm going to be there!"  But there isn't any content beyond that, at least not much that I can see.
     What is your life about, really?  I am constantly asking this question of my patients in one way or another--who are you?  What exactly are you trying to do on earth, in your short life?  Because I can't really help you toward wellness without knowing what you're hoping to accomplish or understand, any more than I could gear you up for a trip without knowing your destination.
     There has to be, first, an assumption that you are part of a body-entire, the human race, and that your small actions or conscious refusals to act will have an effect on the configuration and lumbering progress of this big blob of humanity as it moves amoeba-like through the vastness of time.  So, the first thing I say to people, especially teenagers, who seem to believe they're tangential to humanity, is, You matter.  You matter more than you think.
     It's true, I'm sure of it.  Your thoughts matter, your dreams matter, your petty annoyances and preferences and hungers, pains, grief, hates and indifference matter.  They add salt, spice, and body to the human endeavor.  They have an effect on everything, and you need to be as aware as possible of this effect, because once you put it out there--and you can't not be putting something out there at all times--once you put it out there, you get little messages back, like notes in small cloudy beaten-up bottles washed up on the shore, often in the form of strange moods or cravings, or apathy, or in dream fragments that attach themselves like tiny snails to your wakefulness when you arise from bed and stumble creekily to the bathroom to wash up.
     It's your job to attend to these things, just as it's your job, and mine, to attend to the little symptoms that present themselves in the vehicle of your corporeal body, which is nothing more than a message-machine conveying to you information like a GPS as to your whereabouts and the likelihood that you will be here or there and possibly somewhere you don't want to be at all, like Siberia or the Mojave desert, if you don't change your course soon.  Because where you're headed has something to do, really, with where we're all headed.  So we have to help one another as much as we can.  We're all together in this, the project of being human, perhaps of showing God what it's like to be human.
     That's the other orientation I see most often.  If people aren't taking clues about who they are from their belief about what other people are thinking of them, they're using God as a reference point.  And I mean God with a capital "G," because for these people God is a real being with a name and an identity, and embodying a whole set of standards for how we ought to be behaving, standards that vary very little across denominations and are mostly about loving one another and giving back to the world and submitting to the supernumerary authority of the maker of the universe.
     It doesn't matter that these ideas are pretty old-fashioned, and completely out of line with the science and philosophy of modernity:  people live, at least from the standpoint of metaphysics, a couple hundred years behind the times.  We may just recently have absorbed most of Descartes, and all of Copernicus, for example.
     We are still a perplexingly religious tribe, with stragglers who call themselves atheists or new-agers and are undertaking to pull everyone else into the pioneer land of let's-fix-this-world-ourselves-and-stop-praying-to-god-for-miracles.
     Most people refer to the concept--or insistence of reality--of God as a way of declaring who they are, and what they are about.  They do get messages back--which is exactly what I exhort my patients to do--messages about whether they're on the right or wrong path, messages they perceive as coming from God, in answer to their prayers, or just gratuitous information from their higher power.  This is probably a good thing, which is why I'm not against religion, not at all.
     But I don't think you have to declare yourself a member of a religion, or a child of a particular God, to live a good, honest, self-appraising, consciously contributory life.  Those of us who adopt a conventional creed have to be careful, if we're going to be truly conscious, not to default to that faith's canned tenets every time something new and different challenges our sensibility.  And those who are just winging it have to avoid falling into the quagmire of advertising and gadgetry, cultural trends and news clips, easy answers and the rigidity of certainty--and all the propagandizing that keeps us sated as fat turkeys, and steals our souls, and turns us into ballast for a tyrannical government's ship, headed somewhere we really, really don't want to go.