Exploring Depths of Experience in Arts, Letters, Science and Ideas
Identity in Time By Laurence L. Murphy Dominick A. Iorio, Photographs By Jennifer R. McConnellGo Back to Table of Contents
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Why, for example, can’t we control famine, disease and political upheaval? Why do we have such difficulty achieving justice, and why do we struggle to exercise true compassion? Why do we insist on genocide, adversity, malediction towards others and towards ourselves? Why are we so helpless to help ourselves in time?

Obviously neither this article, nor all the books in the world, can answer these questions. Every institution we have, all the resources we can muster, all the wealth and all the wisdom, both scientific and metaphysical, cannot answer these questions. No one at Harvard, Oxford, the Sorbonne or other distinguished institutions has the answer. No one in the world’s largest corporations knows the answer. None of the most powerful, wealthy, or both, has the answer. In our own brief history, there have been, of course, “subjective” attempts to answer these questions by blaming our woes on civilization itself and recommending a retreat to a more “natural” way of life--only to discover that competition for food, storms and drought, complicated by the deep well of human irrationality, proved as hazardous as living in the world of technological civilization. Psychologists, sociologists, economists, and metaphysicians have at times claimed an answer, and in response to “subjective,” religious or even socio-economic solutions, others have attempted to develop an abstract, rational, scientific definition of the self in time--to know the self “objectively.” But this enterprise can lead to an “objectification” of our own humanity. It reduces us to objects capable of being grouped into categories for easier identification, measurement, and manipulation--and thereby incites a dangerous moral risk. For such “objectification” of our own identity allows us to treat others as things--even to concede, categorically, “All humans must die,” without ever confronting the personal truth: `I must die.’ Unless we identify with our own humanity in time, we can never address the directive that has guided Western consciousness in pursuit of self understanding, and which first appeared above the portals of the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece: “Know Thyself.”

Yet, the question posed at the beginning of this article, under the criterion of “Know Thyself,” takes on a new meaning. The question “Do you know what time it is?” becomes the question, “Do you know what time it is in our process of becoming conscious of ourselves in time?”

Now that is an intriguing question.

Yet the resolution of this question demands that one’s individual self and the self of all of humanity in time must share something in common. The German word for self, selbst, partially clarifies this sense of a shared human identity because it means both “self” and “same.” Yet, here we run into another paradox: How can I be an individual, and still share in the same self as the rest of humanity? How do I establish a common identity without sacrificing this individuality? And in what, if any, sense is any self identical to every other self? Part of my own identity is based on how it differs from the identity of others. Yet, ironically, part of what I share in common with others is the self-same desire to be at least partially different than them. To be unique. Thus we arrive at yet another paradox. But perhaps this is a paradox for which we can at least attempt a partial resolution.

We can, for example, easily acknowledge that each snowflake is different from each other snowflake, even though, in general design and composition, all the snowflakes are the same. What makes each snowflake different is the unique expression of the possibilities contained in one snowflake. What is unique to human beings derives from the traits that they have in common--expressed and disseminated among different and unique individuals, in greater or lesser degrees of quality. Thus uniqueness takes place in a configuration of possibilities. Shakespeare expressed this by saying, of Brutus, that all the elements were “. . . So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up / And say to all the world, `This was a man!’.”

To achieve an integrated consciousness composed of all the elements of nature, to both share in the qualities of being human, and yet to be a unique expression of those qualities, and thus to be able to authentically respond to the Oracle of Delphi, we first must identify a “self” that shares something in common with the “selfness” of humanity. Thus our search for self in time becomes a kind of archaeology of the self, a sinking within ourselves in order to discover a fundamental relationship to others as we seek to simultaneously discover our own unique identity.

Yet such a descent into the self in order to discover our own humanity is often made difficult by the very fact that a good deal of our culture and our society either outright forbids such self examination, or establishes buffers against it. These buffers, structured into life’s habits, appear to provide us with protection, safety, tranquility, and a modicum of contentment. We can, for example, make pleasure the criterion for all our actions, and a good many influences on our lives actively encourage us to do so. We can also throw ourselves into busyness, into projects, so that we are committed to work, buried in busyness, a work-a-holia which finds gratification in the project to be completed, the organization to be served, content that there is no time to reflect on the why or the wherefore of our frenzied activity.

Both these alternatives, however, are an escape from the effort required to find our own authentic identity in time. As long as we pursue either eternal busyness or eternal ego gratification, our lives tend to lack shape, meaning and character.

But no matter if we escape into egoism or into preoccupation, we still will be always hiding from ourselves. Perhaps we do so because we fear the pain of exposure: a pain that may be too much for any one individual to tolerate.

Yet as our consciousness expands, the price of not descending into the self in order to discover our true identity can result in regression: a turning away from our authentic self, a search for hiding places to escape the dread and the pain of self-exposure. Even as we create objective definitions, formulate blueprints for understanding our condition, and posit “goals” to focus our efforts, our “self” may become, without examination and exploration, malformed--more childish, irrational, dissatisfied and puerile in its desires. Regression takes place when the frontiers of life seem too inhospitable to be confronted; and so, like the point man in an infantry platoon in combat, we retreat to the false sanctuary of the doomed platoon, finding momentary security for a life about to be cut short.

We may fear descent too because we fear discovering not only our own darkness, but a lack of cosmic necessity for our lives. On reflection, much of life can, and often does, seem pointless, absurd, or, as Shakespeare would have it: “a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.” This fear of pointlessness creates a haunting sense of dread stalking us in time. Faced with this fear, we instinctively occupy our thoughts with new tasks and establish our identities in an expedient fashion: in terms of race, religion, family and the psychological complex of our own individuality. Finding our identity in the sanctuary of the purpose of a group, a dedication to an ideology or cause, or merely just being “busy,” can offer us a reprieve from our sense of time passing in aging, and in the inevitability of our own death. Yet the more we seek to identify ourselves amongst others, or the abstractions of an ideology, the more painful and fearful an authentic answer can become to who we really are. Fearing our own nothingness, we fall back on identities that convince us that we have a priority--a right that may surpass the rights of others and that gives us the right to disregard or abuse others. That false answer--whether it be identity situated in race, class, money, ethnicity, or status--can, as this century has so adequately and depressingly demonstrated, be fatal. National identity produces opposition to other national identities; political identity produces conflict with other political identities; race identity can produce antagonism toward other racial identities. In the search for the self, all these false identities can act as agents against our shared human self in time. This is not to say that one should not oppose tyranny, the enslavement of human beings, prejudice, or the absence of justice--but that all qualities worth living and dying for are precisely qualities: not special attributes granted to only some segments of humanity because they belong to a certain ethnic, racial, social, religious, or national group--or even a particular school of philosophy, for that matter. What is required instead is that forever dreadful descent into our “noumenal” self (the eternal, primal, unconditioned self) as it relates to the vast mystery and potential indifference of the cosmos.

Despite this necessity, perhaps our insistence on a shallow, expedient identity based on race, religion, class, status or occupation continues because any true sense of ourselves, stripped of its masks, may initially appear as a desolation--a desert without name, without signs, without form. Thus the mortal self alone in the vastness of the cosmos may hide in the vanity of self-importance. We may attempt to reinforce this vanity by attempting to control others, or by convincing ourselves that others are “stupid” or undeserving, or we may even attempt to manipulate society or social values. All such efforts help to create an illusion of our own power over the phenomenal world that surrounds us. But any confrontation with ultimate reality breaks this false project. Some people must face this in crisis, some in heartbreak or mourning; some in war or times of barbarity; but any descent into the self at any time reveals this same despair and desolation: the inevitability of death, the feeling of a broken connection with all that seems vital in life.

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