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Be Half There

David Cowles

Mar 7, 2024

“'Be Here Now,’ cried Baba Ram Dass in the ‘60s. But was that good advice?”

Can you imagine what life would be like if we actually had to live it? Fortunately, we don’t! Ok, maybe we ‘half-live it’. At every juncture in life, you’re ‘half-there’. A part of you is always stuck in a remembered past while another part of you is already looking back from an imagined future. You see yourself not as you are, but as the peculiar complex of culturally defined roles you’ve adopted – i.e. your personae, your masks.  

You’re not a point, you’re not just ‘who you are, what you are, when you are’. Like an orbiting electron, you’re schmeared out over space and time. Just listen to yourself: 

“Next time…next time I’m in Maui, next time I come to this restaurant, next time I drive north in rush hour. 

“Last time…last time we visited Hawaii, last time we ate in this restaurant, last time I drove north in rush hour.

“Back then…when I was Tweedledee…then when I become Tweedledum.” 

Whatever it is we’re doing, we’re simultaneously comparing it to something we did in the past, something we might have done in the present but didn’t, something we could yet do in the future. We’re also comparing our actions with culturally expected norms: “Big boys don’t cry,” and with the supposed actions of our icons:


Many spiritual teachers have observed these phenomena and railed against them. “Be Here Now,” cried Baba Ram Dass in the ‘60s. But was that good advice? 

To experience the present moment with no option to bury yourself in memories or hide yourself in fantasies or comfort yourself with counterfactuals or justify yourself via social norms (“just doing my job”) would be unbearable. 

We manage life by believing that we are redeeming the past and improving the future (whatever that might mean). We are ‘making a contribution’, certain as we are that ‘better days are coming’. We are leaving footprints in the sand, ripples on the surface.

We are sustained by our memories (faith), we are energized by our visions (hope), and we are ever reliant on ‘the kindness of strangers’ (love). We do not act alone but as members of a community and we are proud of the socially defined roles we play within that community.

“I am someone!” you say. (Sidebar: when I was in my mid-20s, my mother once said to me, “You’re not people!” Later, I became ‘people’; thanks, Mom?) 

You are a student, spouse, parent, teacher, butcher, baker, candlestick maker…sequentially or all at once. You find your precious ‘identity’ by overlaying a stack of social filters. Can people change? Of course they can! Just change the filters. But can people really change? Of course they can’t! There’s nothing to change. 

We are relieved to know that some features of the past are done and gone, never to be repeated, but we are also comforted knowing that the present has inherited some familiar features from that same past. Believing we can make the future qualitatively different from the present gives our lives purpose. Solidarity with others gives us a sense of security. These dispensations allow us to relativize the horror of real life. 

But flash! Those dispensations can be taken away. Future courts may have the power (constitutional and technological) to sentence serious offenders to relive a year, or two, of their lives. In this state, you can’t modify your behavior and you can’t alter the course of events in any way. Pain cannot be averted; boredom cannot be relieved. You must simply relive it all, all alone, as it was, with full knowledge that there is no pony hidden beneath the pile of excrement.  

Essentially, you’ve become a character in an ‘anti-version’ of It’s a Wonderful Life. You are watching an unedited narrative of you, but you are watching it from the inside, from the perspective of a real character in the movie. Jimmy Stewart experienced the world as it would have been had he not lived in it; you get to experience the world as it is because you lived in it. 

You are fully engaged, emotionally and intellectually, feeling every slight, every bruise, as if you were feeling it for the first time…but knowing that you’ve experienced it all before and that you’ll go on experiencing the same until your sentence is up. 

How is such a thing possible? Actually, it’s pretty simple once the bot brain barrier has been breached. Carbon and silicon; they go together like peanut butter and bananas.

Ads for You - the Movie tell it all: “Cringe as you watch yourself repeat the same mistakes. Blush as you relive those legendary awkward moments. Tremble in anticipation of reliving past pain; cry as you watch yourself hurt others.” 

Without its dispensations, life is unbearable. Defendants dread nothing more than hearing, “…And so I sentence you to be yourself for a term of one full year.” It is well known that convicts sentenced to play the lead role in You - the Movie invariably return to court after a month or two. Sentenced to ‘real life’ for one year, they ask the judge to ‘commute’ their sentence…to ‘death by lethal injection’.


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