Feb 7, 2023
“For 70 years you’ve practiced the ways of others; you have been a loyal member of team Homo, but now it’s back to reality, to yourself alone.”
At age 14, your whole world view abruptly changes. (Ok, for you it might be 13 or 15.) Anatomically, you’re now an adult; sociologically, you’re still treated very much as a child. For the first time, the world that seemed so comfortable and safe seems, well, absurd.
This is the time when you question everything…and rightly so. Is there really a God? Who made your Neanderthal parents the boss of you? Why do I have to study all this stuff I’ll never use? And then, of course, the cherry on top: are all these ‘people’ around me really real? Are they just like me? Or are they Zombies? Aliens? Robots? Lizards? Figments of my imagination? Computer simulations? Could I be all alone in my own universe? Am I in a Truman Show sequel? Sound familiar?
Usually, this crisis of faith does not last long. A year tops, more likely a few months, possibly just a long weekend. Then life sucks you back in! Some crisis, some temptation, some opportunity and suddenly the world is real again and all your ‘nonsense’ is forgotten (or at least filed under “U” for useless).
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells a story of himself at 12 or 13, proudly declaring that he no longer believed in God and earning himself the cane in the process. According to Coleridge, he never questioned the existence of God again. He’d been sucked back in, and he didn’t even get a long weekend out of it.
Like Coleridge, we all get sucked back in, possibly minus the cane, and we stay that way until we hit age 70! (Ok, for you it might be as early as 68 or as late as 72.) Of course, if your college studies had you reading the existentialists or attending plays by Beckett, you might have suffered a brief relapse in your early 20s, but for the rest of us, after 14 it’s “70 or Bust!”
The ‘loneliness of the long-distance swimmer’ – you pick your head up once at 14 to get your bearings, and you needn’t do so again until it’s time to look for land at age 70: is there really a God? Who made my Cherubic children the boss of me? And then, are all these ‘people’ around me really real? Are they just like me? Or are they Zombies? Aliens? Robots? Lizards? Figments of my imagination? Computer simulations? Could I be all alone in my own universe?
Nihilism, skepticism, solipsism – the three-headed Cerberus propping open the gates of Hell, welcoming the weary traveler: “There is nothing, I know nothing, there is no one.” But what if there is something, I know something, and there are others? But what if every such ‘other’ is ontologically distinct from me?
Come again! Ok…totemism is, among other things, the belief that we can meaningfully map individuals or small groups of individuals onto other species. The Clan of the Cave Bear becomes the Chicago Bears. Not Smokey - the Chicago Bear, but the Chicago Bears! An entire species has been mapped onto a 50-person roster. Totemism at its core is the belief that I am no more like you than bears are like lions (Detroit Lions).
Beyond the sports analogy, we laugh at Totemism…but we follow its practices every day of our lives. Our company names, Apple, our logos, Meta, even our national symbols, the Eagle, are all expressions of Totemism. So, let’s flip the matter on its head: what if Totemism is right after all? What if other people are not just other members of Homo sapiens – what if each one is ontologically unique?
Crazy, right? Or is it? God says, “My ways are not your ways.” What if that’s not only true for God but for each of us as well? For 70 years you’ve practiced the ways of others; you’ve been a loyal member of team Homo, and you’ve used that membership to accumulate assets, acculturate progeny, and leave a legacy. But now it’s back to reality, to yourself alone. It’s time again to heed the caterpillar’s question (“Who R U?”); now, for the first time since birth, it’s, once again, safe to ask the question: who are all these people around me?
For almost all of my 70 years, I’ve assumed that everyone I meet is just like me. They are my neighbors, and it is a core tenet of Judeo-Christian culture that I am to love these neighbors as myself. Well and good. Of course, we should treat others with charity and respect…but we could apply the same standard to a pet dog or a loyal ox. What if my so-called ‘neighbor’ is no more like me than the robin on my windowsill?
We are entertaining a corollary of Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. Not only does the universe bifurcate with each ‘event’ but our species bifurcates at every birth. To me, the world appears more and more as ‘me and you’, not as ‘I and thou’, and perhaps you’re having the exact same experience.
To me, you are a member of the genus other. To me, that genus is homogeneous: ‘you’re just like all the others!’ Except you’re not! From your perspective, I am in the genus other, and it is you who is unique. Following that logic, of course, every one of us is unique, everyone a universe unto herself.
Hmm, something to think about…