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The Search for Self

David Cowles

Oct 6, 2022

We are Le Neant, nothing – and nothing could be better than that!

The great dramatist of the absurd, Eugene Ionesco, shared a memory from his childhood in Present Past/Past Present (1968):

“My little sister and I are playing on the floor. I grab my sister’s toys…I don’t want to let her play with my blocks. (My father) puts down his newspaper and scolds me. I refuse to obey; I don’t want to give my blocks to my sister. He gets down off the bed and spanks me…I am choking with anger, with helplessness. I am indignant. This is against the proper order of things… I am very angry with him; I will never be able to forget this humiliation… He gets back into bed, very calmly, as if nothing had happened…I am still enraged, full of anger I cannot appease.”

Notice that little Eugene didn’t say, “Oh well, I’m only five now, so it’s ok.” Nor, looking back at 60, does he say, “Oh well, I was only five then, so it was ok.” It wasn’t ok; not at five, not at 60, not ever never.

Notice something else: Ionesco’s account of the incident and his reaction to it is the same at age 60 as it was at age five. How so?

There is a persistent myth in Western culture that children wallow in childhood, that they accept its frustrations, humiliations, limitations, and restrictions in grateful exchange for the security and warmth it provides. I’ve never met such a child.

Children hate childhood, no matter how loving and progressive their parents. It is only in retrospect, looking through the rosy mists of time, that it may look idyllic.

Fast-forward: now I’m in my teens. I have most of the responsibilities of adulthood, but I get none of its rewards. I study; I work; I ‘play’ organized sports; I do chores; and I even babysit. And, all I get for this is a meager allowance. Know what? I could live with that. The real indignity is that I still get treated like a child!

Example: I’m 13, and I’m already babysitting a couple of small boys down the street for a few hours at a time; then my parents announce that they are going away for a ‘romantic weekend’ and they’ve hired a babysitter...for me! I can’t believe the shame didn’t kill me then and there.

On to adulthood: job, family, rug rats, never-ending bills, etc. And then suddenly that’s over! Now retirement. Notice one thing, though. Throughout all of this, I am still the same me! How is that possible?

Gertrude Stein asked, “What’s the use of being a little boy if you’re going to be a grown man?” The answer is that I never was a little boy, and I’m not an old man now. Those are just costumes I put on in order to ‘get by.'

Stein also wrote: “We are always to ourselves young men and young women.” Well put and partially true. Given that children always want to be older than they are and that adults always want to be younger than they are, ‘young adulthood’ is a good compromise. But that’s all it is. I’m not 25 any more than I was five. At best, we might define young adulthood as our period of minimal dissatisfaction.

All of this might seem a bit depressing…but it’s not. It’s glorious! Time is a one-way street, literally a bridge to nowhere. “It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth) The Bhagavad-gītā says it best, “Now I am become time, the destroyer of worlds.”

Had I ever been five or 25 or 70, I’d be submerged in time now, circling entropy’s drain. Time is the great easer. To exist in time is never to exist at all. “The great globe itself…shall dissolve and…leave not a rack behind.” (The Tempest)

But this not who we are! We exist outside of time. We are ‘participatory observers’ in the game of life. We roll our dice, move our markers, buy and sell properties; we go to jail, we take a ride on the Reading. But we are not part of the game itself. If the game board and all its pieces were to suddenly vanish, it would have no effect on us (except we’d be out the $19.99 we paid for it).

We are a-temporal, and so eternal. We are at home in ‘eternity;' we are aliens in spacetime. We were never five, and we’ll never be 75. Vis-à-vis spacetime, we are not! We are Le Neant, nothing – and nothing could be better than that!


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