Who Am I?

David Cowles

Sep 6, 2022

“My job is to experience, even enjoy, the prairie, not fix it…”

I’ve always wanted to see America, ‘from sea to shining sea’ and all that, and I have done so many times – through an airplane window. I dream of seeing it again, but this time through the window of a transcontinental train.

The time has come. I board Amtrak at Penn Station (NYC): destination, San Francisco. I’ll see all the sights along the way, all the sights that can be seen from the window of a train, that is. Other than that, I’ll have nothing to do for at least 4 blissful days. I have placed my body in the care of the RR employees, but my mind is free and, within the confines of the train, I can do whatever I want.

I can read, listen to music, take naps, go for walks, eat heartily, and drink ‘til my money runs out. But for all that, I’m a passenger, a spectator in relation to the main event. But my trip, even though it’s virtual, gives me a chance to think. How is life like taking a ride on the Reading? (Admit it, ever since you learned to play Monopoly you’ve been asking yourself this question!)

Through no fault of my own, I am a passenger on the train of life. I didn’t ask to be here; somebody else bought me my ticket. But it’s passably comfortable, and I’m totally free to do whatever I want whenever I want, subject only to the facticity of my body and the train itself (the roadbed, the rails, the cars, my fellow passengers, the rules of the road, the Amtrak employees on board, etc.). Mary bloody or virgin, an incredible show is taking place just outside my window.

Who am I with respect to that show? I am nothing, no one, nemo. The prairie knows not that I exist, nor that I’ve been where I’ve been; I’ve left no crumbs, nor any footprints. I live life like an anthropologist studying an alien culture. Unknowingly, I am obeying Star Fleet’s Prime Directive. I leave everything as I found it, undisturbed.

Just as my railroad self is ‘nothing’ with respect to its medium, the prairie, so I am ‘nothing’ with respect to my so-called real life. Is this a gospel of disillusionment, or even despair? Is this the preface to a full-blown nihilism? No way! The reverse is true. That I have nothing to do with the prairie is liberating. As a passenger, my job is to experience, even enjoy, the prairie, not ‘fix it’ (as though it needed any fixing).

Whatever happens, I’ll still be me. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can ever change that. And that’s a glorious thing. Even if I am nothing? Especially if I am nothing! In Eastern spirituality, the goal is often to break the bond that attaches the self/soul (atman) to the world (maya). The good news is that there is no bond to break; there never was such a bond. I’m already fully liberated, always have been. I just need to realize it – and of course, that’s the hard part.

Hard, because it involves a paradox. How can I…be…nothing? The question itself involves a contradiction. How can ‘not being’ and ‘being’ co-exist? With respect to crossing the continent, I am nothing. How is that a glorious thing? Well, let’s get out our Descartes: cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). I’m thinking right now, poor as those thoughts may be, so I must be being; but we’ve already determined that I am nothing. So how can I be being? Talk your way out of this one, you, you, philosopher!

As is so often the case, paradox here is the mother of discovery. I am nothing with respect to the prairie. What is the prairie? It’s space and time, spacetime. What else could the prairie be? I am nothing with respect to the prairie, therefore I am nothing with respect to spacetime, yet I am. So, I must be with respect to something beyond spacetime and whatever is beyond spacetime is, by definition, eternal.

Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Each of us can say the same to our own ‘Pilates’ – internal as well as external. We live in spacetime; our minds and bodies are in spacetime. But we are not of spacetime, we are of eternity, we are eternal beings. But if we are ‘eternal,’ then ‘eternity’ must be as well, and spacetime can be no more than an underprivileged bubblein an infinite sea.

What have we accomplished? Have I proven that I exist? No, I didn’t need to prove that. Per Descartes, we can infer that we are from the ‘phenomenal’ fact (phenomenal in both senses of the word) that we think. No, we have proven something much more important than that! We have proven that we exist eternally.


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