Sacramento solid waste is using their claw to pick up leaves. While I’m waiting for the operator to finish emptying it into the garbage truck another car swoops around me and runs through. I’m upset. I feel like some part of me has been violated.
Why do I feel this way?
This person’s actions has made me late. I was waiting anyway. I didn’t even see the driver of the other vehicle. Neither my car nor my reputation were hurt in any way. Was it worse because my children were present?
I caught the other driver at the next stop sign. It is an awkward intersection and I immediately saw the opportunity to swing over to the left of the other vehicle and cut off their intended left hand turn. I would even the score.
Another part of me quickly reasoned that doing so might cause an accident. It is a tricky intersection and I’ve almost had accidents there before. The other driver might not see me come up on their left. They might hit me. I swallow and take my place behind the minivan that has offended me.
Is this Normal?
What is going on inside of me? What “me” has felt violated? Why are these feelings and thoughts rapidly shooting through my consciousness and why are there seemingly different selves debating the merits of one action over and against others? How many “me”s are there?
A fearful part of me worries, “perhaps I’m not mentally healthy? Is this multiple personalities? Is this how schizophrenics hear other voices in their head?”
Another part of me dismisses the thought. I’m healthy, sane, “normal”. Certainly my experience must be common. This must be how we all are. I hope! I know enough people well enough to know that something like this happens to most of us much of the time.
Borders of the Self
What part of me did the other driver violate?
If I define my self as my body, the other driver didn’t touch me at all. My self must be far larger than my body. I have invested my self in the objects of the world around me. My self has laid claims to the activities and behaviors of others. My self has embraced ideas of rights and protocols that it expects of others. My self occupied that piece of the street for just a moment and was sensitive to the activities of other human selves.
If a squirrel had cause me to change my intended course my self would not have been triggered. If a traffic light had governed my behavior I might have been annoyed, but I would not have become excited about intended retribution against the traffic light.
As I ponder the borders of my self I discover that while it is limited parts of it tries to reach across time and space and attempts to inhabit events before I was born and places I’ve never been. I feel embarrassment about my Dutch ancestors who profited from the misery of captured African slaves. I feel anger for my Jewish relatives that were killed in the Nazi death camps. I feel shame about the treatment of Native Americans by European Americans who by virtue of the timing of my ancestor’s immigration have absolutely no relation to my ancestors but because I’ve appropriated the American story it becomes part of my self.
My Self and the Material World
My self is travels time and space like my body never has yet in what way is my self real?
The only way my self seems to exist in this material world are the bio-chemical-electrical reactions located in my brain. Like electrical zeros and ones on a computer hard drive, the self seems hardly to exist at all yet it creates a world that steers the material planet.
Those tiny chemical reactions don’t actually reach back to Dutch slave traders, Nazi death camps or battles with the tribes of the Great Plains but together with all of the other selves in this world, also located in our synapses the historical consequences of these times and places impact the shape of goods and services, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty.
If the committee of my self had not intervened at that intersection in Land Park the part of me that felt violated could have set in motion a chain of events might have had financial and even life and death consequences.
We easily see the results of selves but the selves themselves remain hidden and mysterious.
The Self is a Story
Perhaps the best way to think about the self is to think about it as a story. A story may be recorded in a book or on video or even perhaps in those brain synapses, but those records of the story are not the story itself. The story is not material, it occupies another plane.
Science cannot find a story under a microscope or through a telescope but no use of microscope or telescope apart from story has any meaning until a self turns it into a story. The telescope may be automated and its capture of distant light recorded on hard drives networked into systems but it will not change the story of this world until a self makes that translation.
Secularism is skeptical about the soul. When a person dies we can measure no part of them that leaves. When an unknown fertilized egg is naturally aborted soon after conception there is no funeral because there is no story because no self to whom we have immediate access has translated the event.
Probably the best way to explain the soul to secular people is to help them see that the soul is our self and our self is a story. It is hosted by this material world in ways we barely notice yet it governs life on this planet and all of the plants and animals are subject to it.
The Greeks believed we are stories and so immortality was achieved if the story is remembered. That was the highest good a person could find and so the greatest Greeks were passed down to us by Homer, the scientists and the philosophers.
Atheist Materialists may accept that stories exist but assert that all stories will cease when there is no longer a material host to house the story.
Christians believe that our stories are immortal because there is a God who cares to remember and participate. We believe that God who knows our stories will raise us up and restore our stories in new flesh that will not decay.
In Search of the Self
Because we are a story the larger story in which we believe we live will govern our little stories. The incident with the car in Land Park touched my view of my own story and so sparked feelings of identity and self.
When Kennedy was shot 50 years ago if the story was that Lee Harvey Oswald was prompted by the Soviets we might have had a nuclear exchange that would have radically changed all life on this planet. Stories are powerful things.
We live for our stories within the larger stories. These stories govern who we love, who we sacrifice for, who we steal from, who will kill, what we create, who we feed and who we leave to die. Story is all we finally care about and if there is a God then story will be what finally endures.