It’s difficult to believe in yourself
because the idea of self
is an artificial construction.
You are, in fact,
part of the glorious oneness
of the universe.
– Russell Brand
In an internet discussion earlier this week, I mentioned that I’ve never understood the discussion on selfish / altruistic behaviour, as everything we do is selfish (in the sense that we do it because we want to) and we show so-called altruistic behaviour because we are social animals. Being a social animal carries or is correlated with immense evolutionary advantages, e.g. it is needed for the ability to learn: longer learning phase for an animal means longer immaturity and thus need for parental or group protection.
I was non-plussed when someone answered, we might as well question the concept of self. Well, of course we should!
We have (or are) bodies, and I can move my hand by thinking about it, but not yours. If you have a toothache I may empathize, but it’s different from having one myself. So far, so good, but usually that’s not what we mean by self. It’s much more … ethereal? … my thoughts, feelings, desires, and fears etc.
These needn’t be constant. What I think today, may not be what I thought yesterday. Tomorrow’s desires may not the the same as today’s. If up to now I always turned left, there is no reason why I today I cannot go right if I really want to. Even at one moment in time, I may want to go jogging to improve my fitness, yet also feel far too tired or comfortable to do this now. But these are independent brain circuits, so why should they agree?
So why do I feel “me”?
We see ourselves from an inside perspective, with our thoughts and feelings, others from an outside perspective, which creates a divide.
We remember the past in that same way. I believe people who suffer from (total) memory loss have problems “identifying” with their past selves. In a small way we all experience this when we come across evidence of our own past we have no recollection of. Annotations, say, in a book we don’t remember even reading, though we recognise our own handwriting.
And when we think the same thought many times, it burns itself into our brain, and it’s hard to think differently the next time – I think this is what “habits” actually are, well-worn brain paths.
Our culture also reinforces the idea of self. We are taught to think: A is lazy. B is to blame. You have to be consistent.
And here the construct becomes dangerous. It is true that A, B, and I are physical units, that act in one way or another. But while I may not have access to the inner perspective of A and B the way I do to mine, I do know it’s there. When we ignore the fact that each individual acts in a context, we become selfish and judgmental. This leads to a feeling of isolation and a fragmented society.
When we practice compassion and see ourselves as connected with each other, the divide between self and other narrows, or even disappears (for advanced learners).
Like all my heresies, these ideas are not new, and this particular one was beautifully expressed by John Donne in Meditation XVII.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.