In the pages to come you will find an invitation. It’s an invitation to consider a possibility: that the world we see when we open our eyes in the morning is actually not the world itself but is rather our description of the world. Instead of awakening to the world and using a description of the world to think about and talk to others about our world, as our culture’s explanation would have it, we are instead reemerging from sleep to the description itself. And that idea, I believe, leads directly to reexamining who and what we are.
When most of us are asked the question,
“Who are you?”
we respond with our name and perhaps a brief description of what we do for a living. We assume, in most cases quite accurately, that the questioner is not interested in a philosophical or ontological answer. The theme of this book, by contrast, can be seen as an inquiry into a deceptively simple question:
What is it to be a human being?
This inquiry is not about what it is to be me, or what it is to be you.
It’s about what it is to be human.
To really answer that question requires a series of powerful exercises in abstraction. I would suggest that very few of us ever consider this kind of “Who am I?” question in the abstract. In the normal course of events, we take for granted our existence and that we are separate creatures. We look at ourselves and at others, and we notice characteristics that we do or do not have in common. We listen to one another, and according to what we see and hear, we distinguish ourselves from one another. We use the words “human being” to identify that which we are, but we take the meaning of that phrase as a given. For most of us, being human is one of those unexamined predicates on top of which we pile all kinds of other assumptions and conclusions. I hope to show that examining those predicates, those foundational ideas, will shed significant light on who and what we might actually be.
My intention in recording this story is threefold.
First, it’s for my son, Luke, who deserves to know what his dad has been up to all these years.
Second, it is for me a way to clarify and further sharpen my sense of the continuity and evolution of my journey, and in that way it’s also an illuminating and deeply settling experience.
And finally, it’s another experiment in what has revealed itself to be a lifelong chain of experiments, an attempt to see if my understanding of my journey—and my enchantment with its central idea—can be communicated in such a way as to help someone else come to the conscious awareness of who he or she is and what his or her life has been about.
I will present this story in three parts.
- First, I will describe the idea that captivated me in as much detail as I’ve been able to appreciate.
- Second, I will present the high points of my personal memories, my life story as seen through the lens that the idea provides.
- And finally, I will examine what the implications of living within the scope of the idea might be.