by Ronan Loughney
Here’s a thought.
You. You yourself have all the answers you need. And that everyone else needs. You just don’t know how to tell yourself the answer.
And here’s a guess as to why. Maybe, it turns out that you cannot tell yourself those answers independently of me telling myself, or of yourself telling myself, or myself yourself. Or us all telling each other. Bear with me.
There have been lots of attempts to ground what is happening now in meaning, analysing the meaning of the words we find ourselves using to describe the pandemic unfolding around us — crisis, emergency, virus — as if to see if we are leaving ourselves clues.
Rebecca Solnit structures her essay, The Impossible Has Already Happened, around these various etymological clues, and Charles Eiseinsten posits the concept that this crisis may be the prelude to our Coronation, an opportunity for each of us to step into our natural sovereignty and self-ownership.
Most of these attempts basically revolve around the point that this is a time of transition. Some of us were dimly aware of the linguistic factoid that, in Japanese, the word for crisis is the same as opportunity. But actually, we don’t even need to look that far. Crisis comes from the Greek krisis — meaning decision or decisive point. Decisions (like incision, excision etc) are rooted in the concept of cutting. Some chain of events, some narrative, has been cut, and we await what the new one will be.
It is interesting that we need to interpret ourselves to understand what we mean. If we are intelligent enough to leave clues, why are we not intelligent enough just to explain the meaning they contain straightforwardly?
Well, that’s the whole dilemma in a nutshell. Maybe we have the answers, but they’re not so straightforward to explain, because we’re not used to the explanatory frameworks such answers need…
If this crisis has taught us about anything, it is about interconnectivity. About how the actions I take regarding personal hygiene affect the health of those around me; about how the bed in a hospital taken up by one patient means a bed another cannot occupy; about how the everyday choices we make in terms of how we travel really does dirty the very air we breathe.
We are a web. Network theory tells us that we are far more likely to die young, get fat, vote for Trump, smoke — and take on any other limitless number of fundamental life decisions, behaviours and traits — based on the decisions, behaviours and traits of the people in our immediate social network. (This pertains up to three degrees of separation, eg your mum’s, sister’s friend will have an effect on you, but their friend’s friend won’t). Most importantly, this network is the single biggest indicator of your level of happiness, beyond genes. And if you think about it, if the happiness of the members of your network is dependent on your happiness and vice versa, what helps you get happy and what helps them get happy are, to an extent, the same thing.
Whether or not this is in fact because the self as commonly understood is really an illusory bundle of sensory impressions and memories, or simply because, well, monkey see monkey do, doesn’t really matter. You are, it seems, who you meet. But it’s good to think about these things, to understand where our conceptions of self come from and that no matter how true they seem, this is just one story.
Since Descartes’ famous ‘Cogito, ergo, sum’ (‘I think therefore I am’) and the birth of the (potentially ironically called) Enlightenment, we have had an atomised view of the self. The self as the basic unit of experience, identity, personality yadayada. My experience seems to occur behind the walls of my skull, located in a box in my head. Upon this concept of separation was built the modern world’s view of individual consumer ‘choice-makers’, finding their meaning and happiness in the products and experiences they could buy for themselves, rather than in the ebb and flow of human interactions.
And yet, if we care to investigate, we quickly see so much more. All of the cells in my body are replaced around six or seven times throughout my life. As Alan Watts puts it, we see our skin as the wall which cuts us off from the world around us, and yet we know this membrane is porous, constantly excreting and absorbing; that we are taking the environment around us into us, moment to moment, through our very life support system, the breath. The fundamental aspect of our existence is connection. A brief examination of our tastes in books, music, food, the features we use to distinguish our personalities, reveals that these are a mishmash of our nearest and dearests’. And the above notions, that beyond personality, our job choices, likeliness of illness and even death seem to be heavily dependent on those around us, complete the picture of our interdependence.
Whether we agree with this point of emphasis, however the self is understood, it is either intrinsically or functionally dependent on other selves. And so it is not a far jump to suppose that personal meaning we have all been seeking has always been right there in front of us, obscured only by perspective. My meaning is in our meaning, and ours is in mine.
What does any of this mean in practice… in action, ey, ActionAble?
Here’s what we think. That it means helping yourself is helping those around you, and helping those around you is helping you. It means we need to help people come alive to find meaning and purpose in their lives, so that they can reflect meaning and purpose onto our own. It means that through our individual acts of kindness and compassion we start a wave, and that there is no reason for that wave to stop, if we see that riding it is the same as creating it.
Get happy. Get helping.