When we’ve been asking, “Who am I?” are we really asking, “Why am I?” When we’ve been asking, “Who are we [humans]?” are we really asking, “Why are we [humans]?”
I was going down a rabbit hole of The Marginalian, a newsletter that explores what it means to be and to become by Maria Popova, and she wrote about Léon Bloy, the French novelist, poet, and philosophical pamphleteer. Bloy, as Popova writes, was interested in the idea that the immensity of what is external is reflected back upon us: that is, “we should invert our eyes and practice a sublime astronomy in the infinitude of our heart.” That if we see the Milk Way, it is because it actually exists in our souls.
In this way, just as we have limitations in our ability to grasp the external, we surely have limitations in our ability to grasp the internal, our internal. As such, Bloy reasoned, “Every man is on earth to symbolize something he is ignorant of,” or more pointedly, “There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is.”
That strikes me as axiomatically the case, given the aforementioned logic of unknowables, and the ways in which we navigate through life like a lost boat in the immense sea of our soul, naming the boat, the sea, ourselves, trying to make sense of it all, and knowing we are not even mining below the surface of that sea.
I only know that I am because I am conscious (cogito, ergo sum or, I think, therefore I am; thanks, Descartes), but not why I am. So, when you reframe that question with the other question, “Who am I?” we’re superimposing the ego, are we not? As Popova argues, there is human hubris to that question because, following Bloy’s logic, we can’t know who we are! We just know that we are. We can pile up symbol after symbol, often with the tool-making provided by the ego, and build the “city of God” in Bloy’s words (both, I would add, externally and internally), but there is no figurative Tower of Babylon that can reach the heavens we seek (and it seems apropos that in the Biblical story, that one didn’t either and it was also centered around language, another symbol).
Popova comes to the conclusion, like Bloy, that it is “doubtful that the world has meaning,” only that it is. Whether it is the blue robin egg that rolled onto her cushion at her Brooklyn home, or the fact of herself, it all just is. I think that is because Popova and Bloy see the search for meaning in the why of the “is” to be imbuing it with the ego. Instead of experiencing the “is,” we’re immediately turning away from it to seek out “why.”
I don’t see that as a form of nihilism — “doubtful the world has meaning” leading to “nothing matters” — as I see it precisely the opposite: That we are here, that we are, along with the robin egg, is a beautiful cosmic blessing (in a secular sense of the word), and instead of turning away from it to seek, we need to sit with the blessing. Sitting with the blessing is hard work, though, which is why we are seekers and explorers rather than meditative creatures. I see it as the same clarion call that Mary Oliver put forth in her poem I reviewed the other day, “Praying,” where instead of introducing the ego with paying attention to the prettiest of symbols (the blue iris), notice instead the beautiful cosmic blessing of the “weeds in a vacant lot,” and just “pay attention.”
That, the paying attention part, is trying to live with the symbols in a sort of truce with the ego, as I think of it.
Anyhow, I wish I’d known about The Marginalian sooner. I’m now a subscriber, and if you want to subscribe, visit the site here.