It seemed to me then, and still does in those moments of what still seem to me clarity, that who I am - or rather who I seem to be to others, and sometimes to myself - is not an illusion, as some mystics claim, but an appearance I assumed in order to enter this world of appearances. One can’t enter this world naked any more than one can enter a room filled with strangers naked. One can be naked when alone, but one must put on a self to be with other people.
This self is not who I am. It is only the self I assumed to enter this world. Just as I could put on different clothes to enter a room, I could have assumed a different self to enter this world.
This self, like my clothes, belongs to me, but isn’t me, who I am. Why did I assume this self, and not some other, to enter this world?
Everyone dresses for the company s/he expects to meet and/or the task s/he expects to perform. What task was I to perform in this world that I could only perform with this self? I wondered that as soon as I was old enough to be aware of my self.
My earliest memory (which I suspect is only the memory of a memory) is of lying naked on the brown blanket my mother had taken from my crib and spread on the green grass beneath the apple tree in our back yard, so she could watch me while she hung newly washed clothes on the line to dry.
She handed me my grandfather’s aluminum clipboard, presumably to occupy me. I remember (or rather I remember remembering) thinking she was doing something wrong. First, because I didn’t need anything to occupy me. This was the first time I had been out of the house, and the infinite blue sky overhead awed and fascinated me. Second, because one doesn’t give a clipboard to a baby to play with.
I had seen my grandfather open and close it, so I handled the clipboard apprehensively. But of course I closed it on my fingers, just I feared I would.
My mother heard me cry out and came running to rescue me, which was reassuring. But I couldn’t help thinking that I wouldn’t have needed rescuing if she hadn’t given me the clipboard (I remember this as the first time I became aware of myself as a thinking self, thinking of and judging others).
This is a memory of a memory. It was not my first, but it’s the one I chose to remember out of all the others because, in hindsight, it seemed significant. It was my first clue that adults, even when they mean well, can’t be relied on to do the right thing, the thing that common sense would seem to dictate. It took me a while longer to learn that adults seldom do mean well.
When I was a child, it seemed obvious to me that adults lack common sense. I assumed this was equally obvious to other children until I found that not all children considered adults irrational, as I did. At least they pretended, even to themselves, to believe that what adults said and did was rational. I thought then, and still do, that most people pretend, even to themselves, that what authorities say and do is rational not because they believe it, but because it’s easier to pretend than to deal with the truth.
Perhaps living with a grandfather whom everyone pretended was rational, but obviously wasn’t, prepared me to live in this world in which most people pretend to be rational, but obviously aren’t.
When I was a child, I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably not live to see my twelfth birthday. One day my grandfather would attack me, as he always did when in one of his drunken rages; but on this day my mother wouldn’t be there to rescue me, and he would kill me (She meant well, but she wouldn't have had to keep rescuing me if she had left him, as I kept telling her to do).
Everyone knew my grandfather beat me, but everyone pretended not to know. I knew, from the other children, that violence was as common in their families as it was in mine; but we were all respectable families living in a respectable neighborhood, so we all pretended not to know what we knew, as adults do.
I didn’t believe, when I was a child, that I had entered this world with a mission, a task to perform. But I did believe I had to find a mission to justify my being in this world where my grandfather obviously did not want me to be. So I made it my mission to save them. First him, and then them.
I wanted to show them I could be of use to them, however much they longed to be rid of me. I knew they were dangerous not only to me, but to themselves. They wanted to kill me, but they wanted to kill themselves more, and I was afraid they would harm themselves more than I was afraid they would harm me. After I resigned myself to dying before I was twelve, I was never again afraid of dying.
I wanted to rescue him as she rescued me, stop him from destroying himself even if it meant he might destroy me along with himself. But in order to do that, I had to know him better than he knew himself, know why he wanted to destroy himself.
It seemed to me, when I was a child, that in order to know anything, one must be a thing: that thing people call a mind, a soul or a self. But being a self limits what one can know. I therefore felt trapped in my self, just as he was trapped and unable to save himself from himself.
Philosophers used to distinguish between things with minds or souls or selves, and things without it/them. What we can know about things without minds or souls or selves is limited because they are limited. They are things, and nothing more. But what we can know about things with minds or souls or selves – things like us – is also limited because, as things, we are limited.
When I was a child, I knew the only way to know another mind or soul or self, instead of merely knowing about it, was to be it. I was attracted to mysticism because it seemed to say the same thing.
Mystics used to say that the thing we call the mind or soul or self is an illusion. We already know the other, which some call god, because in reality we are the other. Tat Tvam Asi. It seemed clear to me that, if this is true, it's not true in this world.
If what we call the self is an illusion in a world of illusions, the only way we can know reality is to leave this world.
Like mystics, those whom we used to call religious said we live in a world of illusions. They differed from mystics in claiming that we are real.
The religious said there is another world, the real world. When we die in this world of illusions, we wake to another life in the real one.
Mystics knew illusions live only in a world of illusions. For us illusions, reality is another word for death.
But now we’ve forgotten not only everything we knew, but even the things we thought we knew: our illusions. We're dying because we no longer believe in ourselves.
I’m dying because I failed to accomplish the task I set myself.
I tell myself that no one could save a man determined to kill himself, or a world determined to destroy itself. I tell myself that I’m still alive because I still want to understand this world. Only understand it, and nothing more, because there's nothing more I can do. But that’s not true.
I’m still alive because as long as I'm alive, I can still hope to find a way to save this world from destroying itself. That is the last illusion.