My self has been half empty for so long. It’s such a relief to say, “So long, half-empty self.”
Answering “Who am I?” was my teenage mission, a puzzle since I was fascinated by so many things. The British school system sorted more and less academic kids into different schools at age 11, then a couple of years later, the more academic ones chose a science or arts curriculum. How to choose?
Novels made people, cultures and adventures that were beyond my experience real. Poetry tantalized me with mysterious qualities of experience. Particle physics and space exploration gripped me. I loved logic and skeptical inquiry.
So I didn’t choose Chemistry/Physics/Math or English/History/French but insisted on what no other student did, Physics/English/French. None of that helped, however, with “Who am I?”
Existentialist philosophy was in fashion, a seductive brew for anyone intellectual enough to feel alienated, and my friend whose father was a psychologist saw everyone’s experience as schizophrenia, “a challenging disorder that makes it difficult to distinguish between what is real and unreal.”
Then came revelation. I read The Three Faces of Eve about a woman with three entirely separate personalities. Were they all “real?” Were none of them “real?” When I answered “Who am I” by identifying my own nature, how could I know if that personality was real?
I wasn’t entirely convinced by the psychiatrist’s claim that he cured Eve (he didn’t) but I was now certain about one thing. I could never know if the self I was experiencing was the “real me.”
In effect, there was no real me. That was a big relief because it meant I need answer only an easier question, and I could change the answer. I just had to decide what role to play.
I had discovered theater at that time, a way to adopt a series of selfs. I wasn’t a very good actor because I couldn’t quite let go and immerse myself in a role, but I did become a good director.
What I learned from all this was what Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” So, for the next forty years and more, operating on the assumption that I had no fixed self, only an empty self so to say, I pretended to be a good person.
But what I realize now is that while I did make some progress in behavior, it never occurred to me that just as I was pretending, so was everyone else. None of us has a fixed self and that’s such good news — by behaving better, we can all grow better behaved.
Maybe there is something behind the illusory self we experience, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. Only behavior matters, and that matters supremely.
Living in the recognition that there are no fixed selves takes some getting used to. That’s why I do Buddhist practice — it helps me feel the implications of every apparent “self” having no fixed properties.
In our culture, we want the half-empty glass to be filled. Maybe that makes it harder to for us to say, “So long, half-empty self.”