This Is Always Me

How often do we hear somebody justify some nonsensical assertion or some idiotic course of action with the words, “What I always say is…” or “What I always do is…”? By all means let us take it as read that this is in fact what they do always say and this is in fact what they do always do. The problem is not with the factual minor premise, but with the unspoken major premise of the moral syllogism, that is, the universal value judgment, namely that “One ought to do what one always does.” No sooner is this expressed, however, than its absurdity is manifest.

And yet this major premise seems to underline much of our thinking about what we are pleased to call our ‘personalities’. It might even be suggested that we feel obliged to do what we always do, as being the only way to know who we are. Or rather, to construct whom we are. This is why our dysfunctional behaviour is so stubborn – because it is so closely tied to our sense of self.

The best lies, of course, are those that contain an element of truth. In this case the truth is that observing our actions is indeed the only way to know who we are. We are the sum total of how we act, and the idea of some sort of real self behind our actions – moreover a real self imagined as quite unsullied by those actions, so that we deserve the love for which our actions disqualify us – is one of the most damaging notions that has ever infested the human race.

What, it will be objected, do we not have thoughts, feelings and dreams upon which we do not act? Yes, but it may be an error to suppose that these mental phenomena are primary, as opposed to being merely the stories we tell ourselves ex post facto about the actions we take – or have been afraid to take. At any rate we have only our word for them, the word of a chronically self-deceiving animal, whereas actions belong to the objective world.

As everyone knows, “personality” comes from the Latin persona, the actor’s mask. Most of us then think of the fact that the actor can don and doff whichever masks he chooses, and this does indeed tell us something about personalities. But there is another aspect of the actor’s mask, namely that persona means “sounding through”; and the equivalent of the sound waves that pass through the mouthpiece can be nothing other than our actions. Our thoughts and feelings then answer to the facial expressions of the actor, which nobody sees.

Our inchoate sense that – despite all the nonsense we tell ourselves about hearts and souls ¬– our actions may be the only thing about us that truly counts may be what drives our fondness for beginning sentences with “What I always say” and the like. It is as if we are desperately trying to stamp ourselves more firmly into reality. It is as if we are fleeing that unendurable lightness of our purely interior being.

And yet, if we are only what we do, then laying claim to a solid, definite existence by emphasising the consistency of what we do may still be an error. We could equally well secure a solid sense of our existence by taking care to do what was good, true and beautiful, no matter that it was good, true and beautiful in wildly different ways from day to day.

Posted on May 6, 2009 at 10:18 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, Beings and Gentlebeings

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