There are as many ways to live a life as there are people. We are all unique. Every one of us. Yet we share a lot in common. This is one of the most difficult paradoxes or dilemmas for all of us. How much do we want to emphasise our differences and how much our commonalities? Let’s start with uniqueness. We have a highly developed immune system whose purpose is to identify absolutely everything that is “not me”. Whether that is a virus, a bacterium, a piece of wood or a thorn, a tissue or organ donated to us by somebody else, a cancer cell, infact simply anything that does not carry the perfectly unique stamp of “me”. What the immune system does is identify any of these “not me” things then try to remove them. There are an incredibly complex set of mechanisms involved in these apparently simple processes and they are all running absolutely all the time. Without a healthy immune system we get sick and we die. Uniqueness, and the protection of that uniqueness is essential to life.
There’s more to uniqueness however than our physical bodies. The non-physical part of us (let’s call that the “self”) is also unique. Where do we find this thing called the “self”? Well, first of all, its not a “thing”. The self exists within the body. Or does it exist within the mind? (oops! that’s going to lead to a hunt for the mind – it’s in the brain somewhere, isn’t it? Em, actually, no! Mostly yes, but not entirely!) Some have used the term “embedded” or, even, “embodied” to convey the idea that the self cannot be understood except within the context of the individual body. (I’ll return to that later because that takes us off down the track of consciousness studies and the mind-body problem – and that’s too long a digression for here!) It’s true that as a medical student the first patient I ever met had a body but no self. He was dead. Had been for a long time. When I studied Medicine at the University of Edinburgh the first three years of the course was called “Medical Sciences” and in Year 2 we studied Anatomy. The first patient I met was on the dissection table and smelled very strongly of formalin. It was another two years before I met a live patient. What does that tell you about the way doctors are trained to think? (actually, most Medical Schools are more enlightened now and introduce the young students to live patients from the outset. However, the body-focussed, in fact, pathology-focussed approach still reigns supreme.)
But let’s return to living human beings. A living human being has not only a unique physical body but has unique ways of perceiving (sensing) , of thinking and feeling , and of behaving (acting). To sense, think and act we use our whole self – body and mind. (Ok, someone will read this and think “what about the spirit?” Can I get back to that later? It’s an interesting subject, but, hey, this dealing with the body and the mind is complicated enough so far without introducing another controversial element!)
Most of this sensing and acting goes on automatically. The thinking tends, if at all, to come a bit later. You don’t believe me? Well, it’s true. The brain has developed in such a way that the sensory inputs from the world are processed directly in the depths of the brain which automatically reacts to the information. If somebody jumps out at you at night you see and hear them, and your heart starts to race, your eyes shoot wide open, your legs and hands start to tremble and you are ready to either defend yourself or run away, all without having had to think about it. The thinking “I’m scared!”, or “What the….?!!!” happens just slightly after the brain and the body has already adjusted to the threat.
Most of what happens inside us happens automatically. And just as well really, can you imagine having to remember to breathe out every time you breathed in? Would you really want to know and constantly control what’s going on inside your bowel? I don’t think so. However, we have amazing abilities to become aware of what’s going on both inside and outside us, which allows us to make choices and so take much more sophisticated and complex actions in response to the situations which occur every day. More than this, what our minds especially give us is the ability to make sense of things.
As human beings we are the most meaning-seeking of all creatures. We always want to understand what is happening, to make sense of our experiences and we do that through an incredible device – storytelling. In fact, it could be argued that the self is a narrative construct (but, hey, there’s something else to return to later!). One of the great advantages of making sense of things is that we learn, we grow, we develop, and in the process become better able to deal with the world in which we find ourselves.
So, here is the nub of the issue and the basis of this entire site – we function automatically – like zombies – and we learn, we choose and we grow – like heroes.
Joseph Campbell, who studied myths around the world, identified key themes which occur in all mythologies . Think back to when you were a child and you were told a “Once upon a time….” story. A typical story has a main character who has to undergo a series of challenges to win the prize. For example, the prince wants to marry the princess but first of all has to slay the dragon and rid the country of the evil spell cast by the wicked witch. As he overcomes the dangers, slays the dragon, outwits the witch, and so on, he grows, he gains certain new skills and abilities – “boons” – so that in the end he has developed into the man who is worthy of the princess. Well, we are all that character. We are the main character in the stories of our own lives. We have desires we want to have fulfilled and we have the chance to develop and to grow as we deal with the various challenges and difficulties that life throws our way. In the end, we are the heroes of our tales. But what if we don’t accept the challenges? What if we don’t notice what’s possible? What if we don’t make sense of our lives and instead just default to the automatic pilot function? Then we live the life of zombies.
This is your choice. What kind of life do you want? The life of a hero? Or the life of a zombie?