You Are Not A Thing.
On the illusion of separateness.
It’s tempting to think of yourself as a thing. After all, the world is full of them. Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, they bombard you with their thing-ness. With their separateness and definability. Trees and rocks and cars and buildings and countries and rules. There’s no getting away from them.
When you’ve been surrounded by things for as long you have, it’s natural to believe that you are one too, although it doesn’t happen straight away. For the first few years of your life, you’re blissfully ignorant of the illusion of thing-ness. There are no limitations, no borders, no shame or insecurity. You aren’t a thing, you simply are. It’s only at the age of two or three that the world finally succeeds in convincing you that you’re as small as it believes you to be.
It’s a shame that we get confused in this way. Being a thing brings with it a whole host of problems and insecurities and fears. Understanding what we are is the first step of understanding what to do after all. So if we mistakenly think of ourselves as things, it’s no wonder that we sometimes find life so difficult and lonely and confusing.
Most of the confusion surrounding our thing-ness comes from the fact that we have a body, which actually does happen to be a thing. A body can be touched and seen and hurt and even destroyed. It has a particular shape. Its skin has a particular colour. It has clearly defined edges and limitations. We begin to define ourselves by these features. Instead of being a means by which we experience and explore the world, we start to believe that our bodies actually define us. It’s no wonder that we get attached to them
But that’s the first clue that we’ve made a mistake. We’re attached to our bodies. We use them, we experience them, we have them. So how can we be them? Our body’s cells completely replace themselves every 7–10 years. But we remain constant. The body is a tool. A life-support system. It’s incredible. But it isn’t what we are. We need to look deeper for that.
So where else can we look? Maybe at our identity as men or women or something in between? This isn’t something you have, but something you are, right? But while that’s true, what does it mean to be a man or a woman? What are the attributes of a man that makes them something different to a woman? You’re probably thinking about biological differences right now, but these are just attributes of our bodies, which we’ve already established is the wrong place to be looking.
Perhaps you’re a father or a mother. A brother or a sister. You’re definitely a son or a daughter. That feels closer to the truth. Being somebody’s child or somebody’s parent certainly isn’t a thing like a body. Nor is it merely an arbitrary distinction. Being a parent or a child is a relationship. Maybe we can use our relationships to figure out what we are.
But here we run into a bit of a problem. As we begin to define ourselves in terms of our relationships, we quickly become unmanageably complex. We see that we inextricably linked with…well, everything. Depending on whose perspective we look from, we’re a friend or a stranger. An enemy or an ally. We’re cruel and we’re kind. Selfish and generous. We’re all things and their opposites. All of these descriptions are true. And they’re true all at once. We are both sides of every coin. Or better yet, a coin with infinite sides.
What we are, if we can be described at all, can only be properly described in relation to everyone and everything else. Just as a wave cannot be properly described without the ocean and the Earth and the Moon and gravity, we cannot be described without reference to the air we breathe and the food we eat and people we love. They, in turn can’t be properly described without reference to the people they love and the Sun and the Solar System. And on and on.
We are not things, just as space is not a thing and time is not a thing. We are all seamless, fluid, essential part of a whole. A whole that is constantly changing precisely because we are constantly changing too.