Written over two days at Starbucks in Los Gatos with 90’s hip hop playing in my headphones. This is a first of a series of essays on “Death and Meaning”.
Self-Awareness and Meaning
The most wondrous and truly amazing qualities of being human is our ability to be self-aware. We possess an astonishing intellectual capacity to think in terms of the past, present, and future. Only we humans are, as far as anyone knows, aware of ourselves as existing in a particular time and place. Self-awareness is important to meaning because it enables us to ‘tune in’ to what’s happening around us so we can feel its impact. Unlike the moth who is inexorably sucked toward the flame; we can choose to act in a number of different ways, depending not only on our instincts, but on our capacity to learn and think as well. We can ponder alternative responses to situations and their potential consequences and imagine new possibilities
How awesome is it that I can say: I know that my wife knows that I love her. My silly cat, on the other hand, has no cognitive capacity for this action. Furthermore, when an employer asks, “Wes, where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I actually have a response. Unlike ducks, parrots, and dogs, we can carefully consider our current situation, together with both and the future, before choosing a course of action.
There are, of course, different types of self-awareness: private and public self-awareness. Private self-awareness is the immediate awareness that “I” exist. For instance, “I” am typing right now and “I” am also hungry. Public self-awareness, in contrast, is the awareness we have in other people. For instance, facial cues and voice inflexion heightens awareness of predictable emotive responses.
I remember as an undergrad spending the summer in Tyler, Texas. Surrounded by farms, I would occasionally sneak off to sit be a favorite tree and read near grazing cows. I remember on one particular day, amidst a herd of cows, there was one cow that was in the agonizing process of dying. I found it absolutely baffling that while this poor cow was nearing his death, the other cows surrounding him simply kept aimlessly grazing. This would be akin to me enjoying a cheeseburger while sitting next to a guy wrenching in agony as he draws his last breath. All the while I keep eating, maybe even contemplating what’s for dessert.
This is precisely why humans are such a unique animal. Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human. But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. “I” am aware that “I” will someday be cremated and thrown into the Pacific Ocean. Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and, inevitably, diminish and die. Cows, on the other hand, keep aimlessly grazing.
This may sound despairing, but it’s reality. As Vladimir Nabokov said, “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” This is the tragic part of our condition: only we humans, due to our enlarged and sophisticated neocortex, can experience the terror of death. Thus, we create and live by fictions in order to dampen the dread, but death inevitably lurks in the psychological shadows.
The dread from the realization that I will someday die is what gives meaning force and power. It is precisely because of my finite nature that experiences have impact and value. I experienced a meaningful event last month when I rode a bicycle of Hawaii’s Mt. Haleakala. The ride is a thirty-five-mile climb starting at sea level and ascending up 10,000 feet. For many cyclists, it’s a bucket-list experience. This was a meaningful experience because thirty-years ago I would have never imagined that I would be able to accomplish such a feat, and I realize that thirty-years from now I will most likely struggle walking around the block as my body withers away. If I lived forever, the meaning of the experience would be much less powerful because I could say, “No rush, I’ll ride up the mountain in five-hundred to a thousand years from now; time is on my side.”
The reality is that time is not in my side. Our self-awareness registers this truth, which is why memories carry a heavy importance and we make bucket-lists so that we can make the most of what lies ahead. To deny this dread, humans have invented afterlife’s that go one into eternity. While the fabrication of an afterlife provides temporary comfort over the top layer of one’s existence, simply peel back the layers and you will uncover an existential fear and trembling at the core of every human.
Oh, how easy the cows have it as they aimlessly graze without a clue in the world. But what they lack is a mind that can infuse meaning into experiences which gives life vitality and radiance. Truly one of the most remarkable aspects to being human, that we can know what “I” is. It is because our self-awareness that we can be a hero in the theater of our life: a heroic parent, citizen, innovator, etc. We can love, create, and feel what it is to be truly “human”. We see self-awareness realized in a child around the age of two, when the “I” is first experienced; and this is where meaning is birthed.
~ Wes Fornes