Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thesis 6: Individuality

My sixth thesis is that each one is her or his own person, not the property of any other. Vows cannot transcend this basic fact.

Individuality is fundamental, which is why to be works better in the long run than to have. We don't actually possess even our selves, these ephemeral would-be vessels of our possible souls, but we can be more assuredly than we can have. That's the Buddha's take, but this is also the territory of La Rochefoucauld, what the French call amour-propre. The love of two individuals dances around their singularity, which is to say their self-love and self-regard.
    Individuals are not unchanging monoliths. Over time, as their lives unfold, their interests, desires, tastes, pursuits, and natures evolve. Their use of time evolves, too. So it's not just their appearances that change: they are literally not the same from point to point. Yet within themselves there is a kind of thread of identity that makes each one feel she or he has a self, is the same individual all along. We are and we aren't, which is to say that we are best understood as having an inherent uncertainty, like particles of light.
    Try to possess this other and there's nothing there beyond the moment. This thought can be maddening, especially to those who see life in a binary black and white. To extend the analogy to Newtonian and quantum physics, the old tradition of marriage is rooted in the former, simplifying existence by holding to an ordered universe in which a binary view of things is of a piece. This mode of living works up to a point. The point where it ceases to work is where it runs up against the realities described above - where it becomes obvious that its narrow descriptive power and repertoire of responses are unequal to the actual human situation. The old tradition declaims its absolutes and real men and women deal with the nuances of their individual situations.
    A new tradition of marriage acknowledges the quantum nature of life. It sees life's basic relationships taking place between individuals. Yes, they have responsibilities to each other and to their issue, if any. But yes, they are still individuals. A new tradition brings the nuances to the forefront, acknowledging that the real history of men and women, their intimate history, is always vastly richer than the absolutes the old tradition posits.
    Most of all, a new tradition makes modest claims, not sweeping ones. It recognizes that many of the problems we face in life are wicked, as Horst Rittel called them: they can be resolved, but the solutions are ad hoc and provisional. One could say they are time- and context-bound. A new tradition brings this forward. It seeks a better understanding of how life works. It's more interested in narratives, individual histories, than absolutes.
    This points to the necessity of consciously setting aside whatever properly belongs to the past. The grudges that we hold, the slights and betrayals that we count against others, are really and truly our baggage, artifacts of memory. They can become objects of identity, I suppose, but this puts the brakes on our own unfolding. We owe it our selves, our individuality, to acknowledge this and set these burdens down. To put this another way, we owe to the present an ability to be present within it, to be open to what unfolds and able to respond with immediacy. To live otherwise is to be prejudiced, and experience suggests that prejudices are seldom warranted.

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