Disagreement and Existence

On the saddest day of my life, my mother’s funeral (well, a tie with the day of Daddy’s), I spoke from the heart in giving her credit for being the primary molding force in my life.

Through argument. Good, healthy, fruitful argument.

When I was about fourteen I began to trust my own thoughts. I have no idea how or why, it’s just what happened. As it has for many. And for the rest of my teens and into my twenties, Mama and I often had epic disputations over religion, race, politics, what have you, but mainly religion. Daddy absorbed it all, but didn’t weigh in. He brought home the bacon and handled the fishing, fixing, and building; Mama covered the spiritual end of the spectrum. Her father, Granddaddy, was a Methodist minister, and Mama, who played piano in his churches (they moved every three or four years), when she was a teenager, was a straight-line, standard Methodist. She and Daddy later became Baptists and gravitated to a more “spirit-filled” church, but that’s another story. They say Methodists are Baptists who can read, but I don’t remember them renouncing their literacy when they made that move. They also say the difference between Methodists and Baptists is that Methodists acknowledge each other in the liquor store. I don’t know about that—Mama was a teetotaler, and Daddy, in claiming the inestimable prize of Mama, became one.

The point is, I challenged everything I had absorbed to that point, and it was through these strenuous debates that I learned how to think, and figured out how to figure out what I think. I like to believe, now, that I provided some of the same service for Mama, even if I by no means won her over to my way of thinking. She and Daddy, especially after Daddy’s brush with death when he was about sixty, and a transformative religious experience, became more, not less, religious. But before all that, two things about our ideological slugfests stand out. One, Mama was as passionate and stalwart as I was; there would have been no benefit if we hadn’t both been. And two, it was all conducted in an atmosphere of unconditional love. You could say, it was only possible through unconditional love. We loved each other very much. Mama not only did me the ultimate honor of listening to me, she was the granite wall that always bounced back something solid, and created me.

Solitude is good. So is community. As I was fortunate in my parents, I’ve been fortunate in friends all my life. I’ve always been grateful for it and never taken it for granted. I enjoy the nourishment of a broad range of personalities, all of whom provide now some species of what Mama provided in my formative years: something to bounce against, in the way a dolphin’s sonar works, and I was thinking recently this is how I know myself. Through interaction. A quantum thing: I am forced into being by being known.

These reflections have led inevitably to the question: what would life be like with no other people? Well, we wouldn’t exist, but this is a thought experiment.

I enjoy solitude, enormously, and couldn’t survive without it, but after an extended period of it, things get weird. I begin to suffocate and psychically decompose. Life begins to feel like Eraserhead. Something about the very neural contract of my existence begins to feel dubious. I seek company.

But what if there were no company?

Would I—could I—even be conscious? Would I have language (same thing)? Would I ever feel the inclination to make or do something just to make or do it? Or would I just sit there like a sea anemone? Would I create imaginary companions? Would I develop an inner scolding and censorious consciousness with whom I would fight all my life? Would I try to change? Would I set goals? Would I be afraid of the dark? Would I be afraid of the light? Would I sense death? Would I long for it? Would I ever laugh? What would I do if I found a mirror? Would I experience love, hate, guilt, regret, wonder, or any emotion? Surely, wonder. Or would I need a Mama for that?

Adult life for me has been a quest to find what I didn’t invent—urgent, the alternative being the dungeon of solipsism.

March 12, 2019

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