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Entries in ideas (1)


We Know Who You are

Meditating on Number Six (12 x 16 watercolours and India Ink)

Stepping through the metal detector and into the sun-clad departure lounge at Ben Gurion International Airport it took a few seconds for me to realize that something very weird and unusual had taken place: the alarm didn't go off.

I reached down to feel loose metal in my pocket - some shekels and Egyptian piasters – along with a spent 9mm shell casing I’d claimed as a souvenir from the Via Dolorosa. The casing was left over after soldiers had put down trouble in that famous via, the night before.

And that brought to mind a picture of the Roman soldiers who once were bigshots in the Via Dolorosa. Centuries ago there would have been a few of them in that narrow stone passageway - all bare-legged and sinewy, crouched with sword and shield, making little thorny crowns or gambling with dice made from pig knuckles. Today they've been replaced by more modern soldiers who also get to play bigshot in the VD, festooned in Kevlar vests and armed with iPhone sportsbet apps, riot guns, some live and rubber bullets.

Hasn't worked for weeks

So, back to the fact there was this projectile part, a brass shell casing, languishing there in my pocket, and it had failed to set off the airport detector. How was it possible in the world's most button-down tight-ass airport that no bells, sirens, horns or flashing lights went off to illuminate my forgetfulness? There had been an obvious security meltdown. I calculated my options and, in the end, decided the airport authorities surely needed to know. And so I went over to tell the nearest security man, brandishing the spent shell casing as evidence that there was a problem with their metal scanner.

“Oh, that thing hasn't worked for weeks,” the officer yawned, giving a dismissive handwave in the direction of the metal detector. “It's not a big problem. We don't need it. We know everything about you before you reach the machine. We know who you are.”

I slunk away to ponder the deep absurdity of this news. The thoughts cascaded like a jumble of Kubler-Ross stages: acceptance, denial, anger. “Of course, makes sense. This is where collective security is an artform. They know about all the passengers. Who’s naughty. Who’s nice.  So how much have they dug up about me? What do they know? And, finally, the existential question, how can you say you know me when I barely know myself?”

At one level, and on this point, I agree entirely with the metaphysician Charles Hartshorne.

Mysteries and implications

Hartshorne said he was inclined to give in to the Buddhists who contend that a person, strictly speaking, is numerically distinct in each discreet moment of time. So the question of who you are is equally  immeasurable and irrelevant. How could you be expected to know who you are when each actuality of you is largely gone, surpassed in the next instant by another?

Further, can we decouple the enigma of who we are from the larger theological mysteries and implications?

I am comfortable with the notion that who we are is what we do. I don't mean tinker tailor soldier sailor. Or writer, painter, beggar-man thief. The question of who we are takes on real meaning, not rhetorical meaning, when we say that all that we are is the sum total of our actions. This is where the rubber  surely meets the road. This is living at the centre, not the margins.Appendectomy Girl, 18x24

So, in the context of here in the Middle East, and for that matter elsewhere too, let's everyone set aside these petty historic hatreds. Let’s not be worrying about trying to angle ourselves for, say, a future paradise replete with 72 virgins boasting pear-shaped breasts. There is no "self" to angle.

The consistent advice seems to be to forget about "self" and to just breathe in the fullness of your numerically distinct moment, right here and now.

As Hartshorne said: “Perhaps I have a blind spot in this region, but I see no need for post-terrestrial rewards or punishments — beyond the satisfaction, to be achieved now, of feeling one’s earthly actuality indestructibly, definitively, appropriated in the divine participation.”

The wonder of the present

In other words, focused too furtively on the future we risk missing the wonder of the present, which could be just heavenly. And we possibly blow the chance to become who we are.

A decade or so ago, I was compelled to telephone Hartshorne at his home in Texas. It was a Saturday morning in June when this stranger cold-called the Hartshorne home. His daughter answered and told me they were having a little party since it happened to be Hartshorne’s 102nd birthday. I had a pressing question about something Hartshorne said in A Natural Theology for Our Time, though I confess now to have long forgotten what the question was or why it was seemed so pressing.

That Hartshorne was indisposed to answer seems exquisitely appropriate now as I advance toward another kind of departure lounge simply mindful of each moment extinguishing into the next and where the phrase “We know who you are” still invites me to wonder and reflect.

Let me recommend Charles Hartshorne: A Natural Theology for Our Time, La Salle: Open Court, 1967, reprinted 1992, ISBN 0-87548-239-2

(Top: Meditating on Number Six 16 x 12 watercolours and India ink on Laid paper)