No, that's not the name of a class. I'm just being pretentious this time. :) It is however, inspired by a class. So there.
In my Philosophy in Literature class (I know, right? I love being a philosophy major. We take the coolest classes ever,) we've been studying this poem by Zelda
called לכל איש יש שם- Every Man Has a Name. (I tried to find the text and failed. Sorry.) The basic gist of the poem is that an individual claims an identity in every aspect of his life, and that all these identities together are what make up the individual. Well, that's my interpretation of it, but I'm pretty sure that's the generally accepted interpretation. Anyway, naturally it started a discussion on the nature of identity - what is the "I" of an individual? And it reminded me of this.
In tenth grade, we had this class once a week called Mechanechet. Essentially, every class was assigned a mechanechet - a teacher who was supposed to be our personal guidance counselor or something. She was supposed to be the one you could go to talk to in case you had an issue. Twice a week she taught us "Machshava" (Or, "how Not to Think") (sorry that was overly bitter; I'm a bad person) and once a week we had a session called "mechanechet" that was supposed to be the whole class together discussing whatever "issues" were on our minds. Like tznius, or....tznius. And then sometimes we discussed tznius. Sorry, really stopping now.
Anyway, this one particular week our Mechanechet wanted to do this activity with us. I came in late and grumpy, bc I always davened too long and never got enough sleep (two completely separate and very long stories) and I was handed this sheet. I don't even remember what was on it, but one of the things we were told to do was to write down what we would miss about a friend of ours if she weren't there. You know, sick or moved away or something, nothing morbid. I spent the entire time staring blankly at the sheet and getting more and more frustrated and upset. I mean, what the hell were we supposed to say? "Her bright and cheery smile." "Her sense of humor." "Her caring nature." "Her intelligent input in daily conversation." I mean, what if she didn't go anywhere, but she got depressed and withdrawn and stopped smiling and laughing and talking to people? Is she no longer the same person? Has she become someone else? Would we still say "Where has Shaindy gone? I miss her!" (I mean one could but that would be obnoxious.) How the hell were we supposed to be defining the essence of a friend in terms of external behaviors? Is that how we were supposed to define people? Is that how we're supposed to define ourselves? And why are we trying to define people anyway?
I tried asking some of these questions and I think exactly no one knew what I was talking about. Which just made it worse, of course. Admittedly I was probably babbling and I think close to tears. (This makes sense to none of you who didn't know me in high school. I was very, very tired. The whole four years.) But the question continued to bother me, and I still haven't figured it out.
What is the essence of a human being? What is the "I?" Is it our mind? But what about when that goes? Our hearts? What does that even mean? Our souls?
I actually had a real problem with that last theory bc if you're operating on the assumption that everyone is a gilgul (which I still was; I was barely two years out of Chabad let's not forget, and Chabbad philosophy tends to be the root of my world view even to this day) then your soul can't be you bc your soul isn't just yours. Oh, right. The reason that's problematic is bc, then what happens at techiyat hametim? Who are you then
? What is the eternal, unshifting, unchanging, permanent "I?"
I've only come to a couple of possible very weak and sort of troubling conclusions. The first is that there is no"I." We just think there is bc it's a convenient device for manipulating the world, to think of oneself as having an intrinsic individual selfehood. The second is that we are not one of our characteristics, but the whole mesh of everything together. There is no one single essence, but rather the essence is the sum total of the parts of the individual - all
of my qualities, plus my environmental influences, plus my free will. Everything altogether as one. But it doesn't feel right.
Rav Dessler says that man is only his choices - which is to say, only his free will. I can maybe buy that, but it doesn't feel completely right either.
In the nearly six years that I have been pondering this question, that's all I have come up with. Anyone else have any ideas? Cuz at this point, I'm kind of desperate....