I can begin with no other premise.
The riddle of existence – its nature, its substance – is a question for philosophers. Those who lose themselves in the philosophers’ game are fools; the contestants squabble over emptiness and disciple their onlookers with clever words meant to impress the unlearned.
Any reasonable person will confess his own existence as fact. Each person’s own experience confirms this. It is true that experience is subjective, however, this truth is irrelevant to the present consideration. Experience is inescapable; the subjectivity of its revelations cannot be helped. Existence is universally experienced by all living beings, even if each being experiences existence differently. As I said, the nature of existence is a subject for the philosophers’ game. I want answers that are more useful.
I exist … and I am not alone.
Any reasonable person will confess that he, she, … or it, if you insist … is not the only mindful being in existence. The mere fact that you are reading this essay, a creative organization of ideas not conceived in your own mind, proves this. Or it proves that all learning is an illusion, and that your mind merely uses what you perceive to be sensory input as a way of making your conscience self aware of things that you already knew. If that is the case, you cannot claim to be anything more than a vast and powerful mind indulging itself in a complex imaginative exercise in which a limited part of itself is made to perceive itself as a human being engaging in a “lifetime” of interaction with other human beings in a setting called “Earth.” In essence, you claim to be role-playing with yourself. You nerd.
If the “known universe” and all it contains really is just a figment of your greater mind’s imagination, then none of the people or places you “know” are real and there are no consequences that, so far as your limited self is aware, are able to reach beyond the end of this imaginative exercise, this game. Furthermore, you know nothing about the true nature of existence – the place your greater mind occupies outside the game – or why that greater mind thought playing this game was a good idea, or why you didn’t get a better life in it.
While possible, this scenario is essentially useless. It is no more likely to be true than the alternative, and if the alternative is true but I live as if is not, my existence will never achieve anything nobler than hedonism. Conversely, if I live as if the alternative is true, my existence can have a meaning that is valuable in either model.
Ah yes, the alternative.
I said that the nature and substance of existence are riddles for philosophers; however, the meaning of existence is a profitable subject for common discourse.
For you see, so far as we know, we can give meaning to our own existence.
Having sensibly admitted that I exist and that I share my existence with others, the next question is what to do about it?
Humanity tends to think of purpose as linked to a thing’s beginning. This is because we are a creative species. We make things with a purpose in mind. So when we ask that million-dollar question, “why are we here?” we often get sidetracked by another question: “where did we come from?”
Forget that question. It’s not likely that an answer will be found in my lifetime that is any more satisfying than the ones that have already been proposed. Evolution provides a useful explanation for biological development on the micro level, but it becomes conveniently difficult to prove or disprove on the macro level and once they go far enough back to be talking about origin theory, they may as well be talking about God, a First Cause, some kind of supernatural agent that brings everything into being. There is very little difference between a Big Bang and creation ex nihilo; the spontaneous development of life from non-life and consciousness from non-consciousness require similar leaps of faith. Where did we come from? We don’t know.
What I do know is that we’re here. And I think I can know what we are.
First, we are animals. We are driven by the same basic instincts for food, shelter, survival, sex; we have similar physical attributes and exhibit similar behaviors to animal species. But that is not enough.
We are also more than animals. We engage in complex patterns of communication that involve abstractions and the interchange of symbols; we have hyper-developed social constructs that are, at best, only vaguely related to animalian instincts; we imagine, make, and use complex tools and visual records; we adapt our environment to suit us, rather than adapt ourselves to suit our environment. I will not rush to place values on these faculties: perhaps we are the higher beings; perhaps we have underestimated animals insofar as their communication and behavior patterns are concerned; perhaps the animal world is, as some have suggested, far wiser than we, having previously explored and rejected (or known better than to explore) these marks of humanity; but our differences are undeniable. What I want to know is why these differences exist.
Humanity’s entire activity is, fundamentally, a quest for control. We seek to control our circumstances, our environments, our bodies, our posthumous existence, and other people. We seek control in these areas through all of the means available to us: money, social influence, political power, scientific advancement, and the majority of religious practices. Each of these offers its own form of control, as well as thinly-disguised routes to other types of control. We seek control out of deep-seated needs for respect and stability. We seek control both individually and communally.
I exist. I am not alone.
I am surrounded by control freaks.
I’m one of them myself.
Possibly the most basic aspect of existence in which we consistently attempt to exert control is that of experience and perception. Often, we cannot control what we experience, but we can and do control how we perceive it. We do this all the time. We determine the meaning of a word as it journeys from a friend’s lips to our minds; we decide whether to value an event or circumstance as being good or bad. We choose to rely on the opinions of other people to heavily influence our perceptions; since society functions due to shared meaning, this is communally important but not always individually healthy.
It is for this reason, that perception is controlled by the individual and influenced by the community, that experience is said to be subjective. Multiple people experiencing the same event perceive it differently according to their own will and set of influences. More correctly, it is not experience that is subjective but our perceptions of it.
If existence is experienced and experience is perceived, then existence is perceived. To perceive an experience is to give it meaning; so existence can be given meaning by those who perceive it.
Presumably, the test of whether or not I have correctly perceived an experience is the test of functionality. If a friend speaks a word that we mutually understand, our communication has been basically successful – I have assigned the proper meaning to that auditory experience. If it snows, closing roads and forcing me to stay home, I judge it to be “good” or “bad” because I correctly understand the results of that event. Reality exists beyond our perceptions; perceptions are subjective but experience and existence are not.
This, then, is my task … to assign a meaning to my own existence that functions in reality.
So it begins.
Man is primarily constituted as an act of his or her own mind.
Psychology debates whether a person is more a product of nature or nurture, but this question bypasses a factor which is far more fundamental: the reaction of will.
Development is not dictated by genetic predispositions or environmental influences; it occurs as a series of reactions to these factors. These reactions are choices, conscious, subconscious, and unconscious.
Some will call my assertion circular, because choices we make are advised by our genetic predispositions and environmental influences. This is true but incomplete. To argue that our choices are completely advised – that is to say, that they are no more than a selection between all the ideas available to us during the moment of decision – is to deny the possibility of original thought. And if representative individuals are incapable of original thought than so is humanity as a whole, which would mean that original thought does not exist for humanity. For that to make sense, you must also argue for the existence of another order of being whose minds are or were somehow capable of transmitting all of our ideas to us. This scenario is, once again, theoretically possible but completely useless.
If, then, we are capable of original thought, it seems most likely to occur during early, high-development stages of life, when the mind is less cluttered by – all this, – by life.
We make of ourselves what we will; rarely as we wish, but always as we will.
Why, then, when we want to know what our lives mean, do we look outside of ourselves?
The simple truth is that we don’t, not really.
Few people will confidently assert that they know the meaning of life in the cosmic sense; but most people act as though they know the meaning of their own. They spend the bulk of their time pursuing money, pursuing love, pursuing respect, pursuing whatever makes them happy. Most people effectively consider their lives a means to an end; that end, self-fulfillment. Life becomes currency; we “spend our lives” doing this or that in order to gain some other thing, some condition or situation that we have chosen to be our source of fulfillment. Upon attaining that condition, some people find that they chose well; many others, perhaps most, discover, perplexed, that they have not.
What choice do I have?
Use my life to buy something else? What? For whom? For me?
I have needs and wants; I won’t ignore them; neither will I be dominated by them.
Every social, religious, philosophical, and moral system in human history has placed a premium on self-sacrifice. The only universal argument against selflessness is the claim that it’s illogical. But whether we rose from animals or not, we are far and away at the top of a very short list of known types of beings that has the luxury of devoting less than our entire energy towards physical survival, maintenance of health, growth, and reproduction. It could be said that we’re forced to devote much of our excess energy to mental survival, health, and reproduction, since for us the life of the body is secondary to the life of the mind; and yet, even so, there is plenty of remainder for altruism. There is also such a thing as being overripe.
I’m beginning to sound like I want to be some kind of hero. Perhaps a hero in moderation.
In defense of such a position, heroism is perhaps best when practiced by those without superpowers. There are only two possible moral choices for a person with extrahuman powers – total abstinence out of respect for the potential consequences, or compassionate activism. Those who chose to be active face the Lois Lane dilemma: every moment taken for oneself and one’s own interests is a moment that the hero ought to spend in the service of others. Only an ordinary man has the opportunity to practice heroism without the moral imperative for self-denial.
If life must be currency – and indeed, it comes solely on a use-it-or-lose-it basis – then I will devote whatever I can spare to the benefit of others.
I don’t know how much that will be. I’m not sure what exactly I’ll be doing. I’m no superhero; I’ll have no revelation of special powers to point me in any particular direction. I’m not even sure I know what’s good for other people. Maybe it’ll come, situation by situation.
I exist. I am not alone.
I am what I am. I see what I see. I am where I am, when I am.
I’ll do what I can.
One thought on “Confessions of a Comic-Book Hero”
Artist Wanted!>>If you draw/ink, and you’re interested, and… bored, because I can’t pay you… I’d love to see Confessions of Comic-Book Hero illustrated someday.>>The basic idea I have in mind is the character wandering through a city while having this internal monologue…