Emily Dickinson noted in one of her poems the person who “is too near himself to see himself distinctly.” This is one way of describing the human dilemma of being embedded in a private, self-referential system of thought, which can also be described as “embedded in his own thinking.” This is best illustrated in someone who merits the term “delusional” and is, perhaps, wearing a tin foil hat to keep out the rays from “out there” which are seeking to influence his mind. But it is possible to find a group of people with the same delusional way of thinking which will then provide the validation to an individual who has just ventured over into the delusional realm. The only thing that makes this group delusional is that their shared delusion is different from the delusion of the shared reality of the larger collective in which they happen to be situated.
Yes, this smacks of the demon “relativism” that I was taught to eschew in my fundamentalist youth and, yes, carried to an extreme one can find himself without any grounding and without any sense of reality and come unglued in the dark abyss of nihilism. But taking that direction is not necessary and is actually merely the easy way out, avoiding the responsibility of finding meaning in the very complicated and mysterious phenomena that we call “life.” Self-indulgent nihilism is a delightful alternative though the “delight” usually proves short-lived and is harmful to the individual and to those around him. “Meaning” is gut-level work of the heart and most people avoid it, opting for nihilism or the ready-made escape into mindless dogma.
But, discovering that we are “embedded in our own thinking” does not mean that our way of thinking and perceiving the world is inherently invalid. The discovery of this “embeddness” only opens us to considering the limitations of how we see the world and the recognition that others might…and do…see the world differently. This insight is often very painful for it makes us realize, intellectually and emotionally, our existential plight of separateness which immediately subjects us to the anguish of loneliness which culture was contrived in the first place to avoid. But this discovery simultaneously makes possible a connection we did not know was possible, one that can best be described as one of spirit/Spirit. In this realm of the Ineffable we discover the interconnectedness of the whole of life– human, animal, and plant– and even Mother Earth herself. We are “dust of the earth” just as the Bible teaches us.
Let me close with one simple illustration of how our language illustrates this embeddedness and how it shapes our view of the world. In some Eastern languages, if an individual wants to point out that he sees a book, for example, he will say, “I see the book.” But in the West, he will likely say, “I see the book.” For, here in the West, especially in my country the subject-object distinction is more pronounced which is because one of the fundamental things we learn as a child is that we are separate and distinct from the world around us. This “separateness” is important but its emphasis neglects often our inter-relatedness with others and with the world.
W. H. Auden on the “embedded thought” of the collective:
Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny, and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie.