A chance at rebirth

Because it is Easter, my mind like everyone else’s inevitably turns to the unending project of rebirth, to the quest for a higher self, and to the possibility of self-fulfillment.  I mean this in respect both to ourselves as individuals in search of perfection and as a nation in search of progress.

Any day, of course, will serve as a new start, but in our culture, it is Easter that is especially redolent with images of renewal.  The resurrected Christ is to me the purest of these images, even if for some reason it is the cross-bearing Christ that is the favored icon of Filipino men.  The singular theme is forgiveness and renewal.  Good Friday bids us to recognize our weaknesses and to seek forgiveness, while Easter Sunday offers us the grace and hope we need to embrace life.

I will leave to my brother Ambo, the priest, the theology of these images.  What fascinates me is the notion of acceptance or the recognition of what we are, for which we seek forgiveness.  I think that to accept oneself means to understand who we are in relation to the time and place which shaped us, how we act and why we act the way we do.  Only with such self-awareness can we begin to forgive ourselves.  But I do not think self-understanding is possible unless we are prepared to abandon the usual ways in which we view our lives and justify our actions.  This requires being able to see ourselves in a new and different light.  Renewal begins with a new framework, a new narrative, a new way of telling the story of our lives.  It is in this sense I think that the philosopher Richard Rorty equates self-creation with redescription.

Some people are able to accomplish this in a comprehensive way by writing autobiographies.  Writing becomes their method for liberating themselves from the self-images that influential figures in their lives — their parents or teachers or elder siblings — may have created for them and in which they may continue to imprison them.   Not everyone can be a writer of course, but all of us are capable of introspection, or at the very least, of talking to ourselves.  The challenge of emancipation is to recognize our behavior as contingent products of a specific time and place, to step out of our accustomed or conventional vocabularies, and to begin to describe our lives and  our world differently.

Ordinary mortals like us may often accomplish this by reading novels or watching movies or by living in other cultures.  Others look for it in religion, philosophy or poetry.  But everyday life itself offers enough material for all kinds of “gestalt switches”.  Often, a simple change in marital status can compel a reweaving of one’s fantasies.  The example of our own friends’ lives may sometimes come to us as new metaphors for living once we stop demanding that every conversation with them  must end with an agreement on the meaning of life.

The question, however, remains: how do you tell a self-delusion from an imaginative self-description?  It is all very well to derive serenity and comfort from a self-chosen identity born of a reflective imagination.  But, what if the identity is false, distorted or overdrawn? Here I think I go along with the pragmatist response that it is perhaps better to see identities not so much as a matter of truth or falsity, as of effectiveness.   The important question is not whether our representations of ourselves are faithful to reality or not, but whether they allow us to confidently navigate our way through life, achieve our goals, and command the respect of others.  In this sense, identities are not so much discovered as they are created, validated, and continuously reconstructed.

Most of us attend to this task only at the end of our lives, when there is plenty of solitude for a needed summing-up.  This has given rise to what one author has called “auto-thanatology”, a genre of writing by those who face the prospect of death.  Here, the aspiration is to give one’s life its final definition, to complete it as it were.  Ironically, there can really be no final meanings since the narrative of one’s life is never completed even after one’s death.

If one waits to have that definition only towards the end, one is more likely to be gripped by the pathos that the poet Philip Larkin painfully registers by these lines:

But to confess,
On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once, And that man dying.

Such pathos may never be completely avoided, says the philosopher Richard Rorty.  “It is hard to imagine a human life which felt itself complete, a human being who dies happy because all that he or she ever wanted has been attained.”  Not even perhaps the strongest poet or novelist who writes a majestic autobiography to pre-empt the most enterprising of biographers can escape the “pathos of finitude.”  For even more so after our death, Rorty declares, are we all “dependent on the kindness of all those strangers out there.”

The advantage of a continuous effort to re-describe our life without having to time it with the final summing-up is, as I see it, the opportunity for renewal it affords.  This is not the same as being able to get the essence of life right once and for all, because life has no eternal meanings waiting to be found.  What we may hope to gain however, is the chance to re-weave the web of our relations, “a web which time lengthens every day”, and  thus affirm our lives again and again.


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