Fit Philosophy

My Photo
Location: TUCSON, Arizona, United States

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Same River

You may have heard of Russian physician and playwright Anton Chekov [1860-1904]. I was recently reminded that, after years as a village doctor, he described the human condition "as a dislike of life strangely combined with fear of death."

We all understand fearing death: we know we're going to die, but don't want to give up our lives. But what is there to dislike about life? The brief answer is: change.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (then in Persia--which we call Iran--now in Selchuk, southwestern Turkey), ca. 540BCE - 480BCE, came to be called "the obscure" because, while was said to have written a single long work, only a few sentences quoted by other writers survive. Among them:

"Nature loves to hide."
"Everything originates in conflict."
"Actions reveal character."

The single greatest metaphor in human history is also attributed to Heraclitus: "You cannot step into the same river twice." Heraclitus was rightly also known as the "philosopher of change."

The sense of Heraclitus' pronouncement turns on the meanings of "same." It seems easy to grasp "same" and "different," until you examine them. Then it becomes clear that we have to overlook a lot of differences say something is the same, just as we have to select some details that identify anything as different.

Am I the same as yesterday? Are you? Not if I focus on details: hair growth, skin cells, metabolism, etc. I'm still the same only if I focus on larger features: facial shape, biography, and so on. It's only in general that I'm the same from day to day. We speak of ourselves and others as "persons."

But what is a "person." The word persona means "mask" in Latin, so a "person" was originally a character in a play. You've heard of "role playing?" That's what we're all doing in our lives. We emerge with basic traits, but unformed, and learn to play a part in the world and around the people amongst whom we find ourselves. Of course, we take on additional parts as we age, and shed some, but we cling to many features of our early selves. It's mostly these qualities that others come to identify us with.

So the person I am is a function of memory, both my own and those of my friends and acquaintances. This is where the issue of change emerges: my persona is anchored in my past and letting go of any part of it seems like a loss. A sad, literal form of this loss occurs with dementia; as the sufferer's memory--and language--fail, they become "no longer the person we knew."

But the historical or symbolic loss of my past happens daily and inevitably: things change. And so it happens that the aging and the old exhibit the regret and rage and resistance everyone jokes about but which also produce so much suffering. People in my age group (I'm 83) exhibit Chekov's "dislike of life" yet still cling to it desperately, perhaps expending enormous sums to stave it off medically. It's sad, and exasperating.

But there's a solution: embrace change! I do it. So can you...

Saturday, May 11, 2019