A few days ago, in a writing class, my longtime teacher, Deena Metzger, gave us an interesting prompt. She prefaced her remarks by reminding us that most indigenous languages, including Native American languages, do not have a word for “I”. Personal experience is not part of the structure of those languages. It is not privileged prominent in thinking or prominent in conversation and for good reason. This is not about a quaint, folkloric quirk of indigenous mind. It is the core of a worldview far more sophisticated and nuanced than our own. If the individual “I” doesn’t exist, no words are necessary to express it.
In class, we were asked to write without using words to express personal experience in the ways we are accustomed to. No “I”. She asked us to imagine ‘the consequences of what we say’ when it is framed in the personal and when it is not. (The assignment was to write a scene where we learn about a character through the eyes of others – people, objects or animals, in ways that contain different perspectives about the character, and that are complex and relational.) What happens, she asked, when an individual doesn’t present him or herself but is only known via the observations and opinions of others?
This got me wondering what would happen if, for a moment or a day, or several times a day, or forevermore, we lived with the understanding that, in fact, there truly is no individual “I”: My individual sorrows, triumphs, insights and longings are no longer mine but belong to the great pool of sorrow, triumph, insight and longing shared by countless others, human and non, in the active recognition that the only linguistic boat that will not sink is a commons made buoyant by the indistinguishability of whose pain or joy or insight is whose. The act of expression (and the thinking that precedes it) becomes a relinquishing of the personal by entrusting it to others. This is not about diminishment, abandonment or exile. It’s about radical inclusion to the Nth degree.
I’ve been working with this idea for several days now, so it’s definitely still new and I’m still bumbling along. (Ay yai yai, I, I, I!) But I am curious to see what happens by trying this idea on and allowing it to change my behavior accordingly. And guess what? Not surprisingly, for starters, I talk a lot less!
A lot of what is written about the Self comes from psychology or spirituality. There is much talk of ego, of the Non Self, of interpenetration and of omniscient deities (‘Let Go! Let God!’). Interpenetration comes closest to what I’ve stumbled into, but it still falls short. Only ten percent of the cells in the human body are uniquely human. Ninety percent are microbes and other structures that are shared with countless other living beings. So, instead of veering from myself to noself or even to interpenetrated self (which emphasizes connection and contact but between individuals) we can go directly to Allself, where individual experience is fully contained within every other individual experience, intact and simultaneous, and of equal importance to our own. Humans, animals, ancestors, future beings, plants and microbes are all having their own experiences and, in some ways, directly or indirectly, are affecting and affected by our own. Within the Allself, the individual is undiminished. It is accompanied. And it is held in its proper perspective as one among countless others, neither less nor more important, and also not alone.
If we all tried to embody this shift, obvious changes would occur: More silence. Greater humility. Internal struggle. Awkward conversations. Then the larger ripples: Growing awareness and sensitivity toward others, including non-humans. Changes in literature, policy, and conversations with ‘strangers’, whom we would finally learn to see as literal continuations of ourselves that they actually are.
An image comes to mind, of a future edition of the English dictionary: I (me, my, mine): antiquated terms no longer in use, referring to the individual and his/her/its possessions and experiences, in a vacuum, ie ignoring the larger context of the all-encompassing whole and its myriad life forms, processes and relationships. Obsolete.