This passage reminded me of one of my French linguistic classes a couple of years ago. We were talking about autobiography—and to what extent our lives are constructed. Reflecting on our personal history is a way to give meaning to it, thus creating the narrative of our life.
I find it interesting how Batchelor puts forth the contingency of who we are. We often spend time thinking or worrying about the “determined vs. acquired” debate: am I something determined from the start, or am I a blank slate on which life and experiences have imprinted something? I think it is incomplete to put the question so simply: we are also what we make ourselves, at the same time cause and consequence—and this is an important point in the exerpt reproduced below.
And we too are impressions left by something that used to be here. We have been created, molded, formed by a bewildering matrix of contingencies that have preceded us. From the patterning of the DNA derived from our parents to the firing of the hundred billion neurons in our brains to the cultural and historical conditioning of the twentieth century to the education and upbringing given us to all the experiences we have ever had and choices we have ever made: these have conspired to configure the unique trajectory that culminates in this present moment. What is here now is the unrepeatable impression left by all of this, which we call “me”. Yet so vivid and startling is this image that we confuse what is a mere impression for something that exists independently of what formed it.
So what are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads? The self is not like the hero of a B-movie, who remains unaffected by the storms of passion and intrigue that swirl around him from the opening credits to the end. The self is more akin to the complex and ambiguous characters who emerge, develop, and suffer across the pages of a novel. There is nothing thinglike about me at all. I am more like an unfolding narrative.
As we become aware of this, we can begin to assume greater responsibility for the course of our lives. Instead of clinging to habitual behavior and routines as a means to secure this sense of self, we realize the freedom to create who we are. Instead of being bewitched by impressions, we start to create them. Instead of taking ourselves so seriously, we discover the playful irony of a story that has never been told in quite this way before.
Stephen Batchelor, in Buddhism Without Beliefs, pp. 82-83
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