Please bear with me this morning as I wax philosophical. I awoke the other night to recall that in my dream I'd been sitting navel-deep in Crooked Creek pondering an age-old philosophical question: Who am I?
Perhaps my age and affection for this creek of my childhood had something to do with the unusual dream. But then I realized how uncertain I remain after seven decades of just who I am in the larger scheme of an ever-expanding universe.
I recalled discussing this question in philosophy classes with Dr. Patrick Murray at the University of Central Arkansas. That was in 1970 and I was 21. It was this professor, later turned Episcopal minister, who inspired my deeper questions about consciousness and existence.
Asking ourselves who we are in an intellectually honest sense deserves far deeper reflection than we give it. As Murray put it, are we our arms or our legs? Our hearts, eyes or our internal organs? Even when attaching them together to form the physical us, who and what are we? And why are we even here?
After the dream, I spent a while in the swing on our back deck, sipping coffee, still pondering the truth. Perhaps I'm primarily my thoughts and feelings facilitated by bones, muscle and electrical charges. Or maybe I'm only little more than the dreams and thoughts I experience.
Without thoughts to begin with, nothing ever gets accomplished in this troubled world, right? To achieve or create anything of a material nature, mustn't we first imagine it?
Like you, I interact with others in various ways that include shades of love, respect, admiration, disgust, kindness, happiness, humor, hatred, revulsion and fear. Yet none of those is a physical part of "me." They originate from within my unseen spirit and are reflected in my individual choices and physical responses.
Many say we enter this realm of light and matter as clean slates, or a "tabula rasa," to be inscribed with messages of proper behavior over time. Yet other thinkers claim that's an illusion, saying we enter the world with certain moral directives already inscribed within our souls.
What eventually becomes sketched upon our hearts and minds by the unseen creator of our abbreviated and continuous interactions with others determines the essence of our individual existence. We assign ourselves names at birth in order to identify us from others.
For instance, most know me as Mike, while others say Michael. But who are they addressing? Their impression of who they believe I am can vary widely with each person. Based on observations and interactions, some may feel attracted as others are repelled. But what exactly determines which the perception will be?
So many less-than-physically attractive people are nonetheless appealing because of their warm, joyful or caring spirits. Yet others, with what we perceive to have attractive faces or bodies, can be detested for their self-absorption and selfish ways, all of which stem from their innermost being. Which traits thrive deepest within our constantly fading form creates the perception.
Perhaps you can see, as the years have ticked away, why I reflect on this question decades after those days in Dr. Murray's class.
My favorite Broadway show by far is "Les Miserables." There are reasons behind my obsession with its compelling story and poignant music.
In a particularly moving scene, protagonist Jean Valjean must decide if he will reveal his true identity to the court. He sings of this dilemma, whether to come forward, save an innocent man and face being re-imprisoned, or to choose eternal damnation for allowing the truth to remain untold as a hidden benefit to him.
The related song is appropriately titled "Who Am I?" He repeats that refrain throughout the music as he agonizes deeply until finally deciding he is a decent person who can't allow another to wrongly go to prison in his place. Valjean voluntarily comes before the court to explain the truth. The misidentified man is freed.
That scene to a large degree describes my ponderings. When my time on Earth is through, who exactly would I have been, and why? Did I stand for the intangible qualities of truth, honor, integrity, justice and kindness, or was my limited time here represented more by seeking power over others, fomenting negativity rooted in anger, hatred, violence, insecurity, greed and selfishness?
Actually, this revelation is one reason I chose the Christian faith as a young man. My thoughts told me that even if the biblical principles and guidance turned out not to be true, I would have tried my best to focus my consciousness attuned to Christianity's positive admonitions, which would have led to a life worth living. And if they are true, hopefully I would have an answer as to just who I was while here.
Now go into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly how you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.