2. the nature or essence of a person
3. a real or imaginary living creature or entity, especially an intelligent one
1. present participle of be
What does it mean to say – I am? What is I? What is am? What is is? What does it mean – to be? What is being? What is a being? One of the definitions of being is existence, but a being is not necessarily something which is alive. By building a house, it becomes a type of being. And it comes into being. But it only ever ‘lives’ in a particular, non-organic manner. Being appears to precede humanity, but is it something which can be grasped and appreciated beyond the tools of perception with which human beings are endowed?
Other animals might not understand that they have being, but that does not alter the fact that they a) have life/existence/being and b) are a part of this wider shared being, which those of us, seemingly exposed and thrown into life, have experienced or are currently experiencing. They also share with us that Darwinian instinct which compels us to try to preserve our being and continue it for our species, so it appears that we all have some kind of yearning within us to keep it going for as long as we can. I might add, at this juncture, that all these ideas and questions are entirely dependant on the world actually existing beyond my own consciousness (as it seems to). For the sake of this inquiry, I shall hereby refute the solipsistic argument and work on the basis that all of our minds really do exist, as they appear to, and that everything I’m experiencing isn’t simply ‘all in my head’.
These ideas might seem simple enough to some of you (or not!) – but, personally, after a little more thought, I begin to find them rather difficult to fathom and get myself into a right muddle. It’s one great, big ontological mess. And one can easily get lost when pondering the nature of the self, other selves and existence. So let’s just take the initial queries about ‘I’ and ‘am’ and see if we can’t straighten them out a bit.
I (pronoun, nominative I, possessive my or mine, objective me; plural nominative we, possessive our or ours, objective us)
1. The nominative singular pronoun, used by a speaker in referring to himself or herself (or themselves – this was added by me)
Firstly, I is a way of distinguishing each person, each human being, from one another. But it is specifically related to you/them/me – and their individual and unique sense of self. There are many different I’s alive and existing as I write this – and each I is unique. When I think of I, it is only me who can ever assume that position. Your I-ness is yours alone and, despite all the connections we make, our religious beliefs and the way we may sometimes attempt to relinquish our responsibility to be I, you will always be your own version of an I.
1. First person singular present indicative of be.
Am is much more difficult to pin down – am is to be. If you are (am) then you are essentially being/you are here/and you are able and ready to do/be. You are existing. If you are not (am not) then you cease to exist/be. This, of course, is just in terms of being a living, breathing human being. We know from others dying that they do not cease to be entirely, as they essentially ‘live on’ through us – the living – and our memories of them. But, as we do not know any better for now, I think we can continue with the premise that, in our existence as it appears to be, ‘am’ implies a state of being that is inextricably linked to being alive – particularly if one is able to utter the words “I am”; this confirms that they are a unique self and that they currently exist/are alive.
Being, beings and human beings
When I ponder the nature of being itself, I find it difficult to do so without reference to my sense of human being. Now, this is understandable, of course – if I wasn’t a human being able to ponder it, then I wouldn’t be able to ask the question “what is being?” It’s our only frame of reference – we can only begin to imagine being from this unique phenomenological standpoint. Unfortunately, as a human being, whose scope for both questions and answers is limited by the constraints of its being, understanding and intelligence, I’m not sure it’s possible to answer the question without resorting to speculation, guesswork and more poetic, idealistic thinking. And so, I will just say this – for me, being is like a stage; the stage on which beings, both organically alive and not, work together to perform the ‘greatest show of them all’ – life.
I see no reason why human beings should consider themselves worthy of exalted status – even when considering Martin Heidegger’s Dasein; his human consciousness thrown into the world. For Heidegger, Dasein is grounded in care and temporality – which basically means an ability to perceive, appreciate and concern itself with the world around it (and its things and other Daseins) in a sense of time – or different modes of experiencing temporality. Dasein is a being which is able to think about its being. And this is what separates us from animals and other things which are organically alive – being a being which is able to reflect upon its being (and being!)
I loved writing that.
I guess it’s safe to assume that all ‘alive things’ like bears, plants and plankton should take some kind of priority over ‘non-alive’ things like stones or mountains or pianos. But surely nature itself is a living thing which needs to be looked after just as much as any of its living, breathing inhabitants? And these things all emanate from the natural world. There is certainly an argument to suggest we aren’t doing enough to care for the being of our natural environment and this is undeniably sad and frustrating. This is also arguably the most important point in this whole inquiry – we need to be better at caring for being in general.
And what about the beings which clearly exist but are only given ‘life’ in a sense by us – tools, homes, vehicles, eating utensils, musical instruments, medical equipment… whatever. Just because these things are not alive does not mean they don’t posses a kind of ‘life of their own’ – by being a part of this world, and by being brought into use by any living thing, these various items begin to go on their own journey and tell their own stories in the great production of life. It seems that ‘to be or to do’ is, therefore, just an element of being; once anything comes into existence – be it piano, scooter, fork, hair brush, shoes, chair or crane – that thing begins its own timeline of events and experiences which build up a history and give it a place in existence, both literally in space and in terms of the other beings it comes into contact with, is associated to or related by.
Being is, as far as I can tell, a taking part – it is having a role, of some kind, in the great story of life. No-one knows for certain how it began and no-one is sure how it will end. All we do know is that we’re taking part in it right now and have been for some time (whether it’s a long time or not is entirely dependant on one’s perspective and sense of relativity). But what is important for this blog series, Accessible Inquiries into the Nature of Being, is the Heideggerian notion of being as ‘forgotten’.
Heidegger felt that the essence of being was not just worthy of thought, he insisted it was “essential” – and he felt that Western philosophy had got so tied up in Descartes’ Cartesian thinking that the very essence of our primordiality had become overlooked. But why is it so important? Well, this is something that I have already eluded to in the posts preceding this one, and will continue to explore in later blogs, but I believe that the main purpose of dragging being back from the realm of obscurity is to draw attention to our ‘lost sense of responsibility’.
I hope that by paying attention to Heidegger’s quest for being to be re-examined, it might help to awaken in us a realisation of our neglect; for our fellow humans, animals, nature itself, the planet, the universe and everything else that we should be caring more about but have forgotten in our busyness. Anyone who has read any of my posts on Taoism will have encountered these sentiments before, but it has taken a close reading of Heidegger and his ontological framework to truly appreciate what we’re currently doing with our lives.
We rush around trying to find answers to questions which don’t need asking – we ignore the needs and basic human rights of our fellow beings due to greed, selfishness and apathy. And we waste time, not only trying to save it in increasingly ridiculous and harmful ways, but also by resorting to jealousy, competitive instincts and bypassing compassion. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side – what matters is finding contentment appropriate to you and your will (this of course means in a way in which the rights of others are respected and cared for – we can’t just do everything we want). Look after not only friends and family, but all your neighbours and theirs. Home is where the heart is – and this world is our home; we need to cherish it and care for it.
I wrote a little bit on the value of home and homeliness in a previous blog on the Wizard of Oz and Taoism (which you can read here), and I think it’s worth illuminating its importance again briefly in the context of an ontological inquiry. David E. Cooper, emeritus professor of philosophy at Durham University, beautifully illuminates Heidegger’s quest to “reconcile the uniqueness of human existence with being “at home’ in the world” in this fantastic TLS article. He suggests that Heidegger’s answer to that quest is a need for us to “overcome the forgetfulness of being, for to ‘recall and reflect on being enables us both to appreciate our uniqueness and to feel at home in the world”.
We all feel anxious at times – we all experience those uncanny, alienated feelings. How often do you ever feel uncomfortable in your surroundings? And where do you feel most at ease? I obviously can’t speak for everyone here, but I suspect, more often than not, that the majority of us feel at our most comfortable, safest and cared for at home. Now, I like a drink – anyone who has read any of my previous blogs should know this by now. But even though I like to let that Dionysian side out every now and again, what I really like is a good old-fashioned English country pub, a nice cold pint of craft beer and a roaring fire. You know what I mean – those warm, pretty village pubs with big, welcoming sofas, dogs passing through your legs and families enjoying delicious, comforting Sunday roasts slathered in rich gravy which tastes almost as good as your nan’s. You know the places I mean – they’re like, I don’t know, I guess, a home away from home…
And that’s the thing – the reason I think the popularity of these pubs, and other places like them, endures is because we yearn for that sense of homeliness; it is instinctual for us to make a home and maintain it as our ‘happy place’ – a safe space. If Heidegger saw care as the meaning of human being – its defining factor – then perhaps homeliness is a key aspect of the meaning of being itself – maybe being is home?
Being and Niceness
So if Dasein, or human existence, is explained by our taking care of the world and its things, and a major part of being can be thought of as this ‘great home’ to existents, might another significant strand of this ontological composition be explained by Niceness? One could of course bring in a simple dialectic at this point and suggest that existence is just as easily described by cruelty, evil or wickedness. It would be difficult to argue against the significance this side of our humanity also has in the way our lives play out on the great stage of life. But life doesn’t endure through cruelty. Existence isn’t fuelled by wicked deeds. And I refuse to believe that being should be characterised by evil – whatever that actually means.
As far as I’m concerned, being is Niceness – this is something I will go on to explore in more detail in later blogs, but for now I shall just briefly redirect you to my concept of Genuinity. Allow me to quote one of my earliest blogs at this point to explain the concept for those of you who haven’t come across it before:
I call this most true essence of living beings Genuinity – a positive, life-affirming quality, sprinkled with feminine energy, led by the voice of one’s inner child. As the definitions suggest – Genuine: of a person = sincere. Truly what it is said to be. And Entity: being. Existence. A thing with distinct and independent existence. Genuinity is your true self in its truest, most stripped-back form. Prior to the symbolic realm, reason, knowledge, understanding. Beyond language, transcendent – even mystical, perhaps. Certainly of-itself and impossible to understand completely or properly define. But evident in love, compassion, trust, support, protection, nurturing instincts and our desire to live and keep on living.
I believe that Genuinity, or at the very least our will to compassion and kindness, is as much a part of the explanation of being as anything previously mentioned. We need to look after each other – to let our Genuinity shine. And being gives us the conditions in which to make this possible.
And so that’s that for now – unsurprisingly, there isn’t too much concrete information on which to clarify a convincing explanation of what being actually is. Is existence simply the stage on which the great performance of life is played out – and there is nothing more to it than that? Is being a platform for us to act as ‘shepherds’ who care for our world and the things in it? Is being nothing more than a home – to all human life and so much more beyond it? Is it a journey? A journey which perhaps requires no explanation – and all we can ever hope to do is try to enjoy it as best we can?
I see being (the undefinable journey) as something like the fuse at the end of a stick of dynamite. At birth, the spark is lit and the flame begins to move towards the explosive. Which is of course death. The relentless surge of the flame towards its inevitable conclusion is the march of being – it is unstoppable. Okay, the spark might go out before the big blast goes off. But the spark is always lit. And the flame always burns for an amount of time, however long or short. Sometimes it goes on longer than others, and sometimes there are more eventful endings than others, but every life has a beginning, middle and end.
From the point that the spark is lit up until the moment it is extinguished, either with a whimper or a big bang, we have an opportunity to experience all the wonderful, woeful and in-between-ness that existence has to offer. One can only hope that they get to experience as much of it as possible (particularly the good bits), but, sadly, this doesn’t happen for enough of these sparks. I think that perhaps a long-ish, relatively healthy life, spent among friends, family and loved ones, is probably the best way to precede the concluding fireworks. But a fulfilled life, whatever that might actually mean, is all one can really hope for when their spark is lit. I only wish that could happen for more people who are thrown into life.
Being is primordial; it is a priori – it is characterised by itself. It is happening. Every flame has to start and end somewhere. If it doesn’t start, then it never ‘has been’. This applies directly to human existence (or Heidegger’s Dasein). The question is, does being beyond the realm of human being have a similar ontological explanation? Is being itself – the world, the universe, the landscape on which humanity has painted civilisation – just a flame burning towards its eventual, inevitable conclusion? Is nothingness just reserved for Dasein at the summit of being toward death, or is nothingness the fate of everything?
Please let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!