Drew T. Noll © 2022, all rights reserved

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Existential Threat to My Left Thumb


The first principle of existentialism, according to Jean Paul Sartre is, ‘Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.’

He goes on to say, ‘The first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.’

It appears to me that this is exactly what Hashem had in mind when he made the world. The problem is that it puts me square in the middle, in the center of Creation, and puts all of my faith in only one hand. Faith is an important element to understand in this dynamic. Having faith in ‘me,’ to make the right decisions, to do the right thing, is challenged daily by the thought, ‘who am I?’ Losing faith in ‘Me,’ causes the scale to tip to one side only; this is paramount to suicide of the inner self, ultimately leading to the potentiality of the real thing.

This is the line that we straddle when faced with everything from difficult life-altering decisions, down to everyday choices like, should I smoke that cigarette, eat that piece of cake, wear that outrageous hat, or avoid brushing my teeth. So, how do we arrive at ‘faith?’ In some traditions, it is felt that faith should be handed over completely to a higher being, as if this will absolve our responsibility for what we have done or even may do. This system works, but only to a point. The problem is that in that specific moment of conscience, when we ask ourselves in a split second if we are to blame or will be to blame, we still have to rely on ourselves to make the decision. Presuming to give it over to a higher power in that fraction of a moment is only an escape valve for the ego. What do I mean by that? I mean that if I am so pious that I can summon what I believe to be ‘my relationship with the Creator’ at will, I am essentially summoning my extremely tiny, little understanding of the Creator, and in doing so, I elevate my ego to be on par, in my own little mind, with that Creator, justifying (beforehand) any decision that I may ultimately make, and effectively denying my own free will process.

Looking at it from the other end, by saying that everything emanates from ‘Me,’ and as Jean Paul Sartre put it, ‘Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself,’ the ego is the Creator and is responsible for everything in one’s life, as well as in all of mankind. Every individual is absolutely responsible, alone, for everything that happens to every person in the entire world. The problem with this strategy is that it is entirely too overwhelming to even start down that road; so, we rarely do, if at all. This, as well, effectively denies that same freewill process. Life is just too big to comprehend at either extreme of the scale and hence, we don’t, won’t, and can’t, leaving us with the distinct feeling that if we don’t think about it, it might go away, but it never does....

So why do we have these uncompromising extremes keeping us from following the one true path to peace, harmony, and enlightenment? Because, quite simply, we were made Be’Tzelem Elokim (in G-Ds image). We were made to be godlike. If we had evolved from animals, our sole purpose would be to survive and procreate. Since we are smarter than most (if not all) animals, we should be able to do that better than any animal on the planet. This, to some extent is true, however when does an animal contemplate either its Creator or the lack there of? When does an animal sacrifice itself for the sake of that Creator or become overwhelmed with depression, attributed by many to be, a lack of connection thereof? These are the extremes that we balance with every decision that we make. These are the extremes of living and this is the paradox of life. We are living in a constant state of flux between the two extremes and that process is what makes us Be’Tzelem Elokim.

Did you know that inside every cell inside your body there is DNA coding that is exactly the same as every other cell? That means that the same code that is in a cell of my right incisor tooth is in a cell of my left thumb. So, why don’t I have a thumb in my mouth and a tooth on my hand (G-D forbid!)? When, exactly, does the genetic coding decide to make a thumb or a tooth? Scientifically, we can’t answer that question. There are no markers that tell us how this works, even though we can see inside the nucleus of the atoms that make up the double helix chain of our DNA, we cannot figure out how this is even possible; and still, we live our lives every day as if it is the most normal thing in the world, to have a thumb and a tooth exactly where they belong. Sounds a lot like faith, don’t you think? We wake up every morning to find that we are pretty much the same as the night before. We rely on that fact, just to keep having faith that there is a ‘Me’ in the world.

Imagine that you wake up one morning, reach up to scratch your eye, and end up with your toe stuck up your nose. That would shake up your faith a bit, wouldn’t it? For that matter, how do you even know that your thumb is really a thumb? I had a discussion recently with a friend that revolved around the idea that molecules, throughout our world, are constantly trading particles back and forth. I heard specified once that it takes about two years for every molecule in your entire body, with the exception of a few bones that take longer, to be completely replaced. So, this now begs the question, ‘Who am I?’ When I eat something, it transforms to matter and energy. When I wake in the morning, I am no longer the same thing as when I went to sleep. All I can carry with me is ‘faith’ that I will still be what I think of as ‘Me’ in the morning. All I can carry with me is that when I look at my left thumb, it is what I ‘believe’ is my left thumb.

So, really, my perception of ‘Me’ is all there is of me. We walk that line, balancing from one non-existent leg to the other, and have faith that we are heading in the right direction. Sometimes we use our ego, and sometimes we give it over to a higher power. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we want to be reassured that we will wake up in the morning pretty much the same as we were when we went to sleep. We will stop at nothing to prove to ourselves and to the world that we exist, if only to be somewhat comforted as our true selves ride out the fleshy prison bake sale that we have agreed to inhabit for a finite period of time in this finite world. Just have some compassion, please, and don’t tell my left thumb that it isn’t really there. I would hate for it to disappear on ‘Me.’ There is no telling where it might wake up…

Shabbat Shalom! (because Shabbat may be the only thing that we know really exists in this world…)