How To Be Everything and Nothing All at Once
You are a void
A funny thing happens when you look up at trees
It seems like you’re always in the center of a clearing. Like the trees are rising up around you, holding up the sky that surrounds you, and you especially. The axis mundi. The central hub of the world.
Deep down, we all believe this. We can’t see anyone as clearly as we can see ourselves. Even though we are essentially a colorless void with some limbs attached, living life in the first person and unable to see our own face without special equipment.
We’re not privy to each other’s inner lives. Words can help, but only a little. We assume that everyone we meet has the depth and complexity of thought that we ourselves do, but we can’t know that for sure.
What if it’s all a simulation? What if it’s the Truman Show? What if, one day, the person you love best pulls off their faceplate to reveal whirring robotic cogs underneath, and the synthesizer music that ends every 70s dystopian sci-fi movie begins to play? What then?
Looking up at the sky for too long can make you dizzy.
We have to live as though we’re real
We have to assume others are too. Otherwise, we become monsters. The root of all evil,Terry Pratchett once wrote, is seeing people — including yourself — as things. There are worse things. But that’s where they start.
Still, we only see our inner life, no one else’s. And we feel set apart from the world, bound by the skin we’re in. A hard line between Us, and Everything Else. We ignore the breath flowing in and out of us with every second. We’re not conscious of the many physical processes by which we absorb scraps of the world.
The iron in our blood and the photons in our eyes. The cosmic dust that fuses with our bones and the isotopes that mark our progress around the world like the red shift of the wandering stars.
Yet there are times when that vanishes. Watching the trees sway in their sleep as you breathe in the oxygen they exhale does that to you. Watching them catch falling stars in their branches in the long tail of the night wakes you up.
The darkness makes the forest fearsome. The vastness of the sky makes us tiny. A wandering eye loses itself in that jeweled magnificence.
At night, the forest whispers.
And what it whispers is this: you are a void.
There’s nothing here
Far from being a solid object in a hazy world, it’s you that is transient and blurred. Breathing in the universe you’re made from, a spluttering engine cobbled together from mismatched parts. You’re an intersection of air and light and transferred energy. A wraith. A wisp. A puff of air that vanishes as easily as a ribbon of smoke through the trees.
They don’t tell you this in school. They need you to buy into the narrative. To work hard and pick sides and invest in yourself like you really exist. If you believe hard enough, fantasy becomes reality. House prices keep rocketing upward and people become billionaires off made-up currencies.
Fiction warps reality, the dark shadow side of the world like the dark matter physicists say underpins everything. We’re walking now at the very edge of the cliff, the extreme verge. Below, there’s nothing to hold us up. Let go my hand.
Of course it feels real. But real compared to what? You feel real because you’re conscious of yourself. Cogito ergo sum. But who are you in your dreams? Those dreams that feel as real as life until you wake and wonder how much was true and how much was fantasy.
It’s a nebulous assortment of preferences and prejudices that hold you together, that convince you you’re a thing in a world of things. But never the world itself. Never the void at the heart of existence, the hole in the stone for the sun to shine through.
But sometimes you look up at the trees and realize. Sometimes you watch a curtain of shimmering stars give way to one bright and greedy one, the moon retreating as the light begins to burn.
In those moments, those cold liminal spaces when you’re alone between two fires, your own shadowy hands seem suddenly foreign. You feel closer to the sky than to your own feet stretched out in front of you. You look for yourself, way deep down where you always thought your innermost core resided. And you find nothing.
You’re an idea you once had about yourself. A story you’re making up as you go along. An aperture that transmits and receives, energy forever passing through it but never staying still. That’s all.
Now the trees are catching the sun
The stars have folded their hands. The planets, last to linger along with the moon, are gone. The sun absorbs the cosmos in the glory of the morning. Looking up, it seems like there’s nothing left. Just treetops and sun and a great blue void. But this shifting world is a mirror in which we see only ourselves.
Or that’s how it seems, alone on a chilly morning in the middle of nowhere.