By Stephen W. Hiemstra
How do we know that we exist?
My memoir, Called Along the Way, begins by recounting a childhood dream:
“As a child, a dream returned to me over and over where I felt suspended, neither awake or asleep, but paralyzed as if lost in time and place. Everything was fuzzy: neither light nor dark, hot nor cold, silent nor voiced. My limbs had a tingly feeling, like an arm that had fallen asleep or a leg that refused to support your weight. To describe it as a dream suggests that I might wake up, but this dream lingered refusing me the opportunity to stir, as if I faced a decision. Yet, what decision?”
Hayaski (2016) describes such childhood dreams as memories from the womb.
Glimpses from the Edge
The idea that we exist implies a change in our state of being and some awareness of it. When I work out, some mornings I run through my routine doing mat work with little thought about it, requiring a bit more effort on some days than others. Other days the same routine becomes impossible, not for lack of strength but because my mind is distracted—it is as if I were watching a video of my body and lost all connection to it.
At one point, I reflected on my frequent experience of depression on Saturdays. Why was Saturday evening frequently the most difficult period during the week? Then, it occurred to me that after a hard week of work I almost always found myself physically exhausted on Saturday. I was not depressed; I was tired.
Descartes famous dictum—Cognito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) could not be true—because my awareness of existence does not depend entirely on my physical or cognitive state.
The meta narrative of scripture offers an interesting interpretation of who we are. We are created in the image of God. Almost immediately thereafter, we sin, breaking the only commandment of God—do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The rest of scripture is the story of our reconciliation with God.
This brief sketch, often repeated, is a coming of age story. A coming of age story, like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, describes creation, the need to establish an identity independent of our parents, and, then, a lifelong desire to reunite with them. The Prodigal Son is ironically a narrative about becoming an adult.
The older son in Luke 15 provides insight into the postmodern dilemma. The older brother never established an identity independent of his father and, as such, became a biblical example of co-dependency. He serves his father out of fear and resents both his younger brother and his father. He never attains true maturity as an adult and never learns to love his father. The older brother’s failure to launch leaves him immature, bitter, and unable to function as an adult.
Existence as a Continuum
Existence exists in a continuum from physical being to fully formed adult. Our parents are the immediate instrument of our creation and maturity by God. Alive or dead, awake or sleep, young or old, we are created beings, but our awareness of existence comes through relationship. This awareness starts with intimacy, then grows through tension and re-establishment of intimacy in independence.
For the Christian, in relationship existence has a qualitative aspect that defines who we are and forms the foundation for all that we do. Being created in the image of a sovereign God means that we have almost limitless room for growth into that image. Because God is good, our growth into the image has an inherently ethical trajectory. Because relationships are fragile, the need for the mentoring of the Holy Spirit through prayer, scripture, and the church is intensive and ongoing.
This is the foundation of Christian ethics.
Hayasaki, Erika. 2016. “Traces of Times Lost: How childhood memories shape us, even after we’ve forgotten them.” The Atlantic. November 29.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2017. Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.