We Are Not Ourselves

We Are Not Ourselves

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by Virginia Chase Sanderson

If we are none other than ourselves, separate and discrete, how is it that we so easily mirror the feelings of others? By what peculiar ignition does my husband’s anger instantly cause anger to flare in me? In the presence of a nervous person we feel nervous. In the presence of joy, joy. We talk of a “contagious mood”–how does a mood jump the gap between two people? If I were really a separate entity, the mood of others should as little affect me as the weather in Paris when I am in Minnesota. And yet it does.

I offer to you this, that I am not merely me, nor you merely you. I inhabit my body, but perhaps I also inhabit the space between our bodies, and perhaps–certainly it is proven to be so on an atomic level–I penetrate your being, and you mine. What else, my friend, is love?

One day, as I was practicing yoga, I was bending forward toward the ground, head hanging, torso and arms limp. My arms were loosely dangling from my shoulders, and they swayed ever so slightly. I closed my eyes. I thought about my two rag-doll arms. I slowly became aware that if I did not look at my arms, I did not know where they were, because I could not feel them. They were hanging somewhere in space, and they might just as well have been in Paris: I could not feel my arms. There was nothing for my neurotransmitters to grab in order to report sensation or location, for nothing was touching my arms, no slight breeze was stirring the hair on my arms, and they were neither warm nor cold.

With my eyes closed I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I had lost my arms. That I was not my arms. And, by extension, that I was not my legs or my torso or any part of my body. Try it sometime. Say goodbye to your arms. And wonder what in fact you are when you float free of your body.

The written word has always had for me a peculiar quality. I have the sensation, whatever I am reading, of reading the work of just one author. Yes, all the books ever written, all written by the same person! Oh, sometimes this person uses archaic language, and sometimes this person is in a chatty or vulgar or repetitive mood, or is downright misguided, but for all its notes and tones, at the end of the corridor I hear only one voice, the musings of just one consciousness, one Author of all the books.

This impression is so strong that if I chance to turn over the book and see a picture of the author on the jacket, I am jarred, even incredulous. Did these thoughts, these words, these imaginings, come from this bespectacled and balding jowly gentleman with the dour expression? No. I submit that they did not, that they poured forth through the vehicle of this named individual, and in doing so took on some of the qualities and idiosyncrasies and failings of this individuated life form. But the author, oh, the Author, is not he who receives the royalties.

And, for this last misbegotten generation of chauvinists of both sexes, won’t you admit to surprise when you notice, at the end of the article you’ve been reading, that it was written by a woman? This penetrating, keenly observant mind, this rapier wit, this analytical intelligence, a woman? Yes, women too partake of the one intelligence. The Author has no gender.

One night as I was bent over my papers, working at my desk, I was absently observing ants crawling about. As I plucked ants off the desk, and off my arm, there came a moment when I was no longer absent. I began to feel as if I was lifting and removing the heavy tentacles of a giant creature, a colossal thing that consisted of all the ants in all the world. It was no good to get rid of an ant or so. For the tentacled thing would just pick itself up and uncoil its tendril tongue somewhere else again. There was no killing this giant creature, however many cells might be squashed now and then. The Ant, of which the ants were members.

It was late one hot sunset afternoon that I watched the gnats swarm overhead. In a kind of shimmering cloud they moved together, but this was a cloud that had edges and volition. It constantly changed shape. Some of the gnats flew toward the edge, some to the center, but whereas their trajectories were never identical, this thing of which they were a vibrating part never lost its form. The gnats moved as one being on the patio this night. What were they? What are we?

Yes, well, what are we then, this clump of men, women, young, old, fleshly forms housing consciousness, feeling, will, and imagination? We are perhaps like the tiny lights in that dusky constellation of gnats, or the living tentacles of an unquenchable organism. We are points of intersection on a web; we are among the countless immaterial voices of our Author.

About the author
Virginia Chase Sanderson has taught literature and writing at California State University in Los Angeles, where she also worked in the feature film industry.  She taught literature and writing as a lecturer and teaching fellow at Cornell University, and was a visiting lecturer in cinema at Ithaca College.  She recently retired from her local community college, where she taught English, French and humanities.  In 2011 she received her bachelor in fine arts degree from the University of Minnesota.  She is a longtime writer of personal essays.

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