“… Whose the Forest of Them All?” See What I Did There?

Imagine somebody offers you a friendly smile, but you snarl back. What might be their next reaction? Would they be amused and take it as a friendly jibe, just typical “you”? I suppose that would depend on how well they knew you. Would they be bemused because they don’t know you so well? Really, snarling at a friendly smile…? We’re perfect strangers, for goodness’ sake! Would they be confused because they’re not from around here and just can’t reckon the response in any way? A person’s reaction to your snarl might conceivably be anything—it depends on so many factors, and even in these three suggestions, one can find how-many-more details, nuances, and possibilities that take things further. Any “next reaction,” you might finally conclude, just depends on the person.

That response, “it depends,” is often criticised as merely wishy-washy yet, apparently, there’s an ironic ring of absoluteness to it, like the postmodern clarion call that nothing is true except for this statement. The reason I pose the scenario at all is to consider who really provides us with our sense of self. Supposing this person smiled at me, I might snarl in the first way, as a jibe, because I’m sure they’ll get the joke. But what if they don’t get it? What if this person even knows me pretty well, and they just don’t get it, not this time? Or what if they feel this just wasn’t the time for joking around? Their next reaction will depend on these and / or plenty of other factors. But again, I raise the scenario to consider how we gather—or, no no, to consider who really provides us—with our sense of self.

And there you have it, the issue: do we each gather our own sense of self, internally, or do others provide us with our sense of self, externally?

I don’t want to revert simply to the nature-nurture argument or chicken-and-the-egg. We seem inescapably bound to considering these by degree—hence, the absolutism that it depends. So, then, to consider by degree… the metaphor I have in mind is that of a mirror. Something someone does induces a response from me, and subsequently, what I provoke in that other person can tell me something more about myself, so long as I’m willing (and able?) to discern my self—myself?—from what they reflect. Whatever next reaction of theirs follows my snarl, this other person’s reaction serves as a mirrored reflection of me, at least insofar as this other person is concerned. If they laugh at my snarl, then hey, I guess they affirm me as a friend with an appropriate sense of humour; the jibe is appreciated, and maybe we’re even a little closer friends than before. Their positive reaction is my feedback, like looking at myself in a mirror, and my sense of self is in some way provoked on account of them by what they reflect.

I suppose there’s room to discuss a lack of empathy, here, even sociopathic behaviour—these seem also to be part of that endless list of details, nuances, and possibilities. But in acknowledging them, let’s leave them for another day.

If my snarl induces a frown from the other person, or some kind of puzzlement or disapproval, then what they affirm for me is less friendly or wonderful, yet may be just as clear—maybe they snarl back, even more fiercely, or maybe they stomp away with clenched fists. Maybe now I feel worried, in which case my sense of self could suffer from insecurity or dismay—oh dear, they didn’t get the joke! Or maybe they are saddened, and I feel smug—take that, you deserve it—or hostile—get lost, I never liked you anyway—which reinforces my sense of superiority, some kind of self-importance. The list of possibilities goes on—it depends—but, in any case, I’m able to find myself reaffirmed by that other person’s reaction. “Able to” because my snarl clearly exposes my stake in how this other person influences the way I consider my sense of self: why would I even take notice of them in the first place, much less snarl, much less take concern of their next reaction, if they meant nothing to me?

The point is that the other person’s reaction provides me a measure, a reason, a reflection by which to gauge my self as myself. Basically, thank you, because I couldn’t do it without you and everybody else, and you’re welcome because neither could you without me, or everybody else.

Now, pretend there are no other people—you, alone, exist as the sole human being. You happen to be walking through a grove of, say, birch trees, obviously getting no reactions as we’ve just considered about smiles and snarls. But as the wind whishes by, fluttering leaves and swaying branches, you take in the world around you with a relative means of judgment that wades through various combinations of reactors provoking reactions from reactees: Are the trees reacting to me? Is the wind reacting to me, or the trees to the wind? and so forth. You can see all sorts of things happening, but how can you be sure what provokes or reflects what else? Some songbirds are flitting about, high up in the branches: Are they chirping at me? You might not even call them “song” birds (that is, if you even had language—what need for language, really, as one sole person?) For all we know, the birds would actually scare you, and you might rightly call them “scarebirds” or something—in this pretend scenario, with you the sole human being, we’re also pretending that you know nothing in the way of biology or flora or fauna. These are ways of understanding the world developed in the real life community of human beings, not in some pretend scenario of solo existence.

In that land of pretend, after weeks of sunshine, what might be your sense of self on the day it rained, or on the day the leaves yellowed and fell to the ground in heavier, colder winds? Would you even be considering your “self” apart from the entirety of what surrounds you? Here we are, again, at nature-nurture, only this time you might conceivably consider the two in synthesis: not as separately discrete influences—there is nature, and there is nurture—but as one-and-the-same, naturenurture, thereby placing you into the world of existence as part-of-a-greater-whole. Your sense of self could conceivably be more cosmic, in that literal sense of orderliness, and more holistic, in that sense of connectedness. To mix metaphors, you might feel a mere cog in the wheel, a mere wheel of the gears, yet entirely necessary, just the same. Or how about this: I wonder how imperative my right hand feels, as compared to my left, when I write with a pen, but they’re both pretty important when I play golf.

We can conceivably warrant our selves to ourselves, but—as we step back into the land of real life and other people—we cannot live in total oblivion of the people around us. I grant the possibility of living within ourselves as our selves, rendering the responses and reactions of any one, and those alongside, as nothing other than colliding self-interests, but still… That other people can authorize our sense of self—your sense, my sense—seems as inescapable, as definite, as did nature-nurture or chicken-and-the-egg.

In this little thought experiment, I’ve been wondering whether we each sense our self as reflective of the reactions we induce, e.g. the feedback we get after snarling at a friendly smile, seeing that other person as though staring at ourselves in a mirror. And, if so, whether that means we’re each of us necessarily, essentially, and thereby compellingly part of a greater whole, like trees of a forest, or cogs in a wheel, or limbs to a body. And, for all this, maybe it’s only an issue because we’re able to raise the question, to begin with.