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The Fires of Change

Caravaggio, St. Paul on the Road to Damascus

Is it really possible to change from one to another, to be otherwise than oneself?

Initially and for the most part we remain as the beings that we are. Such is the strict necessity of the principle of individuation, that in order to be an I, I ridiculously have to remain the same without any chance or hope of becoming otherwise. For if I by any extent of the imagination think myself of being not myself, I will become all the more (as if I am not already so) lost in the kingdom of beings. To think my self as being another requires that I first give up what I almost rarely can possess, that is, a hold on myself, a self-knowledge, character; and we know not everybody has such self-determination and what we call a 'personality'. In a word, it seems a voluntary change is difficult because I may not even know what (or who) I shall change from. We are never fully transparent to ourselves. We drown in the seas of circumstances daily, unable to achieve everything we want or become who we want to be.

And the gravest danger in desiring a new life, if it is at all possible, is how do I know that who I become is still me? The simplest formulation of this problem--evident because most transparent--was the riddle Descartes left us when he was playing with a piece of wax in his Meditations. After burning the wax (say, a candle), it loses all its sensual properties; gone is its shape, color, taste, smell, and sound when struck. The riddle thus goes whether it is the same candle as before when by its sheer appearance it no longer resembles anything like the piece of wax before it met the fire that was to transform it. Of course the idealist Descartes answers that obviously (well, not that obvious) it is the same wax. But the answer is arrived at not by evidence, but only by "pure mental scrutiny," which at bottom means to say that it is the same wax because I think it to be so. I understand it to be the same wax not because I see it but because I will it to be so.

The example gives us therefore both the possibility and impossibility of change. On the one hand, when I change I just have to confirm it is still me after I change (and hopefully this is also attested to by others). When I change, on the other hand, it is possible to insist that I am no longer related to the "old" self that I changed from because, especially in cases of extreme transformations (conversions, disfigurations, or amnesia), I am in fact phenomenally already distinct from before. But the ambiguity of the first solution, to insist that I am still me after a change, lies in the possibility of admitting that I no longer think or feel or even want, like Descartes, to acknowledge I am the same person. What if I in fact do not want to be in any way like my old self? We encounter this case in severe spiritual conversions or physical rehabilitation, where the very point is to leave my 'sinful' past or errant ways. What if, to go against Descartes, my very wish is to will that I change, to think that I have won for myself a new life?

This problem of change and transformation, a long-time obsession of philosophers since the Greeks of old, can however be nullified by everyday human experience. Many times we meet circumstances (our profession, needs, problems), and especially other people, that either require from or call on us to improve ourselves and demand from us more than what we have been before. These are always faced with difficulty, to be sure. If the old saying "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" is to mean anything of significance, it points to the gravity of our habits, the solidification of our behaviors, the fear of the unknown and the novel. Yet a decision on our part is all it takes to stir ourselves and unfreeze what we have become into something more malleable, liquid, even free.

Of course there will always be the danger of becoming something else than what you had wanted to be (this is why we usually run back to the old). There is also the temptation to give it all up, to complain, to insist upon ourselves, to blame others, to quit. But all these struggles and inner spiritual division are undergone no one else but by your very self. We are our challenges, our desires, our dreams. Caught between the comforts of the old self and the promise of being something new, there we remain, half the same, half different. Descartes guarantees by the strength of our mental faculties that we remain the same and that we keep our identities; but experiences themselves protect us from losing our selves in the process of change by preserving ourselves as the ones who suffer the pains and joys of renewal. Even if it does not see it, the sword knows that it is both still itself and altogether different by its very experience of being melted, being struck, and being shaped by the punishing hammer. At least the sword, like the man caught between his two selves, knows it exists. In the same manner the man, unlike those who keep a safe distance from the fire, feels very much alive through his burns.


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