“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport”
Gloucester in King Lear, Act 4, Scene 1: William Shakespeare
The end of a person’s life is the end of the most diaphanous of this world’s creations. That one person’s death can be felt to end so abruptly, so cruelly, so unjustly and that it can devastate so completely is something that only persons can experience. No other animal, no plant, no other process in nature can respond to the death of a person the way we (other persons) do – with such subtle yet overwhelming, aching pain.
What is it to be – as we all are – these fragile events called persons? Why is the loss of one so deeply experienced by another?
The answers are surprisingly close and readily available to all of us.
When news of the twenty-nine trapped miners was first reported to those not directly involved in the tragedy that’s all we knew: Twenty-nine miners on the West Coast. Then we heard the stories, the details of their lives. As we heard about how they were brothers, fathers, sons and partners they began to transform for us into the beginnings of apparitions of persons.
Then, tragic details emerged – the teenager who had pushed to start working at the Pike Coal mine a day earlier than his mother planned, the day after his 17th birthday, all part of his efforts to turn his life into something worthwhile; the man who looked forward to being a father. Their names were released and their photos appeared – smiling faces, serious looks, quirky expressions. The sense of their personhoods grew in us.
To their families and friends they were already complete persons. What does that mean? It means they not only had relationships and connections with others but they also had lives, biographies, populated with our world, the world of other persons: The schools they went to, the towns and countries they grew up in, the years they were born, the previous places they worked, the incomes they earned, the pubs they drank at and sat talking with their friends, the sports grounds they played on.
Beyond that, their families and friends knew their achievements, their embarrassments, the episodes they’d rather forget but which others wouldn’t let them forget, their senses of humour or lack of, their voices, their tempers, their swearing, their sensitivity. Others close to them would know of their past and their hopes, if any. They’d know of their distress and their stresses, their interests and their intense dislikes. They’d know – or think they knew – whether they’d come to much or to nothing, whether they had dark secrets or were an open book.
These are parts of being a person.
Notice what all of these elements are: Social and social psychological features. A person, to quote from Personal Being, a book by the philosopher and social psychologist Rom Harre (1983), is a “socio-cultural artefact”. Put baldly like that, it might not seem like the kind of warm, breathing, feeling being we know we are but that’s exactly what it indicates. In his philosophical wording, persons are individuals identified by their position in a ‘social array’.
Let’s put flesh on that. Actually, we already have. The schools, the places they lived in, the pubs they drank at, the embarrasments, the relationships, the secrets, the temper outbursts, the hopes, the achievements. These are the ‘rows and columns’ of the social array. All of these only make sense to other persons – they mean nothing to ants, mountains and galaxies.
That’s how we pick each other out. Those social and social psychological facts and notions are the ‘coordinates’ that also help us to pick ourselves out – and to distinguish ourselves from others, to make us unique individuals.
We learn (yes, ‘learn’) to become persons by taking these social pieces and forming them into what Harre calls the ‘personal unities’: The unity of our biography (the story of our lives); the unity of our consciousness (that, when I wake up each morning I pick up and accept ownership of my memories and experiences of the previous day – or moment); the unity of our agency (what I do to and with others and what I do in the world I accept – or am given by others – responsibility for).
As Harre (1983, p. 20) puts it, “the fundamental human reality is a conversation, effectively without beginning or end, to which, from time to time, individuals make contributions”. And, “All that is personal in our mental and emotional lives is individually appropriated from the conversation going on around us and perhaps idiosyncratically transformed.” (p. 20).
It is this ‘conversation’ that is more than just words but is a description of the web of meanings within which we act, think and feel that quite literally makes persons possible, gives rise to us, creates us and binds us together. It is our common inheritance. It is the sea we swim in. It unites us at a level we take completely for granted most of the time but it coordinates what we do together, it makes sense of our individual plans and goals (in fact, it provides us with the possibilities of those plans and goals).
This is not a metaphor, it is a literal account (and I know what the word ‘literal’ means). This ‘conversation’ is the medium of our existence as persons. Without it we simply don’t come into being as persons. We are still, of course, human beings with an impressive array of emotional responses and cognitive abilities, but without this conversation we are not beings with the biographies and the comprehensive ‘unities’ that give us that unheralded moral, emotional and intellectual experience of life.
It is only because of this meaningful ‘conversation’ that we operate within what Harre calls a ‘moral order’, a set of obligations, emotions and responses that truly make us the ‘moral animal‘. It is this conversation that is the portal to grieve for a life that abruptly ends, to sense deeply the injustice and to comprehend and experience the emptiness a person’s life leaves behind.
When a person dies they cease to take part in that conversation. Those who survive often try to continue the conversation but – as has been said again and again over the past days – there is a ‘gap’, a ‘hole’ that cannot be filled. It is this silence – the lack of a response, of a laugh, a grumpy retort, a smile – that is so devastating.
But, the conversation is “effectively without beginning or end”. It continues, this fabric from which each of us emerge and disperse back into. It unifies all our lives through its meanings and is the most salient reminder that we are, literally, factually all one.
It is no coincidence that the Gospel of John (1:1) begins:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
That insight is finding new voice in a thoroughly naturalistic account of personal being. It asserts the priority of meaning and meaningfulness over the despairing notions of meaninglessness and cosmic indifference. For personal being, there is “effectively no beginning or end”.
They remain with us and we with them – unavoidably.