I usually have one of two feelings when I fly into a large city or walk through a large crowd of people. I either feel insignificant and tiny, recognizing that whatever I do will eventually fade into oblivion among a sea of billions of people. Or, I feel proud to be part of an incredible collection of brilliant and capable human beings, each experiencing the world from a unique point of view, each with our own desires and feelings, and all connected by our shared humanity. Regardless of which sensation comes to mind, both help me recognize that what is going on inside my head, the reality of the world that I have constructed for myself, is not the full scope of human experience and is nothing more than just a world inside of me. Whatever fears, doubts, plans, successes, and assumptions I have are not any more real than the same thoughts going through the millions of people that might be living in the big city that I am flying into.
Recently, an entry in Fernando Pessoa’s book, The Book of Disquiet, has given me the same type of feeling. In a section of Margaret Jull Costa’s translation, Pessoa writes about pain, and about how our pain can feel so infinite and overwhelming to us, yet at the same time be so small and insignificant within the scope of the universe. In 1933 he wrote, “To consider our greatest anguish an incident of no importance, not just in terms of the life of the universe, but in terms of our own souls, is the beginning of knowledge.” When we start to recognize that we are not the center of the universe and when we can acknowledge that the severity of our emotions and feelings do not make them more real or more important in the scope of the world, we can start to see more objectively and without a filter orienting everything around us.
“It isn’t true that life is painful or that it’s painful to think about life,” Pessoa writes, “What is true is that our pain is only as serious and important as we pretend it to be.” Anything in our lives can take on extreme meaning and value. At the same time, anything in our life can be tossed out without care. What we focus on, where we put our attention and energy, and what we decide to be important is what will become our reality. Pessoa recognized this through his extreme self reflection, and from this point he became aware of his own insignificance and how little his thoughts and desires truly mattered to the rest of the universe. Any pain that he felt is simply a pain that he felt at that moment. Any experience he had was fleeting, because he was not a permanent fixture in the universe and not something that overwhelmingly shaped the universe.
Seeing this in ourselves and becoming aware of who we are and where we exist in the world is important if we want to do the most good with the time that we have. If we choose to live completely within our own mind, then we risk living in a way where we put ourselves before all others. We will seek more and more and attempt to raise ourselves above others while decreasing the pain we feel. Alternatively, we can step outside ourselves and try to engage in the world in a way that will improve the interactions between us and everyone else. We can try to make the world a better place for other individuals to interact within, even if they are not interacting with us directly, and even if we don’t directly see a benefit to ourselves. The reason to live in this world is because it is a more accurate reflection of the reality we live within. Our brain will only ever perceive so much, and rather than making up stories about what it means, we can live in a world where we try to continually develop a more objective understanding of what we see and experience, so that we can do the most good.
Pessoa closes in writing, “Seeing myself frees me from myself. I almost smile, not because I understand myself, but because, having become other, I am no longer able to understand myself.”