What is your First Thing?

“Everybody worships” or so says David Foster Wallace. I think he might be right. I have tried thinking round this one, but at some point a human life is based in a fundamental idea or grounded in a basic way of seeing/deciding how to act in the world. A lot of our actions and ideas are conflicting and might not follow from this First Thing, but when we are conscious about our thinking, there is a single principle which will underpin all the rest. I know some folk will say there we should weight up and balance ideas against each other so that we don’t have a single fundamental principle; but in this case the fundamental principle is “weighing up and balance” (or maybe something deeper which leads to this).

So what? I am tempted to say that a lot of people actually know what their first thing is, even if it does not come out in conversation very much (which of you have discussed this question in the work canteen, for instance?) And I also think that this first thing is often not the one we tell ourselves it is. I’m not sure why we prefer to tell ourselves rather than listen to ourselves but maybe listening takes too much energy (in the scientific sense of energy – the human brains takes a lot of energy to work, especially if that requires deep thinking and genuine observation rather than the use of time-saving heuristics). Maybe we would understand ourselves better if we listened to what our First Thing is, at least then we would know who we are dealing with, and that seems like a preferable being in the dark.

Another question is whether we can change our First Thing. In our current age of self-definition, it is tempting to say, “Of course, I can be who I want to be”. But who do “I” want to be and why? The person I want to be will undoubtedly be formed in large part by my First Thing, and so any attempt to change our First Thing will most likely be just an expression of a more fundamental principle in our life/thinking rather than a genuine change of that most fundamental principle for us. It would be rather like climbing down a tree to climb another and thinking that where you are standing has fundamentally changed, but of course both trees are rooted in the same Earth. More on this later, first we need to address another question.

Are there better/worse First Things? Unsurprisingly, it depends upon what you mean by better. I think that one type of moral relativism is unavoidable; even in a Universe with a divine law-maker, each of us can choose to agree with those divine laws or reject them – we have that choice. If we want to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven, then rejecting divine law is “better” even if it results in hell. However, if we use better/worse in the classical moral sense (something like that behaviour which works with the structure of reality to lead to the optimal delayed gratification both individually and societally) then it would seem that there are better First Things, in fact there must be a “best” First Thing: that which produces the most moral (in the classical sense) life. Alas, we are beginning to just swap trees again, UNLESS this best First Thing is underneath and able to explain and encompass our current First Thing. If so, rather than just bolting new/different ideas on top of our life, we are finding the deeper reality which can sustain/explain our current First Thing by undergirding it. This “best” First Thing is the one that is able to underpin all the others. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the waking world explains and encompasses the dream world and so is more real.

Back to thinking about whether can our First Thing ever change? Here there be dragons and I don’t have a sword. But maybe a pointy stick is better than nothing. If our First Thing can change and given we cannot change our own First Thing, it would require some outside influence. Simple influence will not be enough though, as our First Thing shapes the grid through which we understand our experience and so mere external influence would just change the outer layers of our selves/thinking. If our First Thing is to change, then whatever is outside us must be genuinely “other” and able to create a new state of being that would be so different that you are no-longer you any more. This change would be so profound that only talk of life and death is suitable. Clearly, physical death could create this change by obliterating you; major trauma to the brain could possibly do this also, in fact, friends and relatives often report that so-and-so has already died in some cases of dementia, or that so-and-so is no-longer the same person after a bad car crash. This sort of change is leading away from the “best” First Thing, as death mocks our values and desires rather than undergirding them and explaining them. So much for death, what about life? Death/decay can change our First Thing, but is there anything which can change it through life? This would be like being given a new life, having a new birth as it were, and is more likely to lead to the “best” First Thing. Finally, it seems, my slip is showing as we have quite clearly wandered into the realm of the religious. This is an often misunderstood category nowadays, because I am not talking about church services and cathedrals, but neither am I talking about personal spirituality (though the religious could encompass both of these things). Rather, I am talking about a genuine encounter with the Absolute. This is dangerous business: when Jacob (finally) encountered God in the Book of Genesis, they fought all night, and it left Jacob with a life-long disability. Crucially for our discussion, though, this fight left Jacob with a new name – a new self. I am increasingly convinced that only a genuine encounter with the Divine is enough to give new life, to bring our First Thing in line with reality: everything else is either death or tree swapping.

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