“My guess is it probably started somewhere between twenty-five and seventy-five thousand years ago, when Homo Neanderthal was gradually being replaced across the globe by us, Homo Sapiens.”
The old man was sitting cross-legged in the center of the room. He had grey hair and shining youthful eyes. We sat around him on the floor and in chairs.
“When did that crude or masterfully wrought scratching on the ground, the cave floor or wall become lodged in our ancestor’s burgeoning brains? When did that certain sequence of gutturals come to represent a certain object, say wooly mammoth or wild bison, and become lodged alongside those proto-scrawls and form the initial building blocks of thought? Who knows.”
“Humankind, the tool-maker; and what greater tool was ever invented than language? It brought a different sense of order to the external world than had previously been experienced. It enclosed objects, bounded them up into easily manipulatable and communicable signs and… ideas. Look around at what we’ve accomplished using those tools first fashioned so long ago!”
“However, having said that, who is not aware of all the anguished searching and questing for meaning and enlightenment taking place today? Who is oblivious to the impasse we seem to have collectively reached today in our understanding of the world and more importantly of ourselves?”
“Ahh, my friends,” he said, gazing warmly around the room, “it’s all in the tyranny of the tools. All in those all-powerful bounding, circumscribing word and sign and idea instruments.”
“Take ourselves, for instance. We peer out and see others, get to know them, put a name to them: they become bounded and fixed. ‘You’ve changed,’ becomes a pejorative, an accusation. And then look in the mirror and what do we see? Ourselves, but wrapped subtly yet inexorably—inextricably— in the idea we hold of ourselves. What lengths we go to escape… who we are, who we’ve become. What struggles–what agonies–to leave the notion of ourselves we cherish or simply cling to behind.”
“Earlier I said that for Homo Sapiens those nascent word and sign and idea tools would have brought a different sense of order to the external world; it is that different sense of order that need be transcended. And the transcending of that different sense of order has always and ever been the goal of spirituality, religion, and the quest for wisdom and enlightenment.”
He fell silent. Then, after a space of time, stood and departed our little circle, leaving us quiet and alone… with ourselves.