I Am Not I: Philosopher Jacob Needleman on How We Become Who We Are and the Path to Self-Liberation
By Maria Popova
“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” So proclaimed Leo Tolstoy in the diaries of his youth. “I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession,” eighteen-year-old Sylvia Plath marveled in her own diary a century after Tolstoy as she contemplated free will and what makes us who we are. Indeed, these three smug lines slice through the core of our experience as human beings, and yet when we begin to dismantle them, we begin to lose sight of that core, of the essence of life. What, then, are we made of? What, then, makes us?
In I Am Not I (public library), philosopher Jacob Needleman (October 6, 1934–November 28, 2022) picks up where Tolstoy and Plath left off, and enlists more of humanity’s most wakeful minds — from Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to William James to D.T. Suzuki — in finding embrocation for, if not an answer to, these most restless-making questions of existence. Out of the inquiry itself arises an immensely hope-giving offering — a sort of secular sacrament illuminating what lies at the heart of the most profound experiences we’re capable of having: joy, love, hope, wonder, astonishment, transcendence.
Among the great questions of the human heart, none is more central than the question, “Who am I?” And among the great answers of the human spirit, none is more central than the experience of “I Am.” In fact, in the course of an intensely lived human life — a normal human life filled with the search for Truth — this question and this answer eventually run parallel to each other, coming closer and closer together until the question becomes the answer and the answer becomes the question.
Needleman first confronted this question when he was eleven years old, thanks to a neighborhood boy named Elias Barkhordian, who became his dearest childhood friend and most indefatigable comrade in intellectual inquiry. The two would sit together after school for hours on end, discussing astronomy and spirituality with equal rigor of openhearted curiosity. But it was Elias’s untimely death, as much as his short life, that catapulted Needleman’s existential puzzlements into new heights of understanding. More than half a century later, he writes:
Elias died from leukemia, at that time incurable, just before his fourteenth birthday. In the months that followed the onset of his illness, I would meet with him in the quiet music room at the back of his house, facing a large, carefully tended, sunshine-filled garden. As his illness progressed and he grew weaker, my feeling about his mind deepened. He spoke openly about what awaited him and regretted only that he would not live long enough to understand everything that he wished to understand about the universe. But somehow, doubtless because of the more frequent appearance in us of shared conscious presence, his death eventually, in the years that followed, brought me more hope than grief, the hope that arises from the “sound” of a truly sacred consciousness calling to us from within ourselves.
I see now that it is the intimation of this quality of hope that I have all along been trying to bring both to myself and to my students and readers in the face of the illusory hopes and inevitable pessimism so characteristic of our era.
To explore these questions, Needleman structures the book in the classic style of a Socratic dialogue, but modernizes and enlivens the form with the imaginative twist of staging a conversation between his childhood self, Jerry, and his present 80-year-old self, Jacob. I am reminded here of Joan Didion’s memorable quip that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not” — advice often difficult to implement as we wince at the petulance, foolishness, and hubris of our former selves, yet something Needleman accomplishes with tremendous grace, warmth, and generosity of spirit toward the imperfect, impatient boy he once was.
In one of these exchanges, Jacob articulates to Jerry the central premise of the book itself:
The struggle to exist, to not disappear in this moment, is the advancing root of the struggle to exist throughout the whole passage of time. We need to help each other in this struggle. You by asking, I by struggling to respond. This is the law of love, which rules the universe.
In another, reminiscent of Alfred Kazin’s beautiful case for embracing contradiction, Jacob exhorts Jerry:
Stay with the contradiction. If you stay, you will see that there is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.
The willingness to sit with contradiction, Needleman argues, is the beginning of true self-knowledge and of the deepest kind of truthfulness. Echoing André Gide’s assertion that sincerity is the most difficult feat of all, Jacob tells Jerry:
This is the beginning of sincerity.
Because you are struggling, your question begins to deepen… What you will discover, always for the first time, always new, in the fleeting moment of wonder — before that moment is captured by the ambitions of personality. You, I, in that moment, will discover the need to serve the energy, uniquely human and also sacred, that starts as the pure awareness of one’s own existence. And even as this idea — this beginning idea — of what is human, even as this idea of what is man, begins to appear — even in that fleeting moment of the pure awareness of my existence given now by a great idea — in that moment in front of a living idea, an awakening idea, a glimpse appears of the uniquely human yearning to serve; the need appears, the need to obey that energy, the need to attend to it, to be nourished by it, to receive the help that comes then and only then, when you are objectively obliged to give, to serve, to manifest that energy in action and understanding. It is only that energy of conscious existence that gives you, a human being, real strength. The energy that is the total awareness of one’s own existence is — or can become, can be — the strongest energy in human life.
In another exchange, Jacob steers Jerry toward the idea that acknowledging the illusoriness of free will liberates us rather than taking away our freedom. Pointing out how impossible it is to understand freedom without understanding the influences acting upon us, the laws of the universe, and the nature of reality, he considers the source of real freedom:
Ask yourself what is your understanding of the influences acting upon us — of the universal laws in nature? What are your thoughts about that? And the teachings of religion — the idea of faith, obedience to the higher, responsibility for others and oneself, the deceptions and revelations of sleep and dreaming, the very idea of man’s place in the living, breathing, sentient cosmos, our place on our planet, the demand for morality, the nature of animal instinct and intuition within us and around us, the function and the meaning of pain and pleasure, the idea and the experience of consciousness and conscience, the subtle nourishment in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the genuine and the fabricated needs and desires of the body, the powerful influences of symbols, the cosmic and intimate force of sex, the inevitability of death, the illusion and the reality of time.
Working like this, and maintaining the fundamental attitude of sincerity about yourself and your discoveries, you will become disillusioned not only with your certainties, but with the structure of your mind itself. You will realize that what you need is not new beliefs, new information, new theories, but an entirely new mind.
Such dissolution of certainty, Needleman argues, is the gateway to real freedom:
Real ideas open the mind to the heart, to the heart of the mind, to another level of reality within ourselves… This is the taste, the beginning, of inner freedom. Only fools imagine that freedom means getting what one happens to desire. Real freedom begins with obedience to a higher influence — a higher, finer energy within oneself.
What is higher in yourself? That way of thinking about the question is the beginning of the answer — because it involves a real idea which has been handed down to humanity over thousands of years… At such a point you yourself will find the answer — not as a thought, but as an experience.
You will for a moment become the answer! You will not only have a taste of real freedom; you will for a moment be freedom.
How to cultivate such a capacity for self-erasure in the service of self-transcendence and self-liberation is what Needleman goes on to explore in the remainder of the thoroughly elevating and illuminating I Am Not I. Complement it with Aldous Huxley on the divine within, astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, and philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of identity in literature and life, then revisit Plato and the perplexity of free will.
Published October 12, 2016