I have a friend who’s dying—but don’t we all?
There on his wall, from the photos of his memories
we stare back: him/you/me—all of us, ones among many,
emergent from chaos, unpredictable yet bound,
looping up from within and flinging ourselves forward,
ever forward, remade in each and every labored breath—
until, I suppose, we can’t or don’t
although I still believe we do, even then.

But I’m tired of all this indecision
so ‘yes,’ say I: slice me apart, knock me down
and slap me up there on that wall—
let’s have a grand old look at this me of mine!
Surely I am more than the observant self,
a story I fabricate the while,
effect and cause, more deceiving than perceiving
bleeding before the cut.
Do not talk to me of actions and reactions,
I want to make that slice all by myself and do it to the bone.
If I am not the me I think I am, then who in God’s name am I?

A dear friend who was, when I first conceived of this poem, dying, has since passed on to his richly deserved reward in the next world. He was a dear man, a dedicated Bahá’í and the patriarch of a large and loving family. However, while Who? was inspired one evening as we were visiting him at his hospice and I was looking at the pictures of his life that his family had lovingly taped to the wall above him, it is not about him. Perhaps that poem is yet to be written.

The question of free will is of great importance to me. I had been reading Michael Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge (highly recommended, by the way) and the issue was, and remains, much in my mind. This is the issue: where does the physical, deterministic brain end and the sense of the ephemeral self start? Where does this illusive ‘me’ come from? Who, as the title says, is in charge? The ‘me’ I think I am, or is it all hard wired in a subtle, but pre-set, brain?

You may think this an idle question, but it is not. Neuroscientests have, for example, shown that the area of your brain responsible for the motor control of raising your arm is excited before the area of your brain that makes the conscious decision to do the action is activated.  Is then, this ‘me’ I know an after thought? A construction of the brain to explain my own behavior?

This is a very scientific question with great spiritual ramifications. Free will is the very pith of the religious experience. It’s absence brings into doubt the structure of the whole spiritualization process, so answering this question is essential. For my part, I still believe in free will but confess that I am intrigued by the subtlety and complexity of how it comes about…an issue about which there is, as yet, no clear consensus, only much conjecture. But, as this poem proves,  the ‘me’ in me cannot stop thinking about it!

Thank you for reading Who? I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.


© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.



Filed under Poetry

5 responses to “Who?

  1. Love the poem and particularly your comments. These are questions that have beset me as long as I can remember, John.

    • Denise, thank you! It is nice to hear that I am not the only one who is bothered by such issues. At least they don’t keep me a awake anymore. Much, anyway. 🙂

  2. John,
    Now you have excited my brain! I am glad that neuroscience still has questions it can’t answer because I wonder if the “who we are” even lives in the brain. There is, after all, brain cells throughout our entire being – including the heart. I adore this poem, and this line “let’s have a grand old look at this me of mine” is breathtaking! I would love to hear more about your writing process, how you work the poem up, how long it usually takes you and how you know when you are done. Is it ever really done? Thank you for getting me thinking.

    • Forty, thank you so much for your positive reaction to ‘who?’ And I agree: questions of who we are and how the ‘we’ get to be ‘us’ are fascinating. As to how I develop my poems, to be honest, I am forever amazed that anyone is interested. I write so very slowly and, I think, so haphazardly that I am almost embarrassed to describe the process. Perhaps it is like the old joke about a train wrecking itself: it’s an ugly process but who can look away? I am getting to think that I have to do a post about it and see how much hilarity I can cause. 🙂 But again, thank you for the positive feedback!

      • John,
        That sounds a tad similar to my writing style. If you could see a post I am working on now, you would think it was just a mess of words. They make no sense and have not yet found there places. They will, in time – I hope! I look forward to your post where I can wander about in your brain a little 😉