Miguel de Unamuno and the Convective Self
In this post:
Impressions about a famous essay and where the truth might actually live. Hint: almost everywhere.
I first read the essay ¡Adentro! by Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo in college, as part of an elective introductory course in logic.
The essay starts with the phrase “In interiore hominis habitat veritas,” which loosely translates to "Truth lives inside men.” And presumably inside women as well.
The essay is in the form of a letter written by Unamuno to a young friend—real or imaginary, it was never clear to me—who was pondering the meaning and direction of his life and trying to make plans for his future. The mental exercises of this young unnamed friend, as guessed from Unamuno’s essay, reveal doubt, despondency, and a desire for stability which are natural under many circumstances that make people question their life choices. Unamuno encourages his friend to be spontaneous, to listen to his inner voice, to throw out the plans, and ignore the noise and the judgment of others. Many of those things I have been trying to do with various degrees of success ever since I knew myself to be a creature with a differentiated existence from my mother. Of course, all of this spoke to my young person-self. There were, however, two quotes that particularly resonated with me back then and which have stayed in the back of my memory for all of these years:
(1) “¡Nada de plan previo, que no eres edificio!” Forget about planning, you are not a building!
Back then, this declaration of spontaneity felt revelatory, profound. Now, with all those years of experience and knowing that making plans is half the fun of many an endeavor, I don’t think that I agree with it anymore. I like nothing better than a nice to-do list that guides me through complicated days and makes me feel like a winner every time I cross something off it. I love my plans, I love my outlines and my lists. Something has shifted with the flow of my life.
(2) And the longest one, the clinch line: “Vas saliendo de ti mismo, revelándote a ti propio; tu acabada personalidad está al fin y no al principio de tu vida; sólo con la muerte se te completa y corona.” You are going out of yourself, revealing yourself to yourself; your completed personality is found at the end, not at the beginning of your life; only with death you are completed and crowned.
It is a beautiful and inspiring essay, and I encourage each and every one of you to check it out by following the link at the end of this post. Alas! I don’t know of any English translation, but maybe one of you will be able to find it.
Which brings me to that feeling of being an incomplete person; I don’t mean in a negative way; perhaps, incomplete is not the right term. What I mean is neuroplasticity is real; you can and should teach new tricks to an old dog. Turns out it is good for the dog, for people too, keeps the mind supple and helps prevent dementia. But that is not what I mean either. Life is like a book in the process of being written: as long as it is unfinished, each chapter can be changed and polished, re-written. There is no such a thing as destiny.
Back to Unamuno’s famous essay, the first time I read it when I got to the part “your finished personality is found at the end not at the beginning of your life; only with death you are completed and crowned,” it was like a light bulb went off inside my head, it helped me put many things in perspective. And now that I am not so young and shiny, I need to be reminded of that sensation. Accept change, accept flow, accept the particular topic of each individual chapter in your life and value each one for exactly what it is.
The world is like an infinite fluid, big currents, undertows, a sauce that is mixed and re-mixed. What I am and what I will be is in constant flux, drawing energy from the depth of my psyche and the myriad flashing neurons in my mind. The truth lives inside the woman, the man, the non-binary, the all of the above. Which truth anyway? Whichever; you’ll know it when you’ll find it.