It is said to be somewhat common to remember one’s first moment of self-awareness, usually around the age of two or three, which can be described in some sense as an awakening. It is a moment not so much of seeing the world outside oneself for the first time, but seeing oneself as outside the world; that is, the world that can suddenly be delineated by what it is not—it is not me. We are suddenly aware that we have been carved out of being as a being among otherness. It is an experience at which point self-transcendence and self-awareness, objectivity and subjectivity, become one identical moment, in shared location. It is the moment we discover, I am not, therefore I am.
Rare is it, however, for one to remember the first moment of becoming aware of one’s own mortality. This is perhaps because life in some sense is organized as a long attempt to forget that particular memory, haunting and heavy as it is. To happen upon one’s own death in the imagination is that sound in the dark that we prefer to hide from than confront, for ignorance shall set us free. If we do approach the subject of death, we typically insulate ourselves from it, putting up certain glass walls in order to see it at a safe distance, which can become a thing of habit with increasing degrees of intensity—from the insect under the magnifying glass to characters behind a screen to the first time seeing what’s left of the car on the side of the road, and staring as intently as humanly possible. It is a most curious thing to be a creature whose experience is plagued with an awareness of the negation of all experience. Eventually, we will have to explore our memories of death, but first we have to remember being alive.
I remember that first moment with living clarity. It is the memory of a kind of still-shot from life that isn’t perfectly still. It is a single image but not a frozen image, a moment in which everything is at rest, choosing to stay still. It is in the kitchen of the parsonage in which I grew up. It is summertime and the house is filled with sunlight. I have sunk into the embrace of my mother, who is wearing a white apron checkered with an abundance of small, red budding flowers. My head is turned to the side, staring into the future that is me staring into the past. I cannot escape my own gaze without tampering with the memory, and even then it is not really pliable like others. So long as I’m thinking about it, it’s there, and even now as I try to change it, it lingers out of reach, not because it is too distant but too immediate. It is a qualitatively unique memory. I’m not even sure that it qualifies as pure memory.
First of all, I cannot be sure that it is the memory of an actual moment, although I think it is. But I do not remember it as the distinct moment I became self-aware, as though in the moment I self-consciously made such a judgment. The reason for the association is that it is my earliest memory, but more than that it is the only memory I have from which I unable to maintain any clear objective distance. It is the starting point of my selfhood which extends into the present and intends a particular future. When I reflect on it, I and the boy staring back at me in the image can have no dialogue, because I and the boy have remained one from that moment, or at least in the memory of the moment. That moment which belongs to my past refuses to die in the present. It insists on belonging to the present. The boy back then is always the identical subject that I am now. This is the memory of subjectivity itself. I remember, therefore I am.
I imagine it would be an obscure inquiry to pursue, but I cannot help but wonder about the particularities among others who have a memory of becoming aware of themselves. I should at least remark, if only as a token of gratitude, that I consider myself fortunate to have a living memory of myself as one who exists in the embrace of love. It is indeed an accurate representation of my mother, but it also perhaps speaks to the capacity of love to awaken one into awareness.
A mother’s love is the most unique love in all creation. Love, in essence, requires both a giver and receiver. In its truest form it is the mutually identical self-donation and trusting reception of two or more persons. But the mother can both give and receive love on behalf of her child. She is the open recipient (ideally) of her husband’s love, the receipt of which has the potential of taking on a life of its own in the child. A child is thus formed in a woman’s act of openness to the possibility of receiving a life within her own body. In the event that child does form, her body begins loving her child automatically, sharing nutrients, hydration, blood. But even after birth this dynamic continues, of course physically by nursing but so too with the empathy that bonds her to the child and carries the child forever in the womb of her heart.
So I am not surprised, given the mother that I have, that this should be the memory of the life I awoke to as a child—because it is the womb in which I was formed as a child. Love always extends itself to its object in a way that communicates an awareness of its object’s subjectivity. Empathy is precisely that, the capacity of an intersubjective awareness of life. It is indeed the life created in the image of the Triune God. But it is also a life that will eventually be confronted with an awareness of death.