John Locke, the British philosopher, not the character in the TV series “Lost,” is more popularly known for his theory of tabula rasa, or blank slate, as a metaphor for his empirical epistemological beliefs — that how we know what we know is the result of sensory perception, not, as his nemesis Descartes supposed, the result of clear and distinct ideas obtained through the reasoning processes of the mind.
This is not about Locke and empiricism, but a starting point for suggesting story (book) as a metaphor for our lives. From the point of view of Locke’s empiricism, we are born with our minds essentially a blank slate, on which our experiences, as a result of our sensory encounters with the world out there, is how we know what we know, so that what we know is an accumulation of experiences in which we turn simple ideas into more complex ideas by combining them, by generalizing, and abstracting.
Let me simplify without, I hope, trivializing this idea for the purpose of making my point about life as a book.
We are born with our minds essentially empty of sensory experience — empty pages. From that moment on we gain knowledge about ourselves and the world we find ourselves plopped into instant by instant, with each and every sensory encounter with life.
So, I will say, the better our abilities of perception and the more our exposure to experiences, the more we know, and this implies the more we are capable of understanding.
We are “smarter” when we are five years old than we were when we were two; smarter when we are twenty than when we were ten; smarter when we are forty than when we were twenty … . This is how youth is wasted on the young. When we are, barring misfortune, healthier, stronger, more energetic, and physically more attractive, we are deficient in the experience department; by the time we accumulate and synthesize enough of life’s possible experiences to acquire a certain wisdom, the rest is crumbling. (One of a malevolent God’s nasty little jokes on us.)
So we begin our lives with a book of blank pages, the number of pages capable of expanding with need, onto which we write our story. That story is going to be as expansive, as interesting and profound, reflecting the nature and content of our experience — our sensory encounters with the world.
The more you do, the more you see, the wider you range, the more you have for the book. Some of us pass through our short years and end up with a ten-page chapbook containing little more than bare data. Some will need many volumes to contain the worlds and things they know, the ideas their experiences generate.
The quality of your book is the quality of your life. And you cannot do any editing. Once a page is written, you cannot go back and change it. The younger you are when you come to understand this, the more likely you are to pay more attention to how you spend your days. You will have learned that being open to experience, willing to encounter the world as your own personal fountain of knowledge, finding nothing alien to you, is going to make a better story, the story of your life.
If it’s going to be this long, make it good.