We human beings have a unique ability to live in stories about ourselves and about life, rather than directly in life itself.
In this way we are unlike almost every other kind of entity we come across. Trees, stones, cats, and ants can each only be themselves. But we are always in the midst of a particular interpretation of life. We’re rarely just ourselves in some straightforward and unmediated way.
It is this capacity to interpret and to invent our own identity that has allowed the astonishing diversity and creativity of human life. We are not bound to live in a particular way, as ants or trees are, fixed by our physiology. We invent tools, clothes, technology, roles, structures for living together, buildings, and the stories and interpretations to make sense of them. We can inhabit remote and hostile environments as hunter-gatherers and as astronauts. We can be musicians and engineers, soldiers and artists, CEOs and scientists. We can take up roles and forms handed to us by others – how to parent, or work, or run a government – and invent radically new ones, so that the forms of human life available to us today are substantially different from those available even a century ago.
Interpreting ourselves is right at the centre of our lives. We can hardly be human without it. And because of this we can choose interpretations which are more or less expressive of our essential qualities: and hence lives that are more or less us-like.
We can choose to live close in to our lives, allowing what seems truest about ourselves its expression in the world. And we can choose to live far, far away from ourselves – denying, distorting, or distancing ourselves from what seems most essentially, fully us.
And making this choice – what kind of life to really live – is our unique human capacity too.