Descartes and the Killer Bees

(The original, much longer, version of this post first appeared on a couple of weeks ago. My heartfelt thanks to Lauren for publishing it.)

René Descartes is regarded by many as the father of modern western philosophy. For most of us, he boils down to a single, famous phrase:

Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

A whole bunch people, however, seem to operate on a variation of this theme. Let’s call them – humour me on this – the Killer Bees. They don’t think, they really don’t want to think. That’s the last thing they want to do. No, their being depends upon something else:

Videor, ergo sum (I am seen, therefore I am).

Equally important to them is the flip side:

Non videor, ergo non sum (I am not seen, therefore I am not).

One of the hallmarks of dysfunctional people is “splitting” – the simplistic belief that things are either completely wonderful or completely dreadful. Anything more ambivalent than that is just too difficult to deal with.

For our Killer Bees, this habit of splitting combines with the above dictum in a catastrophic way. They can admit only two possibilities – either the whole world is watching them and thus they are alive or no-one at all is watching them so, arrrrgh!, they cease to exist.

Given that very terrifying choice, which one would you go for? A Killer Bee sees no real option but to cling desperately to the belief that every single person in the world is watching them for every second of the day. It’s either that or existential obliteration.

This belief requires that – consciously or not – they beat down any aptitude for empathy that they may have. Iris Murdoch (who was a philosopher before she was a novelist) nailed this when she said, “Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.”

The writer and actor, Jessica Hynes, recently said the much same thing in a slightly different way. In a Guardian interview, she was asked what love feels like. Her answer? “Like being seen.”

I take some issue with Murdoch’s statement as a definition of love. As a definition of empathy, however, it’s absolutely bang on.

The proper acknowledgement of other people’s autonomy and identity is a highly evolved function – one that many seem unwilling to develop, on the very understandable grounds that it would deprive them of a great deal of secondary gain.

A Killer Bee cannot afford to acknowledge that anyone else is real. Even those – especially those – they purport to love the most. Other people are merely robots whose only function is to watch the Bee and thereby preserve them from extinction.

What the watch-bots simply cannot be allowed, is any independent thought or action or troubles of their own. That would mean they might stop watching the Bee for a while and then the Bee would cease to exist.

For a Killer Bee, it really is that simple – and that important.

The trouble is, of course, that while they are basking in your unwavering regard, they manage never to realise that it’s supposed to work both ways – there’s that lack of empathy again. So if love is being seen, then the partner or child or significant other of a Killer Bee never gets any.

Non videor, ergo non sum.



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