Wrenching the Border from Our Soul

The idea of an essential ‘me’ fenced apart from the rest distorts our vision of ourselves

Johnny R. O'Neill


A montage of images, all of various types of wrenches
Wrenches (images gathered from Wikimedia Commons)

— Adapted from the book, ‘Life, the Universe, God, and All That Stuff’ (2018)

Imagine a wrench. (If you’re having trouble, look at the pictures above, each is of a wrench.) Such a simple thing. Essential for tightening and loosening stuff like bolts. But is a wrench always ‘a wrench’?

A wrench in the hands of a mechanic is undoubtedly a wrench. But is a wrench framed and displayed in an art gallery a wrench, or is it art? Is a wrench lost in orbit around the planet a ‘wrench’? Can you turn a nut with it?

We tend to think of ourselves as possessing, of being, an essence, a soul inside a human body. The human body may change. The circumstances of life the human body finds itself in may change, but that kernel of being, that essence that we are? It doesn’t change.

And yet…

When did you become no longer a child, but an adolescent? Or a full-fledged adult? If you are now a parent, didn’t that change you, your very outlook on life? Or does that still not cut through to the soul of you?

Does a wrench have an essence?

Courtesy of Wikipedia, we have the following: ‘A wrench or spanner is a tool used to provide grip and mechanical advantage in applying torque to turn objects — usually rotary fasteners, such as nuts and bolts.’

That, we might agree, is the essence of a wrench; it turns stuff. And that essence is always the essence despite the reality of the world around the wrench.

So, while a wrench alone in orbit may well be space debris, it still has that essence. It is a wrench that, being in orbit around the Earth, is also space debris. And that makes sense.

But, interestingly, you’ll never hear a mechanic asking for any ol’ wrench. They want a particular wrench. They need a 5/16” box end wrench or a six-point, 13mm, deep socket wrench. That’s the kind of thing they’ll ask for.

In that sense, wrenches are a bit like people. Because when’s the last time you heard someone ask for a ‘human’? For a doctor, yes, a cook, a maid, a mechanic, a gardener…

But a ‘human’?

I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. But if you define yourself as possessing, somewhere, some essential ‘kernel of being,’ a soul that exists independently of the circumstances of your everyday reality, that changes not a whit from birth to death, that defines you and guides you and speaks of your true self, then what you are doing, by so defining, is like stripping away the particulars of a wrench and calling it a tool that turns nuts.

The more loosely you define yourself so that the ‘essence’ of you defines you in any and all situations, as a child, a teen, a young adult, student, friend, spouse, parent, then the less ‘you’ you become.

14mm socket wrenches aren’t 13mm box wrenches, and ‘teenage you’ isn’t ‘parent you.’

Yes? No?

But, perhaps paradoxically, I’m not saying you don’t have an essence. I’m not saying you don’t have a soul.

There is more to this story…

As we go about our lives, don’t we define ourselves — and don’t others define us — in terms of where we live, where we work, who we associate with, what we wear, what we drive, the ‘context’ of our lives? What church we frequent? What ethnicity we are? What side of a political line in the sand we were born on? Even how big our bank account is?

And if that’s the case, if others are defining us, if we are defining ourselves, in terms of our context, then, where is the border between me, my essence, and that which is not me, outside my essence?

Where is the border?

A sunset over the Pacific Ocean, the feeling of it, is that not part of me? The joy of a laughing toddler? The warm hug of an old friend? The leaves of autumn on shaded country roads? The lights of the big city? Concerts in the park, ice cream, lazy bike rides, watching kids’ movies with a kid? Seeing the Milky Way on a clear, moonless night from a small ship’s rocking fantail, underway on the Caribbean Sea…

Are they not me? Are they not part of me, part of who and what I am? Does the essence of me NOT include those things?

Because where is the border between me, and not me?

When we look for our essence, when we gaze into ourselves searching for our soul, asking, who am I! What shall I do! Where am I to go!

What are we gazing at?

We are gazing at our soul and our soul, that thing which lights us from the inside out, it doesn’t have a border.

That soul, that essence, it’s the focused energy of all we are, all that we know, all we have experienced, the entirety of the universe focused on us, being us. Each individually.

Between me and not me there is no border at all.