By Vince M. Ragay
The one thing that separates humans from animals and inanimate objects is sentience — the state of being conscious or of being self-aware. We know we exist and we know what we are and what we can do, to a certain degree. Education, in essence, involves simply unraveling our sentience. Everything we can learn about our environment and about others in turn aids in our comprehension of ourselves.
We look at ourselves foremost as the center of our very being – if not of the Universe. We feel and experience life through our five senses and our unique ability to integrate all the information they provide us into a total, personal picture of life.
Writers and artists spend their lives encapsulating specific aspects of their individual perspectives of the human experience to give us a deeper appreciation of that of our own. As social beings then, we come to form a collective view of life; that is, a communal sentience that allows us to behave and work as a community and not as separate individuals.
The family has always provided the basic unit for shoring up society. From within that solid atomic foundation, the stability of the nation is built up and made sure. We can find no other design for human survival. If we totter on the brink of global disaster, it is because we have undermined that human foundation.
The criminals who roam our streets came from families that failed to provide strong moral beginnings. The many businessmen and politicians who raid private and public treasuries arose mainly from wealthy clans who have inherited profligate lifestyles and centuries of colonial superiority. The terrorists who sow fear among nations came from ancient tribes that failed to develop tolerance of other peoples and cultures.
Society’s progress emanates from the family. And progress starts with one person learning to acquire a workable concept of the world starting from home. The great ancient civilizations survived as long as they retained their home-grown ideals, whatever form of governance they may have adopted.
Such was the case of Edison and other inventors who conceived of a modern civilization illuminated and powered by electricity and all the technological conveniences it can generate. They knew they had it in them to come up with solutions to what were previously considered inescapable physical burdens or curses of humans.
For instance, the Kinetograph or motion picture camera that Edison experimented on eventually took away the expense and the physical requirement of having to travel thousands of kilometers in order for people to see other parts of the world – the ancient pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China and the majestic peaks of Mt. Everest. Beyond that, it allows us to see and appreciate the cultures of previously secluded tribes and nations in their real-time splendor or squalor. Whereas, before we imagined peoples and places only through the writings of Kipling, Verne and Conrad or the paintings of Van Gogh, El Greco and Rubens, we could now virtually and vicariously experience what real adventurers go through.
Like a camera that can see almost everything there is to see but cannot see itself, we previously had no clear vision of ourselves as one global family until we looked into the mirror; that is, through the lives of others. Our neighbors reflected our own humanity – our own nobility and our own sinfulness, our own ideals and our own weaknesses.
Today, we see life clearly in its countless colors and nuances through the works of excellent filmmakers and other visual artists. Their craft mirrors all the possibilities and impossibilities that humans can and cannot perform. It is a field unlimited by any physical or even spiritual laws.
Depending on one’s experience, passion or delight, a film can be a mirror of joy or a mirror of agony. A mirror of courage or of infamy. A mirror of hope or of surrender. Think of all the movies you have ever seen and you can tell the kind of mirror the silver screen became. And the screen became us. As the screen is, so are we. Every movie then is a product of sentience. And it follows, every movie is a tool for developing or debasing sentience.
How many times have you seen kids coming out of action movies imitating their heroes’ looks, movements and even exploits? How many have turned to desperate deeds after seeing movies that took away their last hope for clinging to life or sanity? How often have we asked ourselves why life could be so fragile after seeing movies that chronicle human tragedies?
Thus, we now come to realize we know only a miniscule portion of what there is to know and to comprehend. For with everything that we see, we still cannot solve the same problems that plagued civilizations centuries before us – war, sickness, hatred, corruption, violence and death. Or is it because we refuse to see our real selves and thus fail to perfect our sentience, if that were possible?
The mirror has power to tell us who we are and who we are not. Even the ugliest person never stops looking into the mirror, if only to get assurance that nothing has turned to the worse. Or he does so in order to improve his appearance. In the same manner, movies have the immense power to make us better than what we are.
For all we know, humans have been given the power of self-awareness in order to tell us that we have the unlimited ability to know more than what we know now and to achieve more than what we already have. Is it beyond thought that perhaps what we know as life is more than what we know of it?
Art — and science as well and, for that matter, all of human knowledge — will continue to develop until we cease to ask what we truly are. For now, we enjoy as much as we can the task of discovering ourselves as we look into the mirror of life.