Dr Jordi Dalmau i Carre. MD

The Life Encounter

When Newton looked at the phenomena of light in order to uncover its nature, through his experiments with prisms and refraction he produced colours and formed his theory of the colour composition of light, but in reality what he did was to develop optics. Goethe, on the other hand, looked at light in order to understand the phenomena of how colours come about, and realised that colours appear in the encounter between light and darkness. Colours are a characteristic of the encounter of light with its opposite – darkness – not of light alone.

Like colours, life is in the encounter with creation. We need to encounter light in order to develop eyesight. If during the first six months of life a baby were kept in the dark, it would be blind. Light brings light and life brings life. The encounter is inherent to life, anything alive is bound to it. In Heidegger’s terminology, it is the claim of being-ness-as-such.

The closest statement that can be made about ourselves is that the self is a locus-of-existence, a place from which we have the experience of being-in-the-world as a singular individual. Right after birth, when the first independent breath has been breathed, the first colours, as it were, brought by this first encounter with the world, shine on the bare landscape of the non-conscious self of the newborn. That first experience will be coloured by the coldness of the room outside the mother’s womb and the emptiness inside the infant’s stomach. The newborn does not have any conscious awareness of itself yet, but has a rudimentary pre-self, more like a biological sense of self, structured as a system we call Homeostasis, which takes care of the child. Homeostasis (Gk. ‘similar state’) is the most sophisticated ‘biological software’ ever created, set up in order to control and sustain the internal stability of the human body automatically. This biological awareness is the first level of identity as such – a proto-self.

It is this proto-self which senses the coldness outside the womb and makes the child shiver and feel cold; it also senses the reduction of sugar in the bloodstream and makes the child feel empty. When the child is wrapped up, coldness disappears.

The emptiness in its stomach has a much deeper meaning and effect. It will make the infant feel un-ease, and an emotion will colour the encounter with that emptiness: anxiety. Although we cannot see any presence of a conscious self in the newborn to acknowledge anxiety, a neural pattern of that emotion nevertheless activates particular brain sites and all the chemistry of anxiety is released. The state of distress of a hungry baby, the restlessness and intense crying, the automatic movements of the limbs trying to grab somewhere, the trembling of the lower lip and so on – all of this disappears the moment milk begins to flow down the newborn’s throat. Emptiness is gone, and with it anxiety. The child is no longer in-the-world as anxiety: the child is in-peace, existentially it is that peace and it is bodying-forth the meaning of that encounter with food, with the display of being at-ease and falling asleep.

From the embryological point of view, the creation of inner cavities is purely an animal characteristic. The growth pattern of the vegetable does not include internal spaces, organs with emptiness; the vegetal world is mainly surface. Only animals produce these internal vacuums, and only humans ever become conscious of them.

From birth, the child’s awareness of being-in-the-world increases progressively, step by step, in a rhythmic pattern. Its awareness becomes out-there engaging the world, more and more. In this engagement the child’s being unfolds as an existential clearing, like an arena in which things happen. The clearing is what we would call the there-ness of the being, the da-sein, the place where things happen. Once illuminated by the light of its consciousness, whatever the child experiences will be understood as meaning – in fact, it becomes that meaning. Like the newborn it behaves anxiously when it feels its stomach empty, fearing that it might not be filled up, but with time it will eventually learn that food always comes when it is hungry. Nevertheless, that first imprint caused by the first emotion ever felt – anxiety – remains in us forever, most of the time as a background emotion, becoming one of the most frequent emotions experienced by the human being in the encounter with the world. Emotion, in-motion – it moves you. When anxiety has an object it becomes fear, and when fear is overpowering it becomes panic. The three are just different degrees of the same experience of life as a threat.

Twenty-four years later, the same baby, now a grown up young woman, married and with a professional activity, is sitting in my rooms because she is not feeling well and she is experiencing panic. She says to me: “Doctor, I feel so empty.”

From the embryonic stage up to the fully developed adult, the human being undergoes a true metamorphosis. It is one single form, the human design, the human blueprint of a singular individual that, through successive transformations, produces a progressive intensification of that primordial form, the Ur-form, as Goethe would call it, which translates in an increase in specialisation and differentiation. 

In the first year of a baby’s life, its head is one one fifth of its length. The infant is mostly head, and, looking properly at the phenomenon, it does not grow up at that time but rather grows down. It goes from the mother’s womb to the mother’s hands, and only later onto the floor, but it will take the child time to begin to challenge gravity. In the encounter with the care of the mother, through her love, the child develops the sense of belonging and security, and through the mother’s gaze it develops humanness.

After six months the immune system has matured and the first tooth may soon try to surface. At this stage he is on the floor trying to sit up and crawl, and one day he will stand upright, he will walk, and then he will talk. By imitation he will learn the names of things, the verbs, the words, and his own name, but at the beginning he will refer to himself by his name, in third person, as another, in the way he has always been called (you always refer to your child as “you” or by its name).

After the age of two, the child progressively becomes more obstinate and contrary, “No” is his favourite word. What he is doing is feeling himself through his will when confronted with your will. He needs to prepare himself for the discovery of his life. He is going to realize that he is one separated from the other. You will know when this happens because the child suddenly starts referring to himself in the first person, “I” – I want that. This “I” is the sign that confirms that the central reference of the human being, what we call Self, has emerged. In normal development that takes place around the age of three. The sense of self has reached consciousness, it is a core consciousness of a core-self, conscious only of the here and now, but this is the beginning of a different way of being-in-the-world. The steps of development that follow involve a progressive extension of that consciousness, and with it the sense-of-self.

The fundamental characteristic of the human being is that he is endowed with the attribute of intellect. This intellect can reflect from his meaningful experience of being-in-the-world and grasps its significance. The degree of consciousness that has led to that extraordinary first experience of  himself as an I different from you becomes like a focus of light, but now a brighter light, illuminating the encounter that takes place in the existential arena of his being. He now begins to know that what is happening, is happening to himself. The feeling has become conscious by the emergence of a sense-of-self, which is now the one knowing that he is the owner of that feeling of what is happening. Selfhood development begins with gaining ownership of one’s self.

Consciousness at the age of three is only a core consciousness; like the self, a core self, it is for the here and now. A child at three lives all the time in present tense, there is no past, there is no future, no biography, no plans, the child is a child of the moment, innocent, gullible, driven by his being-ness-as-such, by his own nature, to encounter the world with openness and trust. He will feel his own self in-the-change of the way of being-in-the-world that the encounter will produce on him. While it lasts, he will be that encounter, and through it he will extend his awareness of the world and himself. This is easy to see when you look at the child’s play. The chair is a car, he is driving the car, he’s that car, and then comes lunch and the chair is now a chair to sit on at the table for the meal. He is so much out-there-in-the-world, constantly engaged, continuously encountering what comes to his existential domain, that he has no limits, he is everything.

The colouring of the encounter with the world in these first seven years of the life of a child is defined by beauty. Amazed by the beauty of the world, he is in “awe” of creation. Beauty and ugliness will set the dynamics of his engagement, feeling attracted or repelled by the world surrounding him. He will play and play, first for the sake of it, later on to learn through it.

Up to the change of milk teeth between six and seven, the child has no protection from the world. If the child is in-the-world at ease, or un-ease, or even in dis-ease, most of the time this will be the reflection of that world on him. Do not blame a plant if it is not growing properly: look at the amount of air, sunlight, soil, nutrients, moisture, parasites and care, and you will find the cause of whatever problem the plant may display. It is the same with the child: his openness to the world is also his vulnerability.

With the loss of the milk teeth as the last remaining embryonic feature (the milk teeth belong more to the mother than to the child), the first period of metamorphosis that had started at babyhood comes to an end. The new teeth, the permanent ones, belong to the child, and they mark the onset of the second metamorphosis that will end at puberty. This new way of engaging the world will be  coloured now by the meaning of goodness. Goodness is drawing him into his new way of being-in-the-world. Good and bad are now the new dynamics of the engagement. This time the child has a sort of protection from the world, like a wall around him, made up of fantasy that will filter and transform the meaning of everything encountered.

The self keeps extending, memories of the past are stored, and anticipation of the future begins to be part of the encounter. From this autobiographical self – being able to be in-the-world in past or future tense – an extended social consciousness begins to unfold at puberty.

The adolescent looks at the world through the eyes of justice. He is terribly sensitive to injustice and is ready to stand up for what he thinks is right. He realises now that his actions carry with them responsibility and he is going to be held accountable for what he does. More than ever it is at this stage when the human being is trying to find his place in the world, to make sense of everything. Social action is almost imperative at that epoch of development. His consciousness of being-part-of society is at its zenith, and social responsibility arises from the encounter with social injustice. A duty to act on the awareness of that injustice elicits from him his natural nobility. His natural disposition is to put right what is wrong. Just-unjust is the dynamic of the third metamorphosis that will last until he turns 21. He is no longer separated from the world. Now with the sex definition into man and woman, he and she will act their different ways, trying to transform the world into their understanding of it.

The human being is not a static form but a dynamic one in permanent change and transformation, perfecting and refining more and more its form and functions. Through the existential metamorphoses outlined above, these processes of intensification reach their pinnacle at adulthood. We could say that the human being is one single organ with one function – to live – and one purpose – to know (‘to see’ would be more accurate – with the light of the intellect), and to reflect and act upon that knowledge.


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