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We can hardly leave our discussion of the first major “milestone” of being born without taking some position about when human life effectively begins. This is especially important if, as we have noted, contemporary medical and legal opinions are not going to offer us any definitive answers.

We have talked all around the question and have cited the inadequacy of contemporary attempts to discover workable solutions—but we have actually arrived at some inescapable answers.

1. At the heart of our humanness is a thinking, contemplative, intelligent, willful essence that is not, strictly speaking, entirely physical in nature. Whether we categorize this essential self as being the soul, the spirit, the mind, or the self-consciousness, it is clear that this being which expresses itself through the physical body-brain mechanism can exist independently of the mortal expression of that self.

2. If this “self” is essentially metaphysical in nature, then it must be ultimately impervious to and independent of all the ills, maladies, dysfunctions, and abuses that the body may undergo. This does not mean these misfortunes have no meaning; neither does this observation imply that our “self” is not affected by these experiences. Hopefully we gain immense growth and insight as a result of these wrenching and traumatic events. But in terms of a life that is infinite, we are never made to endure such experience for very long.

3. If, as we have asserted, this metaphysical reality takes on an identity when this associative relationship with the body begins, then obviously the point of association defines the true beginning of a human life. On the one hand, the Baha’i writings define this association as beginning at conception, and yet, as we have noted, conception itself is a process, albeit a rather rapid one.

In the final analysis, we can conclude that despite this bit of mystery, the term conception is used as being synonymous with fertilization. In this sense, the emanation of the metaphysical essence may occur before any further development in the process inasmuch as the relationship is associative, not physical. In short, identity may occur metaphysically before it becomes distinct from the precise completion of any embryological or physiological process.

4. While we may recall events or impressions from as early as two or three years old, there is clearly no single point at which human cognition occurs. We see in the newborn child all sorts of reactions to pleasure and pain that go beyond any learned or mere autonomic responses. Likewise, mothers recount instances where the child in the womb without outside stimulation moves about. My youngest son James actually managed one night (which my wife Lucia recalls) to create a true knot in his umbilical cord. He made a loop, somehow went through the loop, and then managed to stretch it out tight. Knowing him as I now do, I am almost positive he did this on purpose.

Therefore, if cognition and will are properties of the metaphysical self, and if, however meagerly, these powers express themselves and are receptive to Mozart and other sorts of external conditions so that they demonstrate evidence of these influences after birth, we must conclude not only that personality is an inherent property of the essential self, but also that there is much for us to learn about the complex developmental process of that personality during gestation, even as Abdu’l-Baha notes in a discussion of the progress of the essential self:

The rational soul is endowed from the beginning with individuality; it does not acquire it through the intermediary of the body. At most, what can be said is that the individuality and identity of the rational soul may be strengthened in this world, and that the soul may either progress and attain to the degrees of perfection or remain in the lowest abyss of ignorance and be veiled from and deprived of beholding the signs of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised version, p. 277.

5. since the potential for this incipient organism to become human is no greater at eight or nine months than it was at conception, we must likewise infer that it is as likely that the associative relationship—the beginning of personhood, personality, individuality, and, therefore, of humanness, happens from the beginning. Certainly we know this is true with the physiological aspects of the creation, that no two creations are exactly the same, that even identical or monozygotic twins are distinct.

The Baha’i teachings say that our essential reality, our personhood or individuality, begins with its emanation from the spiritual realm when it associates with the embryo at conception. As we have noted, however, this association in no way implies that the essential self derives from or is somehow contingent on the progress of the physical body with which it is associated. The human reality associates with the human body, even as the human mind associates with the human brain during our physical existence. But both the understanding of and the reason for this relationship need to be understood before any of this process makes complete sense.

In short, if the essential self is fundamentally independent of the physical body, then what is the value of a process in which this associative relationship occurs in such a way as to create the persuasive illusion that the two realities are one, that we are physical beings, and that our own survival and viability are dependent on a healthy physical self? Furthermore, how is divine justice rendered when some souls must associate with physical bodies that do not survive or are deficient? Likewise, since no two lives or life experiences are exactly the same, nor are the precise capacities or skills the same for any two human beings, how is equal justice meted out so that all have an equal opportunity to receive the bounties of divine bestowals?

Only by continuing our pursuit of the mysterious and weighty Elephant of Death can we discover the answers to these and other enigmas about the inevitable outcome of our shared journey through this brief physical life. Most especially, we need a degree of patience if we want to track the illusive Elephant of Death to discover if he is, indeed, merely a chimera—even though he seems quite impressive and majestic standing there in our living room, draped with our best tapestry, and holding those lifelike silk flowers in his trunk.


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  • Dec 05, 2018
    This is incredibly helpful. I do remember with my mother’s dementia aware of her spirit separate from her body. It was a real eye opener to see her lucid but her brain pretty non functioning. She has always been my spiritual teacher even when she was no longer mentally competent.
  • Mar 28, 2017
    Nice elaboration of relation between physical and essential individuality or self tq sir!
  • Melanie Black
    Mar 31, 2016
    I've been getting much out of your series of essays. If I ever can afford it, I will purchase your book.