The persistence of self is a subject laden with seeming unanswerables. Am I still the same person that I was before? Will I always be the same person that I am today? If I will not be myself, who will I be, and how will I know that I am no longer me?
Of course, those black-and-white questions are likely to trigger grey answers. Am I still the same person that I was before? Well, biologically, yes, of course, barring unbeknownst full-body prosthesis or an alien brain infestation. But one day sometime in the past, I was ten years old. I looked different, I spoke differently, I had different daily concerns, and so on. Am I the same person now as I was back then?
Of course, the answer to this question is no. I am not the same person — I have had 12 years of experiences since that day, and all of those days and learnings and mistakes along the way have twisted together in my brain to produce “the person” that I am today.
The way I see it, I have been many people through the course of my life. I have been a gleeful whippersnapper, chasing soccer balls and complaining about math homework. I have been an up-and-coming cross country runner, living my life around a workout plan and caught up in petty rivalries. I have been an “American” living in a foreign city, missing my family at home and awash in the novelties of untetheredness.
I’m not just talking about roles that I play. Yes, I have indeed been an older brother and a boyfriend and a student and a young professional, but these are not the “people” that I have been, but rather are just chunks of some of my past selves.
I am referring to the succession of paradigmatic entireties that I have experienced. The things I thought about on a daily basis. The routines I developed. The people that were at the top of my recently dialed list. The issues I was concerned about, the media I was consuming, my emotional arc during each period of time.
And inevitably, periods of time end. You move to a new city. You switch jobs. You experience a trauma or a powerful change of heart. Selves might last for months, years, or even decades, but they will end, and a new reality will take shape and a new self will be born. At first, that self will still carry the influence of all of those previous selves and all of their wisdoms, but those previous selves are in immediate danger. The opponent? Time, and the twisted methods of human memory.
Memories are not discrete. They are amalgamations, assembled from components from some or all of the selves that you have been through the years. Trying to remember having breakfast on your 14th birthday is hardly more accurate than searching “kitchen” on Pinterest. Your brain will yank colors and objects and features from all of the kitchens that you have ever eaten in and photoshop them together — messily! If you zoom in, you can see the pixelation.
Memory is the linchpin in the persistence of self. If my entire life were to be filmed from my own eyes, with my emotional response catalogued and my thoughts streamed through a ticker tape, then perhaps I could know with certainty who I was relative to who I am now. However, even in this rich day, there is no such technology, and so the question remains:
If I will not be myself, who will I be, and how will I know that I am no longer me?
I cannot know if I am no longer “me”. My recollection of my previous selves is a messy reconstruction at best, and an utter falsehood at worst. I can simplify in revolt and paint a nice, tidy picture of what I imagine my self to have been like, and I can certainly choose to believe it. It’s probably pretty close to the truth, right?
Lacking the technology necessary to create any sort of objective representation of my current self, my response to this question is to scurry furiously between minutes, leaving myself a trail of bread crumbs that I think I’m going to care so much about in fifty years.
The better response is probably to live in the moment and forget I wrote this article.