On the Persistence of Self

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.

Buenos Aires

It has taken me a while to come around and feel ready to write this thing. Not because I’ve been struggling to re-enter life at home due to some sort of reverse culture shock— on the contrary, I jumped back into life at home as if nothing had ever happened. For the last three weeks I’ve hardly thought about the preceding five months at all except for when explaining to friends and family what exactly it was that I was doing for all that time, and then it feels strange and distant, as if I am describing what I did at summer camp when I was fourteen. In retrospect, the transition home was rather abrupt and unceremonious and perhaps that’s why I am feeling the need to write something commemorative, as if that five-month sentence is lacking a final punctuation.

I don’t know how to summarize my experiences in Buenos Aires. I think that the idea of summarizing such an experience is inherently somewhat self-defeating. To really understand what it was and how it is now important to me, it must not be summarized but co-experienced— explicated deeply, thematically, in full multimedia retina-display detail. While this is something I have generally preferred to do in person, it would be cheap to entirely forego any description. There’s no TL;DR for this one, sorry folks. Where to begin…

Entering to live in another culture feels like being fourteen again. You have enough basic skills to survive, but you are also just aware enough to realize that you don’t really get it yet. While this feeling may have been exacerbated by the Spanish language context, a lot of it has to do with understanding the country’s cultural and political history. In the case of Argentina, this was hugely important, as so much of current society, politics, and economics is a reaction to movements in the past.

I took a history class that was designed for gringos. It examined Argentine history independently but also in relation to the cultural history of the USA and select other countries. The professor was one of those real academics who have a bleeding romance with their subject. It would be a privilege to learn anything from him, regardless of the content. He succeeded in providing an organized context for us to learn the fundamentally necessary stuff: the effects of Spanish colonialism, the massive European immigration in the late 19th century, the antagonism between the city of Buenos Aires and the Provinces, the relationships between Argentina, Chile, the USA, and Europe, Argentina’s early prominence in the early 20th century and the importance of cattle, Argentina’s political/economic stances during the world wars, the rise of the political/economic/social movement that is Peronism (and the story of Eva Peron), the Junta Militar and ‘los desaparecidos’ in the 70’s and 80’s, Menem in the 90’s, and then the IMF default and devaluation of the peso in 2001 from which Argentina has not yet recovered— these topics are crucial to understanding contemporary Argentine culture.

For some reason or another, from Argentines and from people at home, I often received the question, “te gusta Argentina?” Do you like Argentina? I knew how I was supposed to answer the question, obviously, and responded by complementing the asado, the women, the wine, and the fútbol. But the question, “do you like _____(country)” begs a deeper answer. Do you approve of the way that the country is run? The liberties and services it provides for its citizens? Is the ‘country’ equivalent to the country’s government? Or is ‘Argentina’ a reference to the Argentine people? Can you ‘like’ the USA if you don’t ‘like’ the dominant party? Do I even ‘like’ the USA?

The answer I’ve developed to this question is that I very much liked my experience in Argentina, but I do not necessarily ‘like’ every aspect of the Argentinian history, governance, or culture. Frankly, I am quite critical of the country’s apparent historical values, trends, and current direction. Argentina is a bizarre hybrid in so many ways. The European influence on the city is obvious from it’s architecture and population (almost entirely white in Buenos Aires). Argentina has long fetishized French styling and therefore hired many great French designers and architects to construct a city that is somewhat in the style of Paris. But Buenos Aires is more like Paris’s gaudy, grungy younger sister, who would be stunningly beautiful if she were to take off her sequin-studded tiara, wear a bit less makeup, and stop embezzling so much money. Perhaps I’m just queasy around luxury, but Buenos Aires is candy coated with a veneer of sophistication that can hardly disguise the governmental corruption and the resulting economic suffering felt by huge swaths of the population. Instead of pioneering substantial political, economic, or cultural change, the government of Buenos Aires relies on clientelism, tit-for-tat negotiations in which the government runs massive handout programs to gain the voting support of the poorer classes but does nothing to change the flows of capital and class mobility.

The city of Buenos Aires is huge and sprawling and interestingly not segregated by ethnicity or race, but rather almost entirely by class. I lived in the epicenter of Buenos Aires’ old wealth, Retiro, next to Plaza San Martin, next to calle Florida, the city’s prime luxury shopping district. There were two or three massive, Parisian-styled palaces within two or three minutes of my homestay. During the day, ritzy Retiro was crawling with men in suits and women in fur coats and once-glamorous older-folk walking toy-sized dogs. But at night, Retiro was deserted and dangerous. Right next to Retiro is the city’s main train station, and behind the train station is Villa 31, one of the first and largest Villas in Buenos Aires. Villas are slums that escape most government regulation and are hotbeds of crime, drug and human trafficking, and poverty. About 200,000 people live in 20+ villas in the city of 13 million. Many Villa inhabitants live in dangerously constructed buildings or are homeless. Drug addiction, especially to Paco, is rampant. While the government of Buenos Aires does not support the expansion of the villas, they also do not put much pressure on them to pay taxes or change their ways; there is something of a tacit don’t-ask-don’t-tell, look-the-other-way policy in place. Why? My professor at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), who was admittedly a raving Marxist, explained that the government has historically had ties to many of the powerful ‘mafioso’ groups that have real authority in the villas. On the surface, this seems to be corruption at its finest. But on the other hand, a student in my class protested that these groups are often quite involved in the local community and establish schools, community centers, homeless shelters, and a distinct, prideful culture of their own in each Villa. If the government is supporting groups that support the people, regardless of their source of income, is the government wrong in doing so?

I could continue writing about my frustration with the hypocrisy and shallowness of various aspects of Buenos Aires’ culture, but this was not what particularly characterized my experience in Argentina. On the contrary, Argentina provided me with all that I needed to arrange for myself an incredible experience. I was hugely impressed and impacted by the genuinely good people that I lived with and otherwise met. I unquestionably benefited from the city’s education systems. Living abroad was ultimately the epitome of freedom within constraints, an exotic sandbox within which I played and experimented and learned from all that was around me. I flaneur’d, gloriously alone, every day. I spent many beautiful days exploring beautiful streets with people who became very close friends, most of whom were from the study abroad program, but were also from all over the USA, which was eye opening in itself. We enjoyed countless incredible meals and nights out immersed in Buenos Aires’ diverse and dynamic nightlife. We were young and sometimes irresponsible, and every day happened only once. It was a magical transience that compelled me to carpe the diem, to live alive, to shake my demons or address them so that I might re-open my eyes to the world around me.

And so I went to Argentina because I wished to live deliberately, to see if I might be able to discern the essential facts of life and of my life, to see if I could construct an existence in which I could really live. I did not chase every rabbit nor visit every nightclub nor seize every moment, but I followed precisely my own inner tendencies as closely as possible without being offensive to others, as is otherwise usually quite impossible. Life in society demands that we do things and go places. This was my experiment in designing a life that would demand only and exactly what I was desiring to do. “I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms”. Thoreau said it perfectly, and in the moment and in retrospect, I was and am proud of my implementation. I enjoyed so thoroughly my time abroad that I’m not thinking about it now.

How does that make sense? If a recent experience was truly impressionable, shouldn’t it continue to leave its impression upon its subject? If I was so set upon fully experiencing my time abroad, and so ‘successful’ at doing so, shouldn’t I be constantly reminiscing about and reliving those sublime seconds?

I think that this apparent discontinuity is the reason why I am at war with nostalgia. While abroad, I often entered museums and cafes and nightclubs and found myself thinking, “this will be the only time that I ever exist at this point in space-time,” then eventually to exit and think during the taxi ride home, “well, that was that, yet another experience has become memory.” At home it feels just as tragic. I got lunch with my mother yesterday. I will never get lunch with my mother yesterday again. It’s obvious but still somehow troubling. It’s an apparently useless hyper-awareness of feeling the present endlessly recede into the past.

Is it problematic, or is it somehow useful? Do I remember those moments better, having taken myself out-of-the-moment to commemorate it? Can you ever really do anything to take a moment out of time? One can write about it, or record audio or video, or tweet about it and commiserate with everyone else who is also loosing time, and so I do those things to give my faulty memory as many triggers for future recollection as possible. But to what end? What is the takeaway? Where is the peace in that? Like all existentialism, this goes nowhere. Why can’t I just accept that and live in the goddamn moment?

I think these are normal preoccupancies— I’m just another in a ponderously long list of humans who have obsessed over the conditions of our existence. If you’ve got answers or more questions, leave them in the comments.