Relying on one’s memory to recall moments from the past introduces deviations from reality. Time and experience mold and shape recollections of our own histories. Only by intentionally capturing experiences—through photographs or video recordings or contemporaneous written documentation or a combination thereof—can we hope to accurately secure factual evidence of who we were at any given moment in time.
Someone who sometimes seems to know me better than I know myself shared an article from The New Yorker that explores how we change. Not only do we transform from one person to another over time, the stories we tell ourselves—about ourselves—change, as well. We become different people, over time. More importantly, the people we once were change to reflect our understanding of ourselves as seen through the eyes of someone whose experiences differ through time. Today, I look back at myself at age thirty from the perspectives of a sixty-nine-year-old man. Ten years ago, my view of that thirty-year-old man-child was quite different from the way I see him today.
This morning, as I reflect on the idea of capturing who we are over time through contemporaneous images and stories, I realize we can never know who we were “back then.” Every time we attempt to recall our own histories, we view images and read stories through different eyes whose perspectives are shaped by experience. Although pictures and videos and daily diaries that maintain an “accurate” record of our lives may capture experience, their meaning will always be subject to interpretation. Interpretation that changes over time.
The thoughts that accompany my reflections lead me to realize—or, rather, to verify—we can never really know who we are because the contexts of our lives shape us on the fly. I am different from moment to moment. The instant I think I know myself, I have changed in response to my environment and the events that occur in that environment. No matter how many photographs and videos I take and no matter how little time elapses between them, I am never again the person I was when they were taken. In fact, I was never who I may have appeared to be, because the changes taking place in my perspective occurred with greater speed than the camera’s shutter could capture.
The question of who I am can no more be truthfully answered than the question of who I was. It then follows that no one can know me. And, of course, I cannot know anyone else for the same reason. Nor can anyone else know themselves. And when we look back at ourselves in photographs or films, when we read our journals or diaries, we cannot know the people in the pictures or the writers who recorded their stories. We perpetually are chasing answers to trick questions.
Perhaps this understanding of the impossibility of knowing ourselves explains feelings of emptiness and incompleteness. Perhaps it is why, somewhere deep in our psyches, we long for intimate connections to people who, we hope, will somehow enable us to know ourselves.
Illusion. Delusion. Whatever it is, I think we are on an everlasting journey, seeking a way to stop time just long enough to know who we are.