Treating Ourselves Like Thesauri

Who am I? What constitutes ‘me?’ Those questions, and more like them, have been asked for millennia; I suspect for as long as humankind has been consciously aware of its existence as a part, or master, of nature.

I have asked those questions for as long as I can remember. I still do. But I am asking them, now, from a perspective that’s slightly different from the outlook or philosophy that has governed my perception of the world for most of my life.

Today, I wonder whether I am  an amalgam of millions of “pieces” that collectively define ‘me.’ That is, am I the sum of my parts in a way that would be fundamentally altered were some of those parts missing or, conversely, were those pieces augmented by new components I might collect along the way? Perhaps some concrete examples will help move the concept from a hypothetical abstraction to a plausible reality.

My facial features, my voice, the shape of my body, and the hair on my head all contribute to who I am. While superficial, they arguably establish the framework upon which my personality rests.  The questions that have begun to arise in my mind involve the extent to which the superficial aspects of my being, and the foundation within, inform my personality; the me in ‘me.’ Would my personality change, for example, if I were to lose an arm and an eye? Would I become someone different if I were to lose the use of my legs? Conversely, what effect, if any, might there be on my thought processes if my pudgy body were to become tight and taut? Would six-pack abs and an acrobat’s body alter my interaction with the world around me, thus changing ‘me’ into ‘not me’ but someone else quite a bit like ‘me’ (at least in some respects)?

I wonder whether—with significant changes to my physical self or, for that matter to my mind—the way I define myself today would no longer be adequate. I wonder whether I would need new descriptors to describe the somewhat different ‘same old me’ in much the same way that I use a synonym in place of a word or term that’s adequate but calls for something different; like a thesaurus.

Going deeper, at what point do changes in one’s physical or mental or emotional state fundamentally alter the ‘me’ that I have come to know and others think they know? Would a brain tumor that alters my personality create a new me, or would it simply alter the me I had been until the tumor did its damage? If a cardiovascular abnormality robbed my brain of sufficient blood flow, causing me to be unable to speak and see and hear and think, who would the resulting mute and blind and deaf and dull man be? Would that shell of my former self be me? Or would I have disappeared, the real me existing only in the recollections of those who knew me beforehand?

These are not rhetorical questions; they are serious issues that cause me to wonder who, really, I am. And who are you? At what point, even though you might be alive and breathing and perfectly healthy, do you become someone else, someone I do not know?

Let’s keep exploring this.

Say I knew you quite well and spent a great deal of time with you, over a period of twenty years, until we moved to different places. We lost touch; didn’t talk, didn’t write, didn’t experience the things we used to experience together during those twenty years. In those intervening years, your life experiences and mine have been very different. You, who had avoided religion and its trappings while we knew one another, became deeply involved with a church and eventually became an evangelical minister. Your views on politics changed, too, shifting from middle-of-the-road Republicrat to firebrand Tea Partier.

During that same period, my life experiences went in a different direction. My ambivalence toward religion morphed into fervent antipathy and then rabid loathing. I, who had been a Demopublican, morphed into an unapologetic Socialist.

Are we the same people we once were, just shaped by different experiences? Or have we become different people? If the latter, at what point along the way did the transformation occur? And might it be possible for one or both of us to retrace our steps and become who we once were?

We have to redefine ourselves, but we have limited access to new terms to describe who we once were and who we have become. So we simply use synonyms appropriate to the context.  Each of us wonders what happened to the other guy we used to know, but we might forget to ask what happened to the guy who inhabited our skin.

Thomas Wolfe’s posthumously published novel got the heart of the question right. It goes beyond place and time and to the heart of oneself; you find you can’t go home again because you can’t even define what home is, especially where self is concerned. You can no longer go to the dictionary to find the definition of self; you have to go to the thesaurus to seek out a suitable alternative.

Once you answer the question about self, albeit unsatisfactorily, you begin to ask the question about others. Is the woman you married…the woman you married? Are the siblings who grew up in the same house in which you grew up the same siblings you knew as a child? I imagine people with children ask the question with an even greater sense of wonder and horror and urgency; are those people the same ones whose diapers I changed and for whom I sacrificed so much?

Ultimately, we give ourselves the answers we require to maintain our sanity.  Of course they’re the same people and I am the same person; we’ve just changed and adjusted ourselves along the way. But we don’t really know the answers. I suspect we really don’t want to know. I think we’re afraid to ask the questions, most of the time.

If we could view a high-speed film of the ways our lives played out, I think we’d be stunned to see the changes in us and in the people around us. Are we changing because they are changing, or vice versa? Have we spent our lives modulating who we are so someone else can be who they are? Or have they made that sacrifice on our behalf?

All of these things are too hard to think about; they can bring about regret and depression, regardless of who we are and how we came to be that person. Yet they’re issues that merit consideration, I think. And conversation. But the conversations really should involve beer or wine or, and this may be best, hard liquor. Regardless of whether you call it whiskey, whisky, bourbon, Scotch, or another name altogether.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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