If someone offered you a thousand dollars to write a 500 word essay titled “Who Am I?”… you could do that. You could knock out 500 words but I suspect most people have not given five minutes thought to this timeless, existential question.
A first draft would probably be heavily biographical. Your name; what you look like; where you’ve lived; what you do for living; maybe important relationships. You’d tell your story. So, are you your story?
The more introspective might try to describe some “essential self.” That “Real Me” that no one knows. “Thine own self” to which Polonius said we should be true. This is where you start listing all of the things you believe/know/think/fear.
Now, let’s say I give you a thousand bucks to write this essay every five years, starting at, oh, let’s say, fifteen. Now you’re 65 and we have your ten essays in front of us. Which one of those “you’s” is The Real You?
“All of them,” you explain. “That’s me at 25, that’s me at 40 (and so forth).” So, the essence, the core of who you are changes from year to year? How about month-to-month? Daily? Hourly? Sounds like there are many different Real You’s.
This is an ancient question that really smart people have thought about for thousands of years. My reading has lead me to the camp that finds no evidence of an essential, unchanging, permanent self.
I need a visual metaphor to even begin to *think* about stuff like this. Let’s try one.
Shortly after you’re born, you’re issued a little backpack. This is where you keep everything. The image of the giant people who take care of you; the smell of the places around you; the feeling you get when you’re hungry or you’ve pooped yourself. Since everything’s new at this point, your little backpack fills up pretty quickly but that’s okay because you get a bigger one whenever as needed.
All your experiences get stuffed into the backpack. If you need to know if you’re good or bad; smart or dumb; afraid or fearless… the answers are in the bag. It can get confusing because nothing ever comes _out_ of the bag but if it’s in there, it’s part of who you are.
By the time you reach your early teens you’ve traded in your backpack for a duffle bag and it’s packed! Including a couple of quarts of hormones that have soaked all those memories and feelings and beliefs. It is messy.
By the time you’re an adult, you’re dragging around a steamer trunk and adding more stuff every day. If the question, “Who am I?” comes up, well, you open the trunk and the stuff on top is you.
After dragging that fucker around for 60+ years, I’m ready to leave it behind. All the memories (good and bad) and fears and ideas and concepts and beliefs. Turns out, a lot of the stuff in that trunk was put there by someone else. Family, friends, strangers, you name it. After dragging it around for ten or fifteen years, it became “mine/me.”
The reason we don’t go insane thinking about this is we have something called the ego. But that’s just a character, like Willy Loman. A little different every time he walks onstage. Not real. For most of my life, I didn’t know it was a play. I thought I was Willy Loman. Now I’m sort of watching from the wings. I can see the make-up is a little different each performance, lines are delivered with slightly different inflection. I’m becoming aware it is a performance and that the lines aren’t mine.
“The self is impermanent. [...] It is constantly changing, decaying, and being reconstructed again, always slightly differently, depending on the circumstances of the moment. [...] It never repeats itself. Whenever you look, it is slightly different.” — Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are
Why deconstruct the concept of the self (ego)? Apparently, that is the source of all suffering.
[This is where I ran out of gas on this post. Fortunately, I came across this post by Brian Hines who takes this idea on down the road.]