By Dr. Norris Frederick
Have you ever wondered who you are?
Have you had the experience, like the ones I’ve recently had, of looking at old photos of yourself or reading old letters from yourself and perhaps your parents, and wondered, “Was that really me? What did the world feel like at that point to me?”
As the birthday candles indicate, I was two years old in the photo above. Not surprisingly, I have no memory of the event pictured. No memory even of the white rabbit I am clutching so tightly. Judging by the picture, I was feeling very excited by the cake and candle!
I do remember my grandmother’s curved-glass china closet, which stayed in our family for many years. The cake looks like it has the caramel icing that remains my favorite to this day, so perhaps that particular cake influenced my preference.
If it’s been long enough, or if the differences with your present self are sharp enough, you might wonder, “What connects me with that past me? Or is that past ‘me’ not really me?”
And when you look at those old photos or read those old letters, what are the boundaries that separate your self from others? If I look at the picture above, my body is clearly distinct from those of my sisters. On the other hand, when I think about the various experiences that make me who I am, I would be a different person if I had not had my sisters Frances and Virginia, and my brother Charlie, who came onto the scene two years later.
It’s almost as if my siblings are a part of “me,” not of my body but of my consciousness. Is it my consciousness that is me? That makes some sense, as it’s via my consciousness that I can ponder these questions about my self.
However, it’s hard to imagine myself a disembodied consciousness. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland, “Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice, “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”
(John Tenniel’s original illustration from the book)
We’d be very surprised to see a disembodied grin; perhaps we should be just as surprised to find a disembodied self.
However, many — including Plato — argue for a “soul” that cycles into and out of a body, being repeatedly reincarnated. It’s the soul that is the real self.
To ask a related question, do you ever wake up at 3:30 in the night, find yourself unable to go back to sleep, and as you lie awake, find yourself fearful and anxious about almost everything? Does every problem that floats in your mind appear unsolvable?
To avoid these feelings, do you ever get up and go into the bathroom, where you turn on the light and find yourself shocked to see yourself as you look now and wonder, “How did I get so old? Is that really me?”
When morning comes, you have a cup of coffee and realize you can easily solve some of those problems you were worrying about. You are your confident self now, not the fearful and anxious 3:30 a.m. self. You say to yourself, “this confident self is the real me.”
But how do you know which is the real you? Why is the daytime self more “you” rather than the middle-of-the-night self?
“Well, I’m both of those,” you reply. “Sometimes I’m fearful and sometimes confident, but those are just conditions of myself.”
But what IS this mysterious “self” that underlies all our various experiences? In fact, is the “self” just a construct we’ve created, and the reality that there is no self?
Confusion and Its Benefits
If you’ve had any of these experiences and asked any of the questions I’ve asked above, and you take them at all seriously, you are experiencing confusion and perhaps a bit of disorientation. Plato called this aporia, the uncomfortable state of confusion and puzzlement that actually turns out to be a good thing. Aporia is a necessary condition for gaining deeper knowledge.
Let’s see if we use this confusion as a basis for some knowledge about the self, even if the knowledge turns out to be just clarifying the questions. If you have ever experienced these feelings of puzzlement about the self, or have any thoughts you’d like to share, please do. Click on the green button to your lower right to write a comment.