Who Are You? Questions about the Self

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.

The Middle-of-the-Night-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.  I’ll think about your comments as I write more about the self in my next post.

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Charles Reed
Charles Reed
1 month ago

You have the insights of a really fine indian medicine man, sir. How nicely you describe a number of my childhood responses and attitudes. Please continue these reflections: You deal with deep matters with such a light, beguiling touch.

Gene Cochrane
Gene Cochrane
1 month ago

Norris, I echo the hope of seeing your writings continue. I grew up on a dairy farm, and even then I felt a generation behind my “city” friends. As I look back now from the perspectives and realities of 2021, the old mental pictures seem more than 2 generations, and I sometimes wonder what time zones I have passed. I look forward to the next segment of your thoughts.

Scott Hicks
1 month ago

Caught up so long in the search for “self”, I came to a crossroads. I could remain forever there or pivot to a different search.

I begin to search for “Self” or union with God … the cosmic Self that is everything. That everything is more than the material world. It is consciousness and more. It is thought and more. I have come to believe that the small self is but a drop of water in the cosmic sea that is God.

These memories, inklings of self are but stepping stones to the eternal. We are a manifestation of God’s thought.

This material place nothing but a path … a dream … suffering on the cross of material existence that whether in this life or another leads to the Creator … infinite love … what many choose to call God.

Ercel Carter
Ercel Carter
1 month ago

Well, you know I’m always good for a question or six. Sometimes, they are even meaningful. Other times, less so.

In order to try and be the former, I will attempt to limit this to one question and state it clearly. In determining the self, does essence precede existence? I believe an answer to this question will lead to an assumption about further inquiries into the nature of the self over time and thereby have a meaningful impact on the ongoing argument.

I would say you have already made a similar inquiry when commenting on both the soul and the mind. I’m merely forming the question in the classical context of the existentialist. If the soul exists, then essence may be first. If only the mind exists as many (but not all) existentialists state, then there might not be an essence that exists beyond the mind’s own construct.

As a current student of divinity, one might imagine the training to serve as a clear guide to such a question. I find divinity school a sufficient but not necessary cause for such a conclusion. For instance, if there is an all-powerful God, then the limits of our our reasoning do not equate to the limits of God. Therefore, essence and existence may occur simultaneously if indeed both are more than a human conversation meant to simply bide the time of God as in a choice of seven billion active channels to watch at any given second. But then, that would lead to other questions.

So as to keep the can of worms enclosed, I will simply state I am actively pondering the essence vs existence question.

Thank you so much for continuing your excellent essays. I look forward to seeing what comes next. Best wishes to you and yours.

Ercel Carter
Ercel Carter
1 month ago
Reply to  Ercel Carter

And I didn’t even touch on Whitehead and his idea of the ever-becoming self, either!

Charles Eakes
Charles Eakes
1 month ago

Having met you when you were age 18 or 19 in the old days at Davidson College, I had a sense that you were an older essence in your youthful body/mind. Enjoyed reading your thoughts here today and thank you for getting this interesting group of souls into discussions.

Ike Casey
Ike Casey
1 month ago

What is self?  Who am I?  I ask myself these questions frequently and I often experience the same middle-of-the night experiences that you mention.  As I age I wonder if this question of self becomes more clear.  There was so much to get anxious about in my younger years and after it did not become the end of me, I realize I do not have to be as anxious anymore.  But I do contemplate more about my place in the world.  Am I relevant – was I ever relevant?  Why do you make us think so much Dr. Norris?  

John Clark
John Clark
1 month ago

From the essay: “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.”
 
I have always had trouble integrating the term ‘soul’ into my thinking, my beliefs. May be a good topic, Norris, for your next essay. What is a soul? Is it an it? Is it a spirit? Is it simply the child of our consciousness? Is it our consciousness?

Gary Boyd
Gary Boyd
1 month ago

Thanks for ruining my routine, Norris. I read your blog and immediately I was on a carrousel trying to decide where I should get off in my response…when I did, this is what came to mind, and in this order.

50 years of journals, 70 years of home movies, and nearly 100 years of photographs. That is how I spent 2020. Compiling the journals into one document for further review and editing; digitizing, organizing, and editing the movies; scanning, discarding, and organizing the photos (which is still going on).

What else came to my mind was Friedrich Nietzsche’s book Thus Spoke Zarathustra; specifically, The Three Metamorphoses.

I see what I have written or what I have read, or I see old photos with toys I remember or pets we have had. I feel very connected to the person I was back then. Not only that, but that connectivity extends to my siblings as well. Check out the photo of my brother and me. I haven’t a clue as to what Randy sees and what I am thinking about. (sister in the background couldn’t care less) 

This brings me to Nietzsche and the metamorphoses of the camel, lion, child. I buy in to whole tabula rasa of life and the little sponge we are at birth. Like a camel, we have a lot to carry as we attempt to absorb the basic societal norms as well as learn according to our inclinations and abilities. Once we are suitably laden, we decide enough is enough and let’s see what I can get rid of…in other words, we become teenagers and being the lion we have now become, we challenge our parents, et. Al. The child comes around at some point and – over time – we begin to notice the things that resonate with us. New ideas, old knowledge that passes the test of time, even rejected truths that now seem right. (usually, those things we learned from our parents, et. Al)

And about the 3:30 am question…if I awaken at night, it is always the 3 to 3:30 time, but the anxiety events melted away after I retired. Sometimes I will awaken in the morning and feel melancholy, but that’s just a lack of coffee. My coffee. Good coffee. Prepared by me, a coffee snob.

Siblings-50s.jpg
Scott Killgore
Scott Killgore
1 month ago

As a person of faith, specifically Christian, I believe that I am a unique creation of God and that the presence of God is my ultimate destination. But, as to my “self” as I live each day on this earth, you raise interesting questions and leave me with much to ponder.
Recalling what you said about the impact of your siblings on you, I would affirm that much – most – of what makes up my “self” comes from outside. I select over time what outside ideas, influences, options, behaviors, and patterns will impact my life. For example, the fact that I am a Christian stems, at least in part, from my growing up in a Christian home. My work ethic was influenced by two parents with a strong work ethic. I could go on with other examples, but as for siblings – well, I can’t go there because I’m an only child.
Much comes at us from the outside, and as we go through life the “self” that is forming within us guides our choices about how to respond to what comes at us from without.
And now we’re back to choices.
You’ve given us much to consider, my friend, and your readers are grateful for it.  

Jack
Jack
1 month ago

Let’s start with confusion. First, Who am I? is a different question than What is a self?
Let’s not confuse them. My confusion about the 3:30 am self and the morning Joe self is a real puzzle for a real person, whatever that self is made of. Soul, air, brain, mind, atoms, eternal objects concrescing towards something. The confusion is real and it hurts because one of the theories about me is wrong. Many of our theories come from other people. They guess who we are and what we are about. And some of those people are important people in our lives. Our parents, our teachers, our lovers, our children. Could they all be wrong?
No doubt they are all wrong. But no doubt we are also wrong most of the time. There obviously is not one self. I am a multitude. I do not stop with oh that doesn’t fit. Sure we don’t fit in. We don’t have the right background. But there are no boxes for selves.

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