Are you the person you used to be?
To the extent each of us possesses a continuous memory of one “self” with one body, we think of ourselves as the same “Joe.”
I’m talking about the guy who broke his arm in eighth grade, found Algebra challenging, went to the Senior Prom with Julia, dumped Marilyn, mooned after his first love for years, and became a superb computer programmer. The bloke played team sports before he damaged his ankle, had three kids, got fired, was unemployed for six months, cheated on his wife, is estranged from his oldest boy (who he once loved to pieces), and has migraines.
Most days, Joseph wishes he took fewer meds, but loves watching sports on TV, enjoys playing cards, suffers from arthritis and nurses regrets his mom didn’t live longer. He thinks of himself as financially secure, doesn’t worry much, but can’t run anymore, and wishes he’d not alienated some friends. His second marriage is excellent. Our hypothetical buddy went through a bout of depression when he was 45.
Despite being pissed-off he’s lost two inches in height, he quite likes himself, though he didn’t until he was 50. Whenever he is asked, he complains about walking behind a pot-belly and running out of breath too often, things unknown until the last 20 years.
He was an atheist until he wasn’t. No one understands the change and he can’t explain it either.
Are we speaking of one “self” and only one?
Richard Posner, the public intellectual, scholar, and judge, asked an interesting question about identity. What if we send a young man to prison for a serious crime, but he reforms himself and becomes an admirable human being during his lifetime confinement?
Are we still punishing the criminal (not a wiser, kinder creature) 40 years after he did wrong?
The offender’s name is unchanged. The historical record marks him as the identical person who got his inmate ID number on his first day of incarceration. But his personality might have been altered by rehabilitation, reflection, experience, study, or faith.
One way of analyzing such questions would be to consider a list of character traits. For example, are you now the person you were at, say, 25, concerning the following traits? Compare yourself to the earlier incarnation, whose name you share.*
You might give the same list to a friend (or an ex-friend) and discover a different evaluation of who you now are or who you used to be.
There are reasons for mistrust of your self-perceptions and self-evaluations. A 2006 research paper by Rubin and Bernstein** finds that past 25 we underestimate our subjective sense of our age: we feel younger by about 20%. Therefore, if you are 50, your subjective sense of your age stands at about 40 (if you are like most others).
Yet, do you remain the person you’ve always been? Your body and brain have aged, perhaps reaching a steady prime, perchance past it. Maybe schooling enhanced your talents, diet recreated the fleshly covering you live in, surgeries made you new or, didn’t retrieve as much of “you” as you hoped.
Experience and chosen adaptations also remade opinions and behavior.
Then comes the question, what might you have forgotten that past selves knew? There is no way to know unless you employed a private cameraman who recorded all those actions and ideas now behind you. Yet part of your past can be useful if the recollections remain in the closet of your mind.
Lodging in the cerebral lock box are past accomplishments and failures, the recollection of gains and lost loved ones, and revisions to your appearance by artificial or natural means.
Time’s alterations of insides and outsides are tricky. You cope with them if you are aware of them. The old friend who walks past you without recognition informs you of the possibility you aren’t. To him, your current face could just as well be a disguise.
Each of us is affected by the revised way the world treats us. Changes in the world explain a portion of its response. Some of it also is the result of our reshaped personal and anatomical condition. Bosses, friends, and acquaintances respond to today’s gray hair, not yesterday’s black locks. In turn, we react to humanity’s fresh take on us.
I wrote, “If you are aware of them.” I repeat myself. If you don’t recognize who is the current “you,” much of what you “do” with life will be done for the shadow of your present existence, the historical personage always a step behind when you face the sun. The guy who went by your name is dead, in a sense. He is the old you.
Maybe your predecessor’s choices fit well for your newly “improved” version of him. If not, your faulty belief in who were and what you’ve become is a problem.
The moment is right to reconsider your makeup. Start by imaging the man of today as the shadow’s heir, the person to whom he passed the torch of his life in the relay race our successive selves are running. Reevaluate who you are today. Take stock of the whole of you as if for the first time.
From this vantage point, the track still presents some ground beyond your current place. Consider it an invitation. Even with a walker, you can progress. You may or may not offer any gratitude toward the fellow from whom you took the baton. Who doesn’t leave a smaller or larger mess? Yet he gave you a chance to continue the job of recreation.
Near or far, the distance before you is often hard to estimate. Perhaps several more varieties with your name are ahead. They are not fully formed. The sculptor who will create the next one can be no one other than you.
*There are numerous lists of personality characteristics on line. This one is adapted from a portion of one found at https://www.teachervision.com/writing/character-traits/
**Rubin, D. C., and Berntsen, D. (2006). People over forty feel 20% younger than their age: subjective age across the lifespan. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 13, 776–780. doi: 10.3758/BF03193996
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The bottom image captures two runners in the ISTAF School Relay Race, September 1, 2019. The author is Martin Rulsch. His photo was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.