You are not yourself

A lot of our anxiety and unhappiness comes from one simple mistake. The mistake is believing you are a single individual with stable and absolute feelings, preferences, personality.

Surprise!

There is a quote in Alan Watt’s The Wisdom of Insecurity that I’ve come back to once or twice a day since I first read it.

The more we accustom ourselves to understanding the present in terms of memory, the unknown by the known, the living by the dead, the more desiccated and embalmed, the more joyless and frustrated life becomes.

The idea is that the narrative called ‘you’ is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one, formed out of the connective tissue of our memories. Our memories are not strict recordings of events as they happened, any more than a watercolor self-portrait of your gemüse kebab is your lunch.  Memories are stories we tell ourselves, ones that change in the retelling. What we call memory has no absolute connection to what has happened, nor can it accurately describe it, anymore than our fantasies have any concrete connection to what will happen.

The stereotypical soap-opera plot has a character lose their memories in an accident, and with that, they lose everything that makes them them. Indeed, we suffer from the same delusion – that the person I am in this moment is not me; I am the person I was. As a result, we begin a curious form of performance, play-acting as ourselves in an attempt to maintain consistency with a character that lives entirely in our own mind. We make decisions not based on how we feel right now, but how we imagine our “self” would act. Out of a drive to create consistency between yesterday and today, we create inconsistency, anxiety, and ulcers. Ironically, the harder we try to resolve this anxiety, the further it swells.

The other day I looked through some blog entries I wrote ten years ago and at times I barely recognized myself. My observations, my style of writing, my outlook on the world – all completely different than they are today. Put ten-years-ago me in a room with right-now me, and we are two different people, each with unique perspectives, desires, and lessons to teach each other. While there may be a corporal-temporal line between us, we are different individuals. The difference between ten-years-ago me and right-now-me; ten-days-ago me and now-me; even ten-seconds ago me and right now me is just as profound. We are different people, in separate moments, and none of us are accountable to each other.

One benefit to producing creative work of any kind is that it is the closest we can ever come to truly seeing ourselves as we were. While memories trap us in nostalgia and the drive for consistency, our past creative works liberate us by reminding us that we have changed – grown here, softened there – and that above all change is not only possible, but inevitable.  Finally, we can stop resisting becoming who we are, over and over again.

One Comment

  1. alison

    this is a theme consistent in a lot of philosophy and as a generally unsentimental person, it gives me a lot of hope with each new day. i can be and do whatever i want every day, and if i don’t, i can try again tomorrow.

    this idea calls to mind the life cycle of something like adult cicadas, which lasts about 2 weeks. imagine, living a life so short and yet so full (in terms of its potential).

    loved that book so much.

    Reply

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