Thursday, March 16, 2017

Who Am I?

            Kim and I were having brunch with Alice, and Kim offered Alice a sweater that no longer fit. When Alice declined, modestly saying, “I’m bigger than you are,” Kim responded by saying, “I’m bigger than me.” It was a profound moment, setting off a cascade of reflections:

·      The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

      “Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

·      “Our brains are smarter than we are.” I recall reading this in a book about the marvelous things our brains do, automatically, without our awareness. For example, I can drive a car while listening to the radio. Though I may miss the occasional exit, I do pretty well with traffic without conscious awareness. Thanks, brain! But if my brain is smarter than I am, who am I?

·      Look in the mirror. Is that really you?

·      When I was in my 30s and playing recreational soccer, I tore a hamstring. It was painful, and my recovery slow. Eventually I started jogging again, then running, then playing some soccer. “I’m only running about 2/3 speed,” I told myself. Then I noted, “Who am I kidding – I was never that fast anyway.” As the old jock saying goes, “The older I get, the better I was.”

·      The first semester of English I at Amherst we had a series of assignments questioning our “Real Self.” I had no idea at the time what the assignments were getting at, and I still don’t. But I do know it raised the possibility that I could be, at times and maybe often, something other than my “Real Self.” Perhaps I had several, equally real. The assignments raised in my young mind a lingering question about whether any of us have a real identity – a stable core self as distinct from the different roles we play in different contexts. I played one role when I was teaching, another then talking with my kids, another when courting Kim, another when a Starbucks barista, another when refereeing soccer games. You get the idea. Is there a “me” behind all those masks?

·      Look in the mirror. Is that really you?

·      I remember reading, some years later, Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man years ago. I don’t recall much about the difficult book, but I do remember the man on a Mississippi riverboat assuming a wild variety of identities in order to win the “confidence” of his fellow passengers – in the form of their money. Perhaps Melville was onto something.

·      We in the West, especially in America, place an extraordinary emphasis on the individual, the self. This is not a universal emphasis. One example: the Buddhist concept of “anatta,” defined in Wikipedia as “the doctrine of ‘non-self,’ that there is no unchanging permanent soul in living beings.”

·      Then there are selfies, which typically reveal not a “self” but a mask. Of course, a person trying to pass off a mask as a Real Self might actually suggest his Real Self as a Confidence Man.

·      Oscar Wilde famously advised: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” Easier said than done.

·      Schopenhauer believed that we live in a dual universe: the one that we perceive with our limited human senses and reasoning, and the universe as it truly is, which is unknowable and may or may not conform to our construct of "reason." Think how this applies to our self-perception. There may be my Self as it truly is, my Real Self, but others are limited in their knowledge of that Self by their fallible human senses and reasoning, and our Self-knowledge may be even more limited.

·      Look in the mirror. Is that really you? I didn’t think so . . .. My brain may be smarter than I am, but that suggests that I’m dumber than I think I am. I’m dumber than me.

 Responses welcome at Who are you? 


  1. Wow! Deep! A waiter we once had, university student age, made a great comment. "I'm not as smart as I look," he said. Then there was the woman directing people to shuttle buses outside the airport in Fort Lauderdale. When I couldn't see where she was directing me to go, she said, "You don't LOOK slow." My conclusion after years of pondering this: We are not who we think we are. Nor are we who other people think we are. We just are.


  2. Nice blog entry, Dave. You're smarter than you look.