We were on Pirates of the Caribbean, my 6-year-old daughter wide-eyed with glee for the realism and mystery, while my 3-year-old son quickly closed his eyes and put his head down in my lap — too real. A few years later when we went back, pride held his eyes open though I knew he was pretty scared. At one point he turned to me, with trust that I will forever cherish, and asked, “These are all robots right, Dad?” “Yes” I offered with assurance. Three anxious beats later he asked me a question I also will forever cherish: “But they don’t know they’re robots, do they?”
Do you think about who you are? Are you the best judge? How would you know? Maybe it’s not important to you. You’ve got stuff to do, bills to pay. I like the question for myself. It feels important, lets me course correct, helps me avoid small concerns. So, like Alice’s smoking caterpillar, let me pompously ask, “Who are you?”
You might quite reasonably answer with your name. It’s been with you all along, traveling with you through all your changes like comfortable jeans. As a child and again as a parent, we see how your name grows in clarity, just as our personalities strengthen. Early, I was my parents’ son, with some general tendencies and weaknesses, but mostly undefined potential. Later, I was my children’s father, trying to create a safe and constant model of myself to anchor their own ongoing definition. By now, when your family and friends hear your name, it has real meaning, and while the meanings likely differ between your mom and your ex, maybe in the sum of all cases it is who you are.
Another reasonable tack is to answer with what you do. I’m a biologist. You might be a program manager or a carpenter. I would ask you to try to push this a little bit. Try to replace “a” with “the,” as in, “I am the carpenter who built that house.” Specificity is important when diving into a question as deep as personal identity. I’m a writer, but I’m the guy writing this. If you’ve gotten this far, you’re the person reading this.
As a biologist, I coldly answer that I am this system of muscular epithelia and neural circuitry, and my sense of self is some kind of Darwinian magic. Wonderful certainly, but nothing more. As a somewhat romantic biologist, I define myself as the thing that lives inside this meat bucket I’ve been carrying around for so long. Some might call that thing my soul and that’s fine with me. Stories about souls bring clarity and comfort to the question I hope you’re asking.
The lesson my daughter is still teaching me is that you can believe whatever you want about who you are. Like most of us, she’s had some stressful childhood situations. Her coping strategy was to play a part, and the part she chose was tuned to the situation. I realize now that I’ve done that. You ever tried to be somebody you’re not? She got really good at it. She’s so good that I often worry that she tells me what I want to hear about who she is because she loves me and wants to make me happy. I’d never know. I wonder if she would ever know.
The era that we grew up in goes a long way to defining who we are. I’m an old hippie because I went to college in 1970. The University of California was essentially free, I was a B+ student and I could get in. I learned a lot, and the rest of my life rose out of some of those experiences, academic and social. One thing I did was a fair dosing with THC and some psychedelics (alcohol was frowned upon in that bubble). I endorse the recent discussions about enabling safe but hallucinogenic experiences, because I’ve had some terrific insights during those very exciting and fun rides. I think I learned a lot, about organic chemistry, and girls I cared about, and myself.
All this questioning and answering comes from retiring and moving to this spectacular place. In five years, I’ve learned so much, seen so much I never imagined, that I just have to wonder about who I am now, and who I was. Looking back is mostly pleasant, with some pride and some shame. At my age you can average over time, and it is who I am.
Jack Dunne lives gratefully in Lakebay.
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