Brain Pickings

The Mystery of Personal Identity: What Makes You and Your Childhood Self the Same Person Despite a Lifetime of Change

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Dissecting the philosophical conundrum of our “integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be.”

Philosophers and New Age sages have long insisted that the self is a spiritual crutch — from Alan Watts’s teachings on how our ego keeps us separate from the universe to Jack Kerouac’s passionate renunciation of the Self Illusion to Sam Harris’s contemporary case for self-transcendence. Modern psychologists have gone a step further to assert that the self is a socially constructed illusion. Whatever the case, one thing is certain and easily verifiable via personal hindsight — our present selves are unrecognizably different from our past selves and woefully flawed at making our future selves happy.

In a remarkable passage from Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (public library | IndieBound), her biography of the great 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, philosopher, writer, and MacArthur Fellow Rebecca Goldstein considers the perplexity of personal identity:

Personal identity: What is it that makes a person the very person that she is, herself alone and not another, an integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be — until she does not continue any longer, at least not unproblematically?

I stare at the picture of a small child at a summer’s picnic, clutching her big sister’s hand with one tiny hand while in the other she has a precarious hold on a big slice of watermelon that she appears to be struggling to have intersect with the small o of her mouth. That child is me. But why is she me? I have no memory at all of that summer’s day, no privileged knowledge of whether that child succeeded in getting the watermelon into her mouth. It’s true that a smooth series of contiguous physical events can be traced from her body to mine, so that we would want to say that her body is mine; and perhaps bodily identity is all that our personal identity consists in. But bodily persistence over time, too, presents philosophical dilemmas.

Illustration by Salvador Dalí from his rare 1969 'Alice in Wonderland' series. Click image for more.

To probe those dilemmas, Goldstein pulls into question the biographical and biological criteria we use to confirm that our childhood selves are indeed our childhood selves — roughly the same criteria we apply in identifying that the world’s oldest organisms are indeed continuously living individuals. Goldstein writes:

The series of contiguous physical events has rendered the child’s body so different from the one I glance down on at this moment; the very atoms that composed her body no longer compose mine. And if our bodies are dissimilar, our points of view are even more so. Mine would be as inaccessible to her … as hers is now to me. Her thought processes, prelinguistic, would largely elude me.

Yet she is me, that tiny determined thing in the frilly white pinafore. She has continued to exist, survived her childhood illnesses, the near-drowning in a rip current on Rockaway Beach at the age of twelve, other dramas. There are presumably adventures that she — that is that I — can’t undergo and still continue to be herself. Would I then be someone else or would I just no longer be? Were I to lose all sense of myself — were schizophrenia or demonic possession, a coma or progressive dementia to remove me from myself — would it be I who would be undergoing those trials, or would I have quit the premises? Would there then be someone else, or would there be no one?

She then turns to the quintessential threat to such bodily continuity, the source of our greatest existential anxiety and most profound longing:

Is death one of those adventures from which I can’t emerge as myself? The sister whose hand I am clutching in the picture is dead. I wonder every day whether she still exists.

Echoing Meghan O’Rourke’s poetic assertion that “the people we most love [become] ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Goldstein writes:

A person whom one has loved seems altogether too significant a thing to simply vanish altogether from the world. A person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world. How can worlds like these simply cease altogether? But if my sister does exist, then what is she, and what makes that thing that she now is identical with the beautiful girl laughing at her little sister on that forgotten day? Can she remember that summer’s day while I cannot?

Alan Watts had an answer, but Goldstein is more interested in the question itself as a gateway to our deepest humanity:

Personal identity poses a host of questions that are, in addition to being philosophical and abstract, deeply personal. It is, after all, one’s very own person that is revealed as problematic. How much more personal can it get?

Complement with pioneering educator Annemarie Roeper on the “I” of the beholder, Anaïs Nin’s bold defense of the fluid self, experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe on the mind-bending psychology of how we know who we are, and psychologist Daniel Gilbert on how your present self’s delusions limit your future self’s happiness.

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Pen & Ink: An Illustrated Collection of Unusual, Deeply Human Stories Behind People’s Tattoos

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Stories that “speak of lives you’ll never live and experiences you know precisely.”

We wear the stories of our lives — sometimes through our clothes, sometimes even more deeply, through the innermost physical membrane that separates self from world. More than mere acts of creative self-mutilation, tattoos have long served a number of unusual purposes, from celebrating science to asserting the power structures of Russia’s prison system to offering a lens on the psychology of regret.

In Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them (public library | IndieBound), based on their popular Tumblr of the same title, illustrator and visual storyteller Wendy MacNaughton — she of extraordinary sensitivity to the human experience — and editor Isaac Fitzgerald catalog the wild, wicked, wonderfully human stories behind people’s tattoos.

From a librarian’s Sendak-like depiction of a Norwegian folktale her grandfather used to tell her, to a writer who gets a tattoo for each novel he writes, to a journalist who immortalized the first tenet of the Karen revolution for Burma’s independence, the stories — sometimes poetic, sometimes political, always deeply personal — brim with the uncontainable, layered humanity that is MacNaughton’s true medium.

The people’s titles are as interesting as the stories themselves — amalgamations of the many selves we each contain and spend our lives trying to reconcile, the stuff of Whitman’s multitudes — from a “pedicab operator and journalist” to an “actress / director / BDSM educator” to “cartoonist and bouncer.”

The inimitable Cheryl Strayed — who knows a great deal about the tiny beautiful things of which life is made and whose own inked piece of personal history is among the stories — writes in the introduction:

As long as I live I’ll never tire of people-watching. On city buses and park benches. In small-town cafes and crowded elevators. At concerts and swimming pools. To people-watch is to glimpse the mysterious and the banal, the public face and the private gesture, the strangest other and the most familiar self. It’s to wonder how and why and what and who and hardly ever find out.

This book is the answer to those questions. It’s an intimate collection of portraits and stories behind the images we carry on our flesh in the form of tattoos.

[…]

Each of the stories is like being let in on sixty-three secrets by sixty-three strangers who passed you on the street or sat across from you on the train. They’re raw and real and funny and sweet. They speak of lives you’ll never live and experiences you know precisely. Together, they do the work of great literature — gathering a force so true they ultimately tell a story that includes all.

Chris Colin, writer

For writer Chris Colin, the tattoo serves as a sort of personal cartography of time, as well as a reminder of how transient our selves are:

I got this tattoo because I suspected one day I would think it would be stupid. I wanted to mark time, or mark the me that thought it was a good idea. Seventeen years later. I hardly remember it’s there. But when I do, it reminds me that whatever I think now I probably won’t think later.

Yuri Allison, student

For student Yuri Allison, it’s a symbolic reminder of her own inability to remember, a meta-monument to memory, that vital yet enormously flawed human faculty:

I have an episodic memory disorder. I don’t have any long-term memory. My childhood is completely blank, as is my schooling until high school. Technically I can’t recall anything that’s beyond three years in the past. I find it very difficult to talk about, simply because I still can’t wrap my head around the idea myself, so when someone talks to me about a memory we are supposed to share I simply smile and say that I don’t remember. Just like my memories, lip tattoos are known to fade with time.

Roxane Gay, writer and professor

For writer, educator, and “bad feminist” Roxane Gay, it is a deliberate editing of what Paul Valéry called “the three-body problem”:

I hardly remember not hating my body. I got most of my seven arm tattoos when I was nineteen. I wanted to be able to look at my body and see something I didn’t loathe, that was part of my body by choosing entirely. Really, that’s all I ever wanted.

Morgan English, research director

For research director Morgan English, the tattoo is a depiction of “a series of childhood moments” strung together to capture her grandmother’s singular spirit in an abstract way:

My grandma died in a freak accident in May of last year. She was healthy as an ox — traveling the world with her boyfriend well into her 80s — then she broke her foot, which created a blood clot that traveled to her brain. Three days later, she was gone.

The respect and admiration I have for her is difficult to articulate. here was a woman who endured two depressions (post-WWI Weimar Germany, from which she escaped to the U.S. in 1929, just before our stock market crashed) followed by a series of traumatic events (incestuous rape, a violent husband, the suicide of her only son). You’d think these things would break a person, or at least harden them, but she only grew more focused. She once told me, “Fix your eyes on the solution, it’s the only way things get solved! Just keep moving and you’ll become the woman you’ve always wanted to be.”

Thao Nguyen, musician

The hardships, joys, and complexities of family are a running theme. Thao Nguyen, one of my favorite musicians, writes:

I moved across the country from my family, not to be far away, but with no concern for being close.

I was a taciturn family friend. Not a sister. Not a daughter. But no matter the distance, a part of me was always certain I would come back to be an aunt.

One week after my nephew, Sullivan, was born, I had his name on my wrist. There’s plenty of space for any of his siblings who might follow.

It’s been almost two years now and I go home to visit when I can, not just to pass through. I listen, I ask questions, I commit my family to memory, how they lighten up, how they grimace. I hate the time I wasted, and I fear the rate of everyone’s disappearance. Now when I leave, the distance between us is not nearly as expansive. Often it is no more than my eyes to my arm. Should I forget that I belong to people, I have Sullivan to remind me.

Caroline Paul, writer

Writer Caroline Paul — incidentally, MacNaughton’s partner and co-author of the excellent Lost Cat, one of the best books of 2013 — inks a kinship of ideals:

My brother had a secret life for twenty years as a member of the Animal Liberation Front. He was finally caught and sentenced to four years for burning down a horse slaughterhouse. I got this tattoo for him, while he was in prison. It’s my only tattoo.

It says “My heroes rescue animals.”

Mac McClelland, journalist

Journalist Mac McClelland, author of For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War, immortalizes the dermis-deep commitment to a different kind of rights cause:

The first tenet of the Karen revolution for independence from the Burmese junta is “For us to surrender is out of the question.” Little kids wear T-shirts emblazoned with it; adults bring it up, drunk and patriotic at parties. After I came home from living with Karen refugees on the Thai/Burma border in 2006, and before I wrote a book of the same title, I got the first tenet and the fourth — “We must decide our own political destiny” — tattooed on each side of my rib cage so I wouldn’t ever forget what some people were fighting for.

Mona Eltahawy, writer and public speaker

An undercurrent of political and humanitarian commitment runs throughout the book. Writer and public speaker Mona Eltahawy shares the harrowing story of her inked indignation:

I lost something the night the Egyptian riot police beat me and sexually assaulted me. I was detained for six hours at the Interior Ministry and another six by military intelligence, where I was interrogated while I was blindfolded. During my time at the Interior Ministry I’d been able to surreptitiously use an activist’s smart phone to tweet “Beaten, arrested, Interior Ministry.” About a minute later the phone’s battery died. I won’t allow myself to imagine what could have happened if I hadn’t been able to send out that tweet. After I was finally released, I found out that within fifteen minutes of the tweet #freemona was rending globally, Al Jazeera and The Guardian reported my detention, and the state department tweeted me back to tell me they were on the case. I knew I was lucky. If it wasn’t for my name, my fame, my tweet, my double citizenship, and so many other privileges I might be dead.

Sekhmet. The goddess of retribution and sex. The head of a lioness. Tits and hips. The key of life in one hand, the staff of power in the other. That paradoxical — or perhaps they’re two sides of one coin — mix of pain and pleasure. Retribution and sex. I’d never wanted a tattoo before, but as sadness washed away and my anger and the Vicodin wore off, it became important to both celebrate my survival and make a mark on my body of my own choosing.

Michelle Crouch, public radio intern

But what makes the book so immeasurably wonderful is its perfectly balanced dance across the spectrum of human experience, where the dark and the luminous are given equal share. Public radio intern Michelle Crouch shares one of the sweetest stories, inspired by artist Steven Powers’s graffiti love letters to the city:

I used to ride the Market-Frankford line [in Philadelphia] all the way west to get to work. After 46th Street the train runs on an elevated track and as I rode to this job I hated, colorful murals began popping up at eye level. They said things like “YOUR EVERAFTER IS ALL I’M AFTER” and “HOLD TIGHT” and “WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS.” They cheered me up. Once, on my day off, I walked from 46th to 63rd Street on a sort of pilgrimage and met the artist who greeted me from a crane as he painted the letters “W-A-N-T” on a brick wall. When I heard he was designing a series of tattoos based on the love letter murals, I decided to get one. A guy I’d just started dating accompanied me to the tattoo shop. I picked out “WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS.” The words remind me to be generous. I try to live them every day.

Now I have a job I like and I’m married to that boy I had just started dating. Marriage strikes me as being a lot like the tattoo — another way of making generosity permanent.

Pen & Ink is absolutely delightful from cover to cover. Supplement it with the project’s ongoing online incarnation, then treat yourself to MacNaughton’s spectacular Meanwhile and her Brain Pickings artist series contributions.

Images courtesy of Wendy MacNaughton / Bloomsbury

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Marcus Aurelius on What His Father Taught Him About Humility, Honor, Kindness, and Integrity

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What it takes to attain “the mark of a soul in readiness.”

Marcus Aurelius is considered the last of Ancient Rome’s Five Good Emperors, but he is perhaps best remembered for his contributions to philosophy as one of the most influential Stoics. His proto-blog Meditations (public library; free download) is as much a portal into his inner life as a record of his “personal micro-culture” — the myriad influences he absorbed and integrated into what became his own philosophical ideas, which endure as pillars of Western thought.

From his greatest teacher, Quintus Junius Rusticus, he learned “to read attentively” rather than skimming and not to be satisfied with superficial knowledge; from the politician Claudius Maximus, another one of his mentors, “a personality in balance: dignity and grace together”; from his brother Severus, “to help others and be eager to share, not to be a pessimist, and never to doubt your friends’ affection for you”; from his mother, generosity and an “inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it.” But perhaps his greatest influence was his adopted father — after his biological father’s death, Aurelius was raised by his paternal grandfather Marcus Annius Verus, whom he came to consider his father and whose values of humility, honor, nonjudgmental kindness, and personal integrity made a lifelong impression on the young man.

Aurelius enumerates his father-figure’s virtues:

Compassion. Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he’d reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence.

Listening to anyone who could contribute to the public good.

His dogged determination to treat people as they deserved.

A sense of when to push and when to back off.

[…]

His ability to feel at ease with people — and put them at their ease, without being pushy.

Aurelius makes a special note of his fatherly grandfather’s dedication to true critical thinking and his refusal to let people-pleasing warp his integrity:

His searching questions at meetings. A kind of single-mindedness, almost, never content with first impressions, or breaking off the discussion prematurely.

[…]

His restrictions on acclamations — and all attempts to flatter him… And his attitude to men: no demagoguery, no currying favor, no pandering. Always sober, always steady, and never vulgar or a prey to fads.

A related virtue, one at least as rare today as it was in Ancient Rome, was that he neither glorified privilege nor romanticized poverty:

Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness

[…]

The way he handled the material comforts that fortune had supplied him in such abundance — without arrogance and without apology. If they were there, he took advantage of them. If not, he didn’t miss them.

No one ever called him glib, or shameless, or pedantic. They saw him for what he was: a man tested by life, accomplished, unswayed by flattery, qualified to govern both himself and them.

Those who suffer from debilitating chronic pain would appreciate this particular superhuman feat:

The way he could have one of his migraines and then go right back to what he was doing — fresh and at the top of his game.

Aurelius summarizes his father’s virtues:

You could have said of him (as they say of Socrates) that he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy. Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark of a soul in readiness — indomitable.

Meditations, particularly the translation by Gregory Hays, is excellent in its entirety. An inferior translation is in the public domain and thus available as a free download. Complement it with Montaigne on how to live, a similarly timeless trove of wisdom some fifteen centuries after Marcus Aurelius, then revisit Seneca on the shortness of life — perhaps the greatest Stoic meditation of all.

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