On Identity - Chez Goodman 
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 Essay  Description
 *On Opinions  A disclaimer and introduction to these essays.
 *On Identity  Some of my thoughts on identity.
 *On God  Some of my thoughts on the nature of God.
 *On Life  Some of my thoughts on the meaning of life.
 *On Humor  Some of my thoughts on humor.
 *On Guns  Some of my thoughts on guns and gun control.

Some Thoughts On Identity

Fallen dominoes

I had one of my most profound insights (maybe my only one) when I was about seven. I hadn't given much thought to the nature of the people around me, they were just animated objects in my environment. But on that day I was pondering the mystery of who I was and it occurred to me that other people were conscious too: they lived inside their skulls, seeing the world through their eyes and thinking about things. It was really the first time I had put myself in someone else's shoes.

I also remember marveling at how my hands obeyed my mind. Just by 'willing' it, I could make my hand open and close, yet try as I might I couldn't analyze the steps involved in making it happen. I've always enjoyed knowing how things work (I took ball-point pens apart and reassembled them when I was three) and it was frustrating not knowing how I operated my own hand.

In high school I continued to muse over the mysteries of the mind. I asked myself questions about how I knew things, analyzed problems and arrived at answers. I started programming computers in high school, which also fueled my quest for the methods of thought. Plus, of course, I was a teenager, and teens are *supposed* to be seeking themselves. I had lots of questions.

Who are you? Can you prove it? What if you lost your arms and legs, and no longer had fingerprints? Are you still you? What if you changed your face? Are you still you? I believe that who you are is something inside. It's the consciousness carried in your brain. But is it?

If you are identified by your thoughts, memories and behavior, then what happens when you have amnesia? Or undergo a sudden change of personality? Are you still you? Over time, most of the cells of your body die off and get replaced, and over time your personality changes.

Thinking about how fluid our personality is, even our body, I came to the conclusion that we have no fixed identity. The me I am today is a slightly different person than the one I was yesterday. There *is* no fixed me. My life is a sequence of identities, starting at birth and changing and evolving by the minute in a long progression that will go on until I die. I wrote a poem about it.

Think of a flipbook: those tiny books with an image on each page like frames from a filmstrip that move when you flip past each page rapidly in succession with your thumb on the edge. Picture an image of you on each page, a different page for every second of your life, and think of the collection of images that stretches from the first page to the last. That's what life is like.

I try to keep the promises that 'I' made in the past, both to others and myself, and hope that the future 'me' will honor those that I make today. Every choice I make is committing my future self to live with the consequences.

Taken a step further, I am the result of millions of years of ancestors evolving, combining their genes and fulfilling their promise to nature to have children and raise them to maturity so that they, in turn, can pass on their DNA. I have no memory of those past lives, but I live with the consequences of their choices and I'm passing on my own genes, hoping that the future treats them kindly. That's immortality.

I am the sum of my memories, behaviors and my physical parts, and especially that little piece of me that summarizes all my senses, thoughts and reactions onto the page of memory and takes the responses to those senses to choose the next action. That little piece that's aware of its own existence, that I call I.

I can't really know the universe, or even where I am. I'm just a lump of gray matter nestled in a cradle of bone, creating a world to live in from the sensations that reach me from my eyes, ears and other senses. When I think I'm seeing the world, I'm just seeing a projection of it recreated inside my head, reduced and altered by the mechanisms of perception. I can never really know what's out there, all I have are the interpretations. I create my own world.

The funny thing is... having minimized identity to a bare minimum, and while I believe everything I've just said... I also believe the very opposite of that. I'm more than just my thoughts... more than just my brain, more than just this body, this 'bag of skin' that thinks of itself as an independent unit isolated from the world. The world doesn't stop at my skin.

My hair isn't alive, it has no sensation, yet it's still part of me. The air in my lungs is absorbed into my bloodstream, and the carbon dioxide I produce is expelled and we're all connected, all share the same body of air and the water draining to the sea, evaporating and falling again as rain. I'm made of the same stuff as the planet. Thinking that I'm apart from everything else is a fallacy.

I grew up during the 60's, when there were riots, the cold war and threats of nuclear annihilation. I honestly doubted that I'd live long enough to become an adult. I think one reason we were called the 'me' generation is that some of us decided to live life 'now' while we still could, fearing there'd be no tomorrow.

Some people feel immortal. They think, "That could never happen to me" and take risks that others would find foolhardy. In some cases they become aware of their mortality, and stop taking so many risks.

I'm dying. So are you. Health is just the slowest possible rate of dying, but we're all going to die someday. I've always known I was mortal, always known I was going to die, and in fact came to believe that I die every day. With that knowledge, I sometimes take more risks than others would. "What, you want to live forever?"

When I die, cremate me and bury the ashes at the roots of a fruit tree. I'll nourish the tree and live on as the tree and its fruit and its benefits, and I'll live on in the memories of those who knew me or benefited from the things I've produced. To Nature's view, I'll live on by passing my DNA to my offspring and hopefully leaving the world a better place for our children.

I hope after plowing your way through this long ramble that you found some morsels of interest to think about. At the very least I hope you're not hiring an assassin to stop me before I bore again.

The Russians have a saying (according to friend Greg Blüher): "You're a man when you've had a child, planted a tree and written a book." Do two out of three count? :)

Copyright © 2004 David K. Goodman. All Rights Reserved.
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