Who we used to be

Recently I came home from work with my head so full of the next day’s chores that I couldn’t relax until I had made a list of all I needed to do. The list was full of cryptic items like “foop email in boilers?”. Looking at the jotted notes, I thought that in five years, probably none of this would make sense to me any more; it would be as if the list had been written by someone else. In the end, this speculation about my five-years-from-now self was beside the point, because my next-morning self couldn’t find the list.

That incident neatly captures our uneasy relationship with future and previous selves. Years ago I had a friend who liked to think of his choices in terms of making his future self’s life easier, in part by keeping as many options open as possible (e.g., avoiding going deeply into debt). This is an optimistic take on the relationship with our future selves, although aside from the obvious things like enough money to live on, it’s sometimes hard to know what your future self will want. And sooner or later your options must narrow; even not choosing winds up being a choice. Montaigne recognized these other selves with a more rueful attitude when he wrote that “I now and I anon are two several persons; but whether better, I cannot determine. It were a fine thing to be old, if we only travelled towards improvement…” Indeed.

Even more interesting, though, is the way our past selves can confound us. Last year when my younger son was preparing to move away from home for grad school in another state, he told me that he sometimes thinks his mission in life is to do things that will later baffle himself. He produced a gallon milk jug full of sand that he had no recollection of ever acquiring as evidence. I know exactly what he’s talking about; the reason I speculated about that to-do list was that other lists had floated to the surface months or years after I wrote them, and sometimes it feels as if they were written by someone else. Last year I made the following list of words, evidently seeds for some essay or meditation that never saw the light of day: faith, stories, twilight, food, evening, street. An evocative list, perhaps, but as devoid of meaning as if the words had appeared at random during a Scrabble game (which they might have, for all I know to the contrary). I’m reminded of Robert Browning’s explication of one of his poems: “When I wrote that, God and I knew what it meant; now God alone knows.”

Some of our past actions puzzle us because the behavior wasn’t important enough to register very deeply in the first place. Several years ago I ran into my older son on campus and we came back to my apartment for something to eat. There we found a jar of peanut butter in the dishpan with a few dishes waiting to be washed. My son was amused (“I want some of whatever you were smoking”), but I was curious about how that peanut butter got there. I could remember having peanut butter on toast for breakfast, and it was a new jar of the kind of peanut butter that separates and needs to be stirred. It’s hard to stir it without dribbling some down the side, and I guess that I took the jar over to the dishpan to wipe it off with the dishcloth. Why I then set it down in the dishpan is anyone’s guess.

It’s not exactly that I forgot where I put the jar; I wasn’t really aware of it in the first place. It wasn’t very important, and I was on autopilot. There’s often confusion when the conscious mind demands an accounting from the unconscious, demanding “Where did I set those keys down?” In my experience, a big part of being organized is setting up your surroundings so that you can unconsciously and by habit do things that will make sense later.

Other things register in our consciousness but don’t warrant saving in long-term memory. There are plenty of things I do at work that fit into this category. I’m a technical writer, and the documents that we work on come with logs that tell you who worked on them when. Sometimes I wonder who made a particular change, or think of something that needs to be fixed and find that it’s already done, and am surprised to look in the log and find that it’s my own work. I edit hundreds of documents every year, and look at hundreds more that are edited by my co-workers, so it makes sense that much of my work resides in short-term memory and then gets flushed periodically. If I remembered every single edit I made, I wouldn’t have room in my brain for the important things, like my family’s birthdays and the dozen or so passwords that are required for my online existence, or the names of the half-dozen teams that the Indiana University men’s basketball team played on its way to the NCAA championship in 1987. You can’t possibly remember everything, and so we have to let some things go.

John Locke proposed that our personal identity is based on our memories of ourselves: we are who we remember ourselves being. Strictly speaking, this doesn’t take into account the necessity for letting some things drop out of our memories as we accumulate more and more experiences. My identity doesn’t feel compromised by the fact that I can’t recall what I had for breakfast on this date six years ago. However, with the proviso that some forgetting is normal and even essential, I tend to agree with Locke. Some memories do seem tied up with my identity, and the loss of them does seem to diminish my sense of who I am.

I think sometimes we forget who we used to be because those previous selves are connected to states of mind that it’s hard to re-enter after they have passed. Who we are at a certain place and time—or maybe more accurately, what it feels like to be who we are—is dependent on things like who we were spending time with and talking to, what we were hearing about on the news, what the weather was like, what we were eating, the route we took to work every day. The matrix of thoughts and associations and conversations and routines is not our identity exactly, but it’s a very strong link to what our identity felt like to us. A complex interplay of biochemistry and emotions plays a major role in our actions, and these things really are a part of our identity. It can be hard to understand who we are, or were, without remembering these factors.

William James wrote about what it is that makes the stream of thought continuous in each of us so that we know we are the same person over time. In particular, he talks about the way we pick up the thread of consciousness again after sleep. Even if we know what was in someone else’s mind when he went to sleep, we can’t reconnect with his earlier thoughts the way we do with our own. James distinguishes between the two things by saying that we remember our own earlier state, while we can only conceive of another person’s: “Remembrance is like direct feeling; its object is suffused with a warmth and intimacy to which no object of mere conception ever attains.”

I have sometimes thought that some of my earlier selves might as well have been strangers for all I could remember of what they were thinking, but if James is right, that’s not quite true. We probably seldom feel about our own past exactly the way we would about a story that a stranger told us about his past. There’s probably at least a little bit of that warmer feeling even toward past events that we remember only imperfectly. Even that scrap of paper with the list of words is recognizably a part of me, simply because I know that I’m always jotting things down on scraps of paper and the backs of shopping lists.

But the strength of that warmth and immediacy lessens as time goes by and we forget the details of our circumstances. Or maybe we misremember how we felt at the time or what our rationale was for whatever mystifying decision we came to. A particular past self feels further and further away, until at some point we have lost a part of ourselves.

Of course, it’s not only past selves that we can lose. As we grow older, we realize there are some things we will never be or do. The future self that lives in Europe or has a PhD or knows how to speak five languages slowly fades away and one day we realize it’s lost. This is a foretaste of the eventual loss of all our future selves. Perhaps that’s why I protest against losing touch with my past selves. Or maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and I take to heart Christopher Buckley’s observation that “A writer’s life is his capital.” I value experience, and I don’t want to forget any of the experiences I’ve gathered so far. If we have to let some things go, it’s good to at least retain signposts to help us access some of them again.

Maybe this is why people hang onto old letters or ticket stubs or the keys to old cars. Just holding these physical objects in our hands can call to mind the situations in which they were new to us: the 22-cent stamp, the handwriting of a lost love, the heft of the key in our hand. Walking around an old neighborhood (assuming you are fortunate enough to have a pleasantly memorable old neighborhood that hasn’t been utterly transformed by intervening years) can let loose a flood of memories. Music and smells are also powerful stimuli to this kind of memory.

Maybe that’s why we keep journals, too. My older son recently gave me a practical example of how useful this can be: he keeps notes as he writes code, so that if he has to go back and revisit the code later, he doesn’t need to work through his whole problem-solving process again to figure out why he programmed something a particular way. Most of us can probably see the usefulness of this: immersed in a task, you hit upon some process that makes perfect sense at the time, but later you (and probably your co-workers) wonder what on earth it was all about. I can almost feel a click in my mind later when things fall into place and I remember the sequence of thoughts that led to a particular workaround or decision. A journal helps you to reach that state much more quickly. Diaries about our personal lives can have the same effect; they can help you take a step closer to that immediate connection with your earlier self that James talked about.

In the months before my first marriage, I carried around a spiral-bound notebook full of to-do lists for the wedding, notes about tux rentals and caterers and music, notes about the plans that my first husband Andy and I had for setting up a household together, and a sort of a crude day planner. This thing was lost to my sight for the better part of 20 years, and when it resurfaced 5 or 6 years ago, I was curious about what glimpses it would offer of my earlier self, who by then appeared somewhat puzzling to me.

I was 17 when I decided to venture into marriage, child-rearing, and what turned out to be a brief stint at back-to-the-land idealism. I thought I remembered the facts well enough, but I couldn’t really get inside the head of that naive teenager. What on earth made me think that I could live among the cows and chickens when I had never lived outside the city and didn’t even enjoy camping all that much, for example? I opened the notebook with high hopes for reconnecting with that earlier self; I found a fascinating blend of nostalgia and bemusement.

Some of the things in the notebooks were bewildering at first but ultimately understandable. Amidst all the flowers and white satin, I found a note to myself to buy a box of chocolate-covered cherries and a snorkel. This had me scratching my head for a moment, but I realized these were undoubtedly usher gifts for my younger brothers, one of whom is fond of chocolate-covered cherries. The note “Chicken Little Day” for a day in July made me pause for a moment, but I remembered that it was a reference to the day of Skylab’s fiery return to Earth.

(On the other hand, some things are utterly opaque to me now. I have a list that is headed “To add to Andy’s mother’s guest list” but instead of containing names, the list contains only the single baffling entry “wicker basket (instead of serving bowl)”. Maybe some parts of our earlier selves really are strangers to us. Luckily that’s not a very important part.)

There were more important hints of my earlier self, though. For example, I had the idea that I had been becoming more and more of a worry-wart as I got older as an unfortunate reaction to the inevitable ups and downs of life. In the notebook, however, I can see that I had an impressively detailed “Wedding worries” list that ran to no fewer than 14 addenda, and this for a simple low-budget wedding (no sit-down dinner, no alcohol, no limousines, no swans). So maybe I was this much of a worry-wart all along.

I had forgotten the tremendous enthusiasm with which I tackled my new life, the lists I made of the skills Andy and I would need to acquire and the things we hoped to do. I had also forgotten that I had planned to move out of my parents’ house before the wedding and live on my own, for reasons that I considered so obvious at 17 that I didn’t write them down, which makes them hard to reconstruct now. (Diaries have their limits, after all.) This planned move was a surprise to me; it never happened and I had forgotten that it was even contemplated. Maybe I was trying to prove my maturity to my parents, but I guess it’s just as well I didn’t carry it too far. I can’t imagine now what I would have lived on in a place of my own, since I was in college and working half-time. My list of assets was touchingly optimistic: $800 (with $800 crossed out and $605 written instead; even in 1979 this was not a lot of money), a bicycle, a record player, a sewing machine, two plants (one hanging). After all my notes about the apartment search, I wrote: “When you unpack, remember, the unicorn comes first!” I had totally forgotten a small glass unicorn that Andy had given me, but it was a precious object to me at the time.

The notebook did provide a portal through which I could catch a glimpse of my younger self. I could see that I had been willing to brave the cows and the chickens because I believed in giving myself wholeheartedly to a cause I thought was good and a relationship that I cherished. This is not news from nowhere, of course; I can see that same passion for throwing myself into things at work in my life now. Over time, however, it’s easy to forget the connection, to think you’ve changed more than you have. I may describe myself differently over the years, but the underlying traits are not that different in my younger and older selves. In short, reading that notebook re-introduced me to another and very different time of my life, and helped me to understand myself a bit better. Past experiences that had been growing misty are sharper in my mind now. I’m glad my all-those-years-ago self carefully put the notebook away in a box so that a later self could learn from it.

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