Conundrum: Who am I?


daily prompt: Conundrum. co·nun·drum /kəˈnəndrəm/ Noun. a confusing and difficult problem or question.


We carry the same name throughout our lives and consider ourselves as a relatively stable, unitary entity. But is it really right to think of ourselves as the same person? There is no doubt that over a lifetime we all change to an extraordinary degree, from a physical perspective. At the start of our life, we are some inches in diameter, small enough to be carried everywhere in a warm parents embrace. Some 80 or 90 years later we may be five or six feet tall, spotted from the sun with grey hair, or lack thereof. In the period in between, every single cell in our body will have been replaced a number of times over. For Heraclitus, this is not the same human. But the issue of “who am I” is trickier than first assumed. It may come down to what we value more as an indicator of our personal identity.

Many people would choose the brain as the part of their body as something that tells us an interesting and implicitly personal bit of who they are. But when we ask others, perhaps a lover, what they like about us, the wrong answers are often given- “I like your beautiful eyes. Your amazing muscular shoulders. Your gorgeous hair. Your impeccable fashion sense.” If I lost a finger, a limb, or cut all my hair off, would I still be considered the same person? Of course. It leaves a recognition of something closer to our real selves to be desired- what we would call the “brain.” However, suppose at one time I could speak French, and lost the ability to speak after getting a bump to the head. Would I still be considered the same person? I still would be. These technical capacities do not feel close to the core of personal identity either.

English philosopher Locke wrote that personal identity is made up of a “sameness of consciousness.” In this sense, boiling personal identity down to its essence comes down to values, inclinations, and temperament. With this in mind, if we bring in the prospect of death, the common view of death is that it is sad- it means the end of a person’s identity.  This view is right, if we associate identity with the survival of a body, with or without fond memories. But if we think about who we are as Locke wrote, our values and characteristics, we are then granted a sort of immortality, simply through the fact that these will continue to live on in humanity as a whole. Sprinkled here and there throughout society, eventually placed outside of their present home. A set of ideas and proclivities will continue to pop up and live past those of the physical death. Those ideas that are most characteristic of us, or of others, will continue to emerge, as they must in the generations that are to come.

Conundrum: Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? We may never come to a conclusive answer. But there is solace in focusing in on questions of identity- helping us be less attached to certain bits of humans and more comforted that the important things about who we were will in a way, survive, long after we return to dust.

Posted 2016.12.14 8:23PM

Artwork by Alexandra Levasseur



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