The believer-of-Jesus in me cringes a little posting something with a title like that. But only because my less evolved self fears the disappointment I must be to my more godly friends. Ah well, I can only be me with any sense of authenticity. I kind of know the church answers to this question, and I don't think that's really what my core question is anyhow. A favourite blogger of mine is currently dealing with the painful reality of surrendering her mother's mind and personality to that shameless thief: Alzheimers disease. In the post, she raises the question of "who are we without our memories?" I "hmmm-ed" thoughtfully at the question, as I have worked for some years with people harshly changed by dementia and alzheimers. I only ever knew them as ill, since it was their diagnosis which brought them into the care of medical personnal. Still, I often stared into the photographs on their bureaus and walls to try and get a whiff of who they once were. Mother. Father. Professional. Funny, gifted, brilliant, flashy. All was in the past. And it made me wonder who, or what a person is. We describe people by their character, or behaviors, or talents. But is there a core to what a person is? Are we simply bodies with chemicals coursing through us that direct our choices, attributes, and personalities? I mean that question entirely apart from the question of "soul" and "spirit", since they transcend the physical and have everlasting qualities. I'm talking more about the here and now.
This question first exploded in my head some years ago when a close friend experienced her first bipolar induced mania. Her body carried on, but SHE was not directing it. She was gone. My friend had died, but her body walked among us. It held within it some memories of when its rightful owner occupied it, but the memories were polluted and poisoned. Instead of providing a familiar place for loved ones to meet, they twisted and tainted what once was, and perceived old friends as newly identified enemies.
The agony was worse than death. And it begged the question: Who are we really? Chemicals held together by synapse and sinew? A portable lab? A sort of "matrix" existance where we see what we want to see, but can't or don't acknowledge its fragility? If I have more or less of a particular chemical, would I become a person who struggles with rage? artistic excellence? Would I become more, or less likeable? socially acceptable? deceived?
If I were involved in an accident involving serious head injury, my personality could become permanently altered. Is that then the "who" that I am? How do we know that the original "who" is the real one? Is there something entirely untouchable, entirely "core" that can define us regardless of life's cruelties?
And what about something more mundane and innocuous like all the millions of little decisions we make in all the millions of moments that make up the years of our lives? As they develop grooves of familiarity in our grey matter, they shape us into who we are. Are we then the culmination of chemicals, culture, and choices?
And why does this feel like such a scarey thing to question?