Sunday, April 15, 2007

Who Are We, Really?

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?


Brian the Mennonite said...

It's scarey because it's so big. It's so big because it can't yet be fully answered. It'can't be fully answered because everyone who looks at it and speaks will only speak from opinion rather than 100% certainty. People's opinions are never a certainty, although many of them sound really good.
To feel currently unafraid, and because the truth cannot be currently known, I think we need to latch onto something that makes sense for ourselves and try to find people who will act as that great echoing mountain. There's no point in yelling into a vacuum or walking into a house of mirrors when seeking to find agreement.

So go ahead and ask. Don't be afraid.

lettuce said...

and i think its scarey because we all doubt ourselves sometimes - some of us, quite a bit.

as someone who has recently begun a process of "coming to myself" - becoming "more" myself - I'm increasingly convinced that - I have no idea what it all means! but I'm pretty sure its a process, not a static thing.

But with continuity that comes from..... somewhere/something?

thats one of the most perplexing things for me - the change/continuity aspect of it all.... i think i'll be musing on this throughout the day ...

Anonymous said...

I think we are both our bodies and our souls, stuck together for now. But a person, a core being, tucked away in our minds? I don't know. Our minds, our brains are such delicate things, subject to so many insults over our lifetime.

Depression messes with my mind all the time, impairs my thinking. I know this but I don't know how to tell if what I'm thinking is real or not at times which is scarey. How am I supposed to make a decision with regards to something if what I'm thinking isn't evern real? It's quite paralying at times.

So when you figure this out Joyce, can you call me? Let me know. Thanks for making me think so early in the morning:)

gloria said...

yeeesh Joyce, can you let me finish my second coffee on a Monday before hitting me with this?

Romeo Morningwood said...

Only Fools, Philosophers, and Bloggers rush in where Angels fear to tread..
especially on a Monday Morning!!

This is THE question that we all try to sort through. Now that we have spent about 3,000 years of recorded History trying to decipher the evidence we are currently at a standoff. While Neuroscience has presented evidence that we are the result of chemicals and synaptic activity most humans on the planet want a different answer..a better one...especially one with a happy ending.
The real miracle is that we have survived each other's company long enough to even be asking this question...although there are still plenty of people around who are working day and night to 'finish us off' before we find out.

(oh oh my word verification was fuypnk)

joyce said...

So is the continuity our soul then?

Anonymous said...

And, how does a soul express itself?

I've always felt that there is a connection to how our body/mind/soul works together to make us a complete person.

Father/Son/Holy Spirit - One God.

We are made in His image.

I've nothing figured out though. Just plenty of disjointed thoughts.

Judy - Anybody Home

Anonymous said...

Great question, no answers. I stand "naked" before God. I am personally trying to deal with "today" and mostly "me". I'm mostly assured that "God knows my heart -- better than I do". Pat answer? Maybe, but it helps me.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I was going to post a digital scrapbooking project tomorrow...but I think I will talk about your post...if you don't mind. These are the questions that I love to tackle in both my intro psychology class and my developmental psychology students are very much into absolute truths and when they enter into my classroom their heads seem to implode ;)This is not a scary question for me....more like an every day question..can't wait to digest it more when the after-school rush here at home subsides.

Anonymous said...

I hate to add some 'who's on first' to the mix, but I had two great-aunts who were rather affected, pretentious people when they were in their 'right' mind. But after they developed Alzheimers, they turned into sweethearts.

So who was the real them? Did they don their affectations like a mask to protect themselves from the world, playing to whatever it was that they felt others expected of them, or was it a personality self-censorship removed by Alzheimers so that the sweetheart, unaffected, unpretentious people they became were their true selves, set free by Alzheimers?

And if so, does that mean that the in-their-right-mind everyday sweetheart people who turn into foul-mouthed witches with Alzheimers are showing THEIR true selves?

Are the sheep in wolves' clothing and the wolves in sheep's clothing?

~Occasional Reader

joyce said...

We want an answer with more significance than synaptic activity and chemicals. (maybe especially on a Monday morning?)

God knows our heart for sure, but when we depend on others and "know" others, do we really?

Danielle, I had a sadistic freak for intro Psych. Where were you when I needed you? And I look forward to your perspective.

dear occasional: I'm glad you brought that up. I had the very same, identical questions when I worked on the locked ward. The sweet church lady turned foul-mouthed sex-fiend. Who was she first? Is she both of those, but suppressed one? Is she really neither, but simply subject to her chemical synaptic combinations? Did those other behaviors lie dormant? What about the sweet custodian turned violent who tried to strangle us in his bathroom? Mr-nice-guy-next-door, he was. Sort of like that murderer we've all heard of who "was quiet and kept to himself".

Are we WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAy more random than we'd like to think? Again, I mean on the physical scale. The here and now, the forces that direct our behaviors. Of course, the spiritual transcends this, and is eternal. Is that eternal part of us the "real" me? Or are we like apples with peal, core, and meat? and when we do stuff "out of character" is that because we're seeing one of those parts in utter isolation?

Anonymous said...

Me again....I just touched the surface on today's post to this intriquing and fascinating question...I am going to continue tomorrow with looking at the other question you presented....'do we ever really know each other'....I'm still dwelling on what would define our 'souls' in all of this....Is it any wonder you were presented with the 'Thinking Blogger Award' (grin)

joyce said...

.... is it any wonder that I'm just a few steps left of the psych ward...

Unknown said...

I'm reading Flannary O' Connor these days...

"You know", daddy said "it's some that can live their whole life out without asking about it,and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything !" - spoken by the Misfit, referring to himself, (He's an escaped felon from the short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find)

Read your post and just thought of the above quote I was pondering from my reading this weekend...

Queenheroical said...

Here I coming to the party late but I read the opening of the topic when you first posted and my brain ran for the hills -- but I am now caught up or at least I have read it.

Put me in mind of a book: Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, and in the very beginning a mysterious letter arrives for the 11 year old Sophie and in it is a slip of paper with the "simple" question of "Who are You?" The book continues (I am only into the beginning because I have tried to read the book three times and only now is my head clear enough to read it with any sense) as a history of Philosophy in novel form.

I haven't anything else to add, except I find comfort in the knowing that in the end, He knows. (clique probably, but at the end of the day it gets my through)