For today’s question, let’s consider the metaphysics of identity–wait! don’t run away! I promise to make it relevant, not full of highfalutin’ ideas! The intrepid Fandango wonders:
Is the concept of “you” continuous or does the past “you” continually fade into the present and future “you”? Considering that your body, your mind, and your memories are changing over time, what part of “you” sticks around?Provocative Question #80
To me, this smells strongly of the Theseus Paradox, a thought experiment from the Classical Age of Greece, although my thoughts turn more contemporary. Never mind the You… what about Us? What can the Theseus Paradox tell us about living through a pandemic?
Theseus, after slaying the Minotaur in the labyrinth of Crete, sailed home to Athens a hero. His ship was preserved and placed on display for all to see as a testament to his success and valor. Over time, the wooden ship rotted and planks were replaced. Then, the mast, bits of sail, rope certainly … and as decades and centuries wore on, all of the individual bits of the ship were replaced. Some of those replacements may have even changed the angle of the mast and the structure of the hall, since the blueprints were lost. Years later, the ship may not have even looked the same.
The paradox at heart, then, is If the entire ship is replaced, was it the same ship? That’s how I would rephrase that provocative question: What is the essence of You given that You are constantly changing? For some, the answer might be a religious one that mentioned the idea of the soul. For others who describe themselves as spiritual rather than adhering to a specific religious doctrine, they might say it’s your aura.
The ship example, though, shows that this notion of essential Thing-iness is not about humans or even animate objects. There is a There There, somewhere, underneath the Change, whether it’s a Soul, an Aura, or the essential Identity of an object. My friends who are experts in Plato are welcome to go off on a tangent, though I will not. What I will do is provide a personal example.
Break a Leg
In March of 2002, I broke my left ankle roller skating, and it took eight months to fully recover. (Yes, I continued roller skating for a decade after that; I have no knock against roller skating per, se.) Many years later, however, I developed knee problems on the left side, heel problems on the right side, a right shoulder problem, and nerve issues on the left side of my neck. Every subsequent doctor and orthopedist would eventually circle back to this injury as a possible original source of the problem as the balance of my body was fundamentally altered.
You all have your own variations of this story. A stomach problem developed which led to a change in diet, the restricted diet restructured your hormone production, which caused bone brittleness, and so on. We’re affected not just by general wear and tear on our bodies but incidents and shocks to the system. Our bodies are designed to cope and “work around the problem,” but the ripple effects are felt for years or probably the remainder of our lives.
Yet we still remain ourselves. If you break your leg, you don’t immediately think–I’m suddenly someone else— even if years later, that has a dramatic effect on what you can eat, do, and experience. Your first thought during recovery is, How soon can I get back to normal? rather than a realization that your norm has completely changed.
We are a resilient people, and if we can’t get back to normal–if we can’t get back to the way we used to be–we can go forward with expanded wisdom and experience.
Humans Are Resilient
People do this on a broader level, too. When there are localized disasters, the first thought isn’t necessarily it’ll never be the same, but rather we’ll get through this. It was #BostonStrong after the Boston marathon bombing, not We’ll never be able to have a Boston Marathon as we used to. America has lived through the Great Depression, two World Wars, and three or four regional wars all within the last century. Americans didn’t stop every single time and spend a lot of time navel gazing with Will we ever be the same? How can we turn the clock back to before this happened?
People endured the hardships as best they could, and when the immediate crisis was over, they continued onward, even though times had changed drastically. There was a recognition that the “norm” had shifted and most recognized that the experiences made them different people and the world around them a different world. Even with 9/11, which was a terrible event, but realistically only lasted for a few hours and affected a “relatively” limited number of people–compared with our pandemic, one of the wars, or the financial crisis–even then people understood that the world was not going back.
We Were Never Going Back
There’s been growing nostalgia about wanting to go back to the way things were, to not wear masks and not stay home, to be able to see family whenever we want, and to visit whatever stores are open, as if all these things are permanent rights which no event is ever allowed to change. It seems rather pointless as a wish. We’re not, as a country, going back to the way things were, which is both good and bad. For some, being better about hand-washing may save their life in the future. For black Americans, there may be opportunity that will emerge from the experiences of the summer for other reasons. Some people may be happy that we aren’t turning back the clock.
It may be painful not to see family the way you were accustomed to, but you can see them via Zoom, with masks, or through other means. Maybe you’ve seen them more often with the new technology. Or maybe you will appreciate them more when you can see them in person without masks. Whatever the happenstance will be for you, that New Normal is not going to become the Old Normal again. It never has, when crises have flared up before.
Even Without a Normal there Is An Identity
Still, we can be resilient about sticking to our core identities–as individuals and as a country–after the Events of 2020. America was full of free spirits and innovation before the pandemic and will be so afterwards. We’re a diverse, messy, melting pot of opinions spread over a geographically varied terrain; that’s not changing, despite the loud protestations of many who think we can legislate away diversity or shame it out of existence. Ain’t gonna happen.
We’re going to come out the pandemic as different people, but we will keep our essence, in the same way that I became a person who had broken their ankle. The real secret is that it wasn’t “normal” before the pandemic, either.
Hand-wringing about how we can’t go back to the good ol’ days ends up wrong for two reasons. First, they weren’t always good for everyone all the time; isn’t it odd to read people wish for the days before racism? Secondly, though, instead of lamenting the loss of Things that we no longer have, we will be able to celebrate how we were able to endure and prevail. Of course, we can lament the loss of people, loss of family who did not make it. But we can also celebrate the ability to come through as well as the tremendous evidence of human nobility and sacrifice that we have received from those who rose to the occasion.
We will also be forever changed by experiencing those moments of grace. And we will still be Us.