The New York Times has an article about psychology and life narrative that I found interesting. I won’t go into my own feelings too deeply, but there’s a lot here that is intriguing. I particularly thought about Joseph Campbell, and “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and also Terrence Mckenna. Both talked about being the hero in the narrative of your own life. That even without a particular religion or belief system, we can see our lives as a noble quest, full of meaning, in which we are the protagonist, bound to succeed and do great things. Apparently this is a good strategy for happiness.
I found the bits on first vs. third person recollection and future projection interesting as well. For most of my life this has been the way I’ve functioned. I can see how much my ideas about the world have changed and evolved as I’ve aged, and I can clearly picture myself as a different person from who I was even a few months ago. I also have a strong vision of how I will change in the future and who I will be.
The article tackles this from a perspective of how you tell the story of your life, and I tend to think it’s instead a question of how you perceive yourself. For me there’s an aspect of Zen Buddhism here. There’s a big question of temporal presence, i.e. in which moment do I exist. The Zen folk encourage reducing that temporal presence to what you might call “right now”. The general sense is, we don’t exist in the past or the future in any concrete way, we only exist right now and that is where our attention should be focused.
For me, I would say my temporal presence is probably about 2 months. That’s the furthest out in the future or past that I could comfortably call the person 2 months in my future or 2 months in my past “me”, as least as I currently conceive myself.
Those who’s temporal presence is much longer, years or decades, have to deal with a large volume of memories and experiences that they still feel apply directly to who they currently are. That’s got to be rough. Imagine having an embarrassing moment some time in your early 20s that you still feel the immediate shame of (because you’re still the same person) in your 30s. There’s a sense of immediacy that doesn’t fade. Yikes.
Jason Kottke, from whom I stole the link, joking calls this lying to yourself. By abstracting yourself from your experiences, you’re separating yourself from them in order to continue happily along. While I know he was being funny, this isn’t an act of self deception. People who perceive themselves as different from their past, generally are different. I really don’t know if the me that I was in high school would like what I have become now. Not because I’ve somehow betrayed the principles of my youth, but because I have a more comprehensive picture of the world and how I fit into it.
So along with the question of how we perceive ourselves also comes the question of are we growing and changing as individuals in large enough steps that we are cognizant of those changes and can play them back in a narrative of our lives. For sure, a good handful of us have gone to those 10 year high school reunions and seen people who haven’t changed at all. How would they project themselves back upon their lives?
Anyway… lots of good thought provoking stuff here if you’re into this kind of stuff.