By Josh Wagner
I don’t remember most of my life. What I ate for breakfast last week, how I spent my January 2007, the color of the grass in Los Angeles in mid-September, what it feels like to be in the second grade are all gone, erased from my mind. If I was asked what I did on any particular day before 2018, I would struggle to come up with anything beyond base generalization — “I got dressed,” “I went to school,” “I ate lunch,” “I played a jazz song at morning announcements.” Yet, at the same time, I have the distinct feeling that I should remember all of these things that happened to me, as if they are integral to my life, in part because they are. My sense of self, of what it means to be Josh, is built on the foundation of the experiences of living. And, if I can’t remember the precise details or feelings of that existence, what kind of self am I?
When I went home for winter break, my mother and I went through several photo albums, trying to jog my memory of growing up. One image of me standing in my crib caught my attention. For once, I remembered something that had happened to me, captured by the photo from a disposable Kodak. I was still a toddler, asleep in my crib, when the sound of the garage door closing startled me. I started upright, uncharacteristically quiet, staring at the opposite wall, towards the door, looking for some answer. When no one came, I started crying. Realizing this, my older brother came into the room with a toy train, I think it was Gordon from Thomas the Tank Engine. Hearing my brother’s voice and comforted by the toy, I started to calm down. And, when my parents came into my room hours later, they found me snuggled up with Gordon.
It’s a trivial childhood story of little interest to anyone else. There’s just one problem with it. It’s not about me. The picture that inspired this remembering? It was of my brother taken a full two years before I was born. Yet, at the same time, I have this very vivid memory of encountering my brother and Gordon the train as a child, tied to this photo. It’s all made up.
Psychologically, I think I wanted a story which would explain why trains comfort me. I want to be able to reduce my life back into a series of childhood experiences. If I could only remember everything that happened to me as a younger human, I would be able to understand all of my present interests and actions. Of course, this kind of claim is absurdly and intuitively untrue. Yet, at the same time, there is a modicum of relief at being so reducible and predetermined.
This kind of language of storytelling is built into the human mind in the same way that breathing is wired into our lungs. And we need language just as much as we need stories. Language helps us craft stories, which in turn create our selves. And these stories, narrative fallacies like the one I fabricated over break, help sort through the information overload of life. The chemical complexity of our internal consciousness and reactions far exceeds the biological processing power of our minds. So, we forget and we fictionalize.
Our conceptualizations of ourselves are inaccurate and downright wrong. Modern science and religion converge on this point. David Dunning’s psychological research demonstrates that humans, on average, are terrible judges of their own abilities in a given field. Am I good enough to climb Mt. Everest? I don’t know, but the odds are that, as Dunning discusses, my coaches and friends do. Quantum physicist David Bohm loves to talk about the fictionalized protagonist that we project onto ourselves. Was I rude to my roommate when I told him that I didn’t want to grab coffee? Of course not, it’s week 1, he knows that I’m shopping way too many classes. There’s no rational or surefire way to know how someone else perceives you — it’s all a story you tell yourself — but it’s also a necessary deception. If there were no way to understand yourself on this basic level, you wouldn’t be able to do anything — “you” don’t exist in that way.
So, what makes up a self? It seems like the self is slippery because it exists even when we’re not thinking about it. There’s no biological process which lets us know that the self originates in our brains, that we have a self, or when we have an idea — they arrive in a flash of brilliance. Yet humans can easily distinguish this kind of internal-external divide on a physical level. If someone moves your hand, it’s immediately apparent that you didn’t move it yourself — the feelings are completely different. With respect to our bodies, we are able to be the objective observer who is an accurate judge of ourselves. But, when we go inside ourselves — is it even inside? — this ability becomes much harder, if not disappears entirely.
If my experiences in section show anything, it’s that it is difficult to control thinking and have something to say in the heat of the moment. Thought secretly propels our actions and shapes our emotions, yet I don’t think of my emotions being mediated through thoughts. Feeling seems immediate and personal, an unregulated gut reaction — “you can’t control your feelings.” But, at the same time, that immediate feeling is pointless without a means of understanding what it means to feel. If you felt an intense jealousy and didn’t have the language or knowledge of how to interpret it, were you even jealous? Perception is self.
And maybe the way that we are aware of this need to be seen through the narratives we craft around and for ourselves. When our minds can encounter and perceive themselves obliquely through the medium of story, the stakes are lowered and everything becomes less crushingly real. Maybe our selves become more comfortable in exploring their fictional nature in the openly fictional stories we tell ourselves. Maybe these internal monologues and misremembered memories of childhood are where our selves get to take off their worn-out sandals, put their feet up, turn on the local news and exhale, before they’re forced back into their utilitarian uniforms to face a world in which they can’t, for good reason, entirely believe.
Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.