a blog by J.M. Cottle
Facebook Twitter Goodreads Newsletter

Reborn this way: my theory of the self

Hello, friends. It’s been a while since I did any philosophy, wouldn’t you say? Let see if I’ve still got it.

First, some inspiration from one of my favorite philosophers:

To “give style” to one’s character – a great and rare art! He exercises it who surveys all that his nature presents in strength and weakness and then molds it to an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason, and even the weaknesses delight the eye.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Thinking about Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way” and my aversion to the “being queer isn’t a choice, we were born this way” argument often made by the queer community (which I don’t need to write about because this post has already summed it up perfectly) has made me think about the ways we build our selves in general. As an existentialist, that’s exactly the word I would use – build. Or create. As people, we are not born with a self. We receive a bunch of potential self material when we arrive in the world, and then we must make something out of it, for better or worse.

Just for reference, my definition of a self is “what makes an individual person who they are”. It’s what makes you You, what makes me Me, what separates You from Me from every other individual that’s ever existed. Some people would say this is a soul, or a spirit. Others (I’m looking at you, Buddhists) say it doesn’t exist. I say it’s a masterpiece each of us creates by living.

Anatomy of a self

The self has multiple parts. They are all malleable to a certain extent, but if you lose too much of any one of them – with one exception, as we will see – the self will cease to exist.

Body: My body is me. I don’t consider my body to be like a cup or a shell that contains my self. My body is part of my self. It is, in fact, the most essential part, because it’s the very first one I had, the one on which all the rest is built. The self absolutely requires a body in order to exist; if your body dies, your self is gone. You can lose some of your body; if I lose a foot, I am still Me. If I lose my whole body, though, there is nothing left of Me but memories in the minds of others, and that’s not quite enough to continue being a self.

Image: After my body, the next part of my self that developed is the image that others have of me. I think that the idea of Me that exists in others’ minds is a part of my self. It’s the most nebulous part, and one of the most difficult to change, but it’s still important to the concept of who I am. Some people consider it the most important; these people are concerned with the legacy they are leaving to the world. If you are concerned with what people are going to say at your funeral (supposing that you believe, like me, that you will be long gone and won’t actually be able to hear them) you care about the image part of your self.

One might argue that this image actually existed before I was even born, so that in a way my self existed before my body because I was a thought in the minds of my parents – a name, a hope, an expectation. But I think that for the image to be a valid part of my self, it has to come from people’s interaction with the other parts, and the other parts did not yet exist. As soon as I started showing some personality – kicking my mom, or making her crave food, or whatever fetuses do – then possibly the image became a valid part of my self.

After the rest of my self is gone, this image will still exist in other people’s minds as long as there are people to remember me, but since there can be no more interaction with the other parts, again, it’s not enough to keep my self existing.

Image is a unique part of the self, because if it was gone, the self would still be there. If no one else in the world knew who I was or remembered me at all, I would still exist as Me. The vast majority of people are known by at least one other person, however, so for everyone except forgotten hermits, image is a part of the self.

Thoughts: This includes anything mental – personality, beliefs, internal monologue, etc. According to some people, thoughts are something separate from the self; in other words, I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts, and my thoughts are not part of me. This is not the way I see things. To me, thoughts are the most important part of the self. Sure, the self can’t exist without the body, and the image is our legacy that will last after death, but our thoughts are the very foundation of who we are as individuals, right here and right now.

I am not actually sure whether or not the same self continues to exist if the ability to think is destroyed. I’ve never personally known anyone who had this happen to them, so I can only speculate. Take the example of a person who is in a vegetative state: their body is still alive, and their image in other people’s minds remains, but they are no longer conscious, no longer thinking. Let’s assume this person cannot recover from this state. Are they still the same self? Friends and family probably feel like they are, but that’s just the image part at work; even in combination with the body, I don’t know if that’s enough to sustain a self.

History: The story of a person’s life is vital to the self. Where we come from and where we’ve been make up who we are. Being the writer that I am, I tend to see my life as a narrative, and I would not be who I am without my story.

History is the only part of the self that literally cannot be changed, since it’s in the past, but of course this doesn’t stop people from trying. Sometimes a lie becomes part of a person’s history, even to the point of that person forgetting the truth and believing the lie. That, too, is part of the person’s self.

In a way, we can lose our history through amnesia. The history still exists, but does that matter if we don’t remember it? If a person loses their memories of who they are and cannot recover them, are they the same person? As far as I can tell, they basically have to start over as a new person, a new self. Again, I am just speculating since I don’t know anyone who has experienced this, but it seems to me that a person has to be able to remember their self if that self is going to continue to exist.

Continuity through change

In The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, the wizard Harry Dresden has a car named the Blue Beetle. It’s a Volkswagen Bug that used to be blue and has had so many parts replaced that it is now white, gray, green, and other colors, but he continues to call it the Blue Beetle and considers it to be the same car.

Is that true? Is it the same Blue Beetle? Let’s say that not a single part of the car that Harry originally bought remains. All have been replaced. If the physical matter of the car is completely different, can it really be the same car?

Harry would say yes, and I would too, because the parts were replaced gradually enough that each new replacement became integral to the whole, maintaining the continuity of the car as a metaphysical entity. If every single part was replaced at once, then the continuity would be broken, and no, I don’t think would be the same car, even though Harry would stubbornly insist on calling it the Blue Beetle anyway. Harry doesn’t care much about metaphysical philosophy.

This is how it works with the self, too. Your body is constantly renewing its cells, but it’s gradual enough that it remains the same body. If your cells suddenly changed all at once then we might have to reconsider things. You can also change your way of thinking or the image others have of you without becoming a totally new self, because your body and your history remain – and besides, it’s rarely possible to change your entire way of thinking or your image all at once. Usually this is a gradual process.

Giving the self a makeover

I mentioned briefly that thinking about the song “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga helped inspire this post. That’s because in interviews, like this one with Stephen Fry, she has said that she did not intend the song to mean that we were born, literally, this way, but instead that we can be figuratively reborn over and over again until we are exactly who we want to be. I don’t see that in the lyrics, but I much prefer the idea of the self in a constant state of rebirth, old defunct bits being discarded and new ones being assimilated into the whole as we go.

Sometimes we cling to certain parts of our selves after we have outgrown them. I continued to identify as Catholic even after I acknowledged to myself that I no longer believed any of the teachings, because I didn’t know what I would be if I wasn’t Catholic. I kept my long hair for about a year or two after I realized I was extremely sick of it, because I didn’t know how I could be Me with short hair. I keep certain things out of my blog (shhhh they’re secret) because I am afraid of what will happen to my self if the image you all have of me changes.

I’ve only found two ways to reliably change my self:

  1. I can take a leaf out of the Buddhists’ book and act like my self doesn’t exist while I try something new. If I am not The Kind of Person Who Never Gets Their Hair Cut, or The Kind of Person who does anything in particular, then getting my hair cut is no big deal. I wouldn’t want to do this all the time – personally I enjoy building a self, and I don’t want to give up on my masterpiece just because it can be hard work – but it works nicely when the winds of change are blowing.
  2. I can build up a mental framework around a new idea that I want to incorporate into my self, slowly convincing myself that the new, truer part fits Me better than the old outdated one. Eventually I come around and the old part naturally falls away, no longer a vital piece of Me. This is better than the fake Buddhist method when confronting very important aspects of my self that I don’t feel comfortable simply ignoring, like my religion.

Hmm, reading that over, I think my anxiety is showing through, here… My anxiety is one thing that I think I want to take out of my current self. Anxiety is such a large part of my daily life, my way of thinking, that I don’t know who I could possibly be without it. I may have to become The Kind of Person Who Goes to Therapy in order to find out. That’s a whole battle on its own. We shall see. I do know, at least, that my self is my own creation, and with effort I can make whatever changes I desire.

So it doesn’t exactly feel like a “great and rare art”. But I don’t suppose that great and rare art ever does. It’s always messy behind the scenes.

One Response to Reborn this way: my theory of the self

  1. Hmmm really interesting post! Buddhists say there is no permanent self, no concrete self, nothing that you can point to and say ‘here, this is me’, I think your idea of the self as something you create and can change is pretty Buddhist actually! I’ve been practising Buddhism for about 6 years and the things you say in this post resonate with what I have learnt from others and in my own experience.
    I think I disagree with how you’ve framed Buddhists attitude towards no self in your list of ways you’ve found to change yourself, obviously I can only speak for myself but I don’t tend to act as if my self doesn’t exist, I have a really strong sense that I have a self that does exist! I think what I do is to try and see, try and remember, that that idea of self is not permanent, it changes, is changing, all the time. I think your second point has Buddhist aspects, I’ve learnt about it framed as renunciation – letting things (habits, ideas) fall away as they become unuseful (is that a word? It looks wrong…) and that supports the idea of a changing non permanent self.
    Wow, well, I just meant to say something short about your references to Buddhists and I’ve written a short essay. Hope the criticism is heard in the way it’s meant – to open up dialogue and discussion :) I often don’t (read nearly never) post on blogs even when I have something to say for fear of not being read right or for fear of offending an things like that but I’ve read quite a few of your posts now and I think you seem thoughtful and open, so I’m braving it :).

Say something