Do I contain multitudes?

I am large, I contain multitudes, wrote Walt Whitman in his Song of Myself -and no, I haven’t ever had the time to read the whole poem. I just like the idea that I am not simply one thing. That I exist, as I dress, in layers.

I suppose the problem is, though, that I’m not exactly sure what I am. I’m not even sure where I stop. When I was a child, I think it was easier –I stopped where my body ended. I was the thing that lived inside my skin. But as I got older and began to use tools, the answer fuzzied -if I did long division in my exercise book, were the paper and pencil also a part of me…? Because the answer (or the mistake) would be the same whether I did it in my head or on the page. So where, then, does the self stop? And, perhaps years later, if someone finds that exercise book in a drawer somewhere, would I still be in it?

But hold on. There’s only one I, isn’t there? The questions are just more of those late-night-after-a-few-drinks questions that thrives in university dormitories -questions which you have to be younger than I am now to embrace with anything like the appropriate level of seriousness.  And yet, some questions cling like lint in a dryer.

On one of my nocturnal perambulations, I came across a learned, but nonetheless opaquely argued essay on ‘self’ in Aeon, written by Serife Tekin, an assistant professor of philosophy at Daemen College in Buffalo, N.Y.  Some of it -okay, most of it- was difficult plodding, for sure, but I did manage to extract a few helpful things from its innards before abandoning it in utter bewilderment.

She talks about something she calls the ‘multitudinous self’, patterning the description on a 1988 paper by the psychologist Ulric Neisser entitled ‘Five Kinds of Self-knowledge’. He describes five different aspects of self: ‘the ecological self, or the embodied self in the physical world, which perceives and interacts with the physical environment; the interpersonal self, or the self embedded in the social world, which constitutes and is constituted by intersubjective relationships with others; the temporally extended self, or the self in time, which is grounded in memories of the past and anticipation of the future; the private self which is exposed to experiences available only to the first person and not to others; and finally the conceptual self, which (accurately or falsely) represents the self to the self by drawing on the properties or characteristics of not only the person but also the social and cultural context to which she belongs.’

So amidst all this newly discovered confusion, I began to wonder about my own selves – and whether I received a different number than an unbiased allotment would countenance. Anyway, what would it mean to have five pre-named selves, or whatever? I have enough trouble managing the apps on my phone, let alone having to decide which self to use when I go out.

Of course, it’s obvious that I have an ecological self that interacts with the environment -it’s why it hurts when I trip- but I’d hardly call that one a different name than the private self that feels the pain. For that matter, the temporally extended self uses my private self to store all its memories, so I don’t think that should count, either. The same with the conceptual self, eh? Come on, it’s a carbon copy of the interpersonal self

And yet, it’s hard to shake the idea that there is more than one of me roaming about during the day, and then returning home at night to sit around and talk about it. I am a flock whose members remain unnamed, perhaps, and yet a multitude with which I must needs contend -or at least it’s the duty of whoever happens to be the leader that day, I guess.

I have avoided naming them in part because I don’t think any of them deserve it -none of them are predictable enough to require separate and distinctive clothes now that I am retired. There are no uniforms hanging in my closet, no well-pressed shirts or fancy ties anymore -one of my more charitable selves carted them away to the Salvation Army before any of the others had time to reflect on the matter.

My life is like that now -I can never tell who is going to walk out the door pretending to be me. Well, okay not pretending, or anything: it is me I suppose, although the designation is more of a random allocation than a democratic one. This is not without some risk, of course. I –we– have to be careful I am still regarded as me. There are rules, even for a flock: each individual has to be seen as a member of the collective, however disparate. Each is evaluated as a constituent, and it is to the herd’s advantage to police behaviour.

Metaphors aside, however, it still leaves me wondering just who is me nowadays.  Not the how far do I extend anymore -Age is pretty liberal about such boundaries- so much as the who. I have been many things in my life, I have worn many roles, and I’m not sure what to do with them when I finally take them off. Are they still mine, or did I just borrow them before? Is life a library, in other words -a compendial service of experiences on loan for a while, then reabsorbed and collected again for recirculation to someone else’s me?

And, is my current me simply one of the multitude of things I used one time and then stored somewhere, like those out-of-date iPhones, or floppy discs? Could I ever let it out of the door again to roam with the other versions of me that wander through the days, or should I leave it hanging safely in my head -out of harm’s way?

I am the richer for who I’ve been, for sure, and yet it remains tempting to reach for an old copy of me again -just to check what I’ve remembered of the story, even if the characters are now blurred and faded in the new sun that illuminates my day. I must not ever forget that I am large, I contain multitudes.


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