Who am I? And while I’m at it, where am I… really? I mean, I know where I stop, and everything -skin is a pretty good boundary marker- but what does it mean to possess a ‘me’, and just how big is it? It may seem like a pretty silly question, but the scope of its parameters sometimes wakes me up in the middle of the night when it’s even hard to see the covers. Am I alone in this, or does everybody have a sneaking suspicion that there is something unstated in the user manual?
I don’t mean this as a reiteration of the ‘extended self’ concept: that a pencil, say, is an extension of the hand, and what it writes, is an extension of the brain; rather, I think I mean something more subjective -like how do I define ‘me’? Normally, it’s easy, I suppose: I possess a ‘me’ and it seems to be centered in my head somewhere -locked in there, I imagine. And yet, where is that ‘me’ when I glory in a sunset? When I am overcome by a rainbow, or stunned by a mountain’s cover of clouds? Presumably it is still my ‘me’ that is feeling the emotion, but it seems no longer imprisoned behind my eyes and looking out at the world… it seems to ‘be’ the world -or, at least, only tenuously connected to its home in my head. So where does the ‘me’ in me live? Where does my identity end?
But enough of that. Perhaps I am really asking about the relation between the ‘out there’ and the ‘in here’ -solipsistic stuff- and on which of the two choices should I hang my hat? I don’t know that it is a matter of ownership, or anything -I mean I’m not even sure I own my ‘me’, or whether, I’m just a library book I’ve borrowed for a while. And if so, who actually owns what I’ve learned from it? Do I own it while I have it, or in some spooky way, does it own me if it changes how I think?
Strange what you think of when you live alone, eh? But I felt less of an outlier on the question of ownership when I came across an essay by Bruce Hood, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Bristol, writing in Aeon; the title almost touches on the subject of my concern -but not quite: https://aeon.co/ideas/do-we-possess-our-possessions-or-do-they-possess-us
‘Humans have a particularly strong and, at times, irrational obsession with possessions,’ he writes. ‘It’s as if there is a demon in our minds that compels us to fret over the stuff we own, and make risky lifestyle choices in the pursuit [of them].’ That’s not exactly what I’m getting at, but it’s a start, I suppose. I think my problem is not so much with the idea of possession of something or other, and more with its relationship to my identity -to possess is not the same thing as to be… but does close observation of something draw my ‘me’ out from wherever it usually sits in my body?
Anyway, Hood makes some interesting observations that have some bearing on my questions. He cites the view of the philosopher and psychologist William James who believed that ‘our self was not only our bodies and minds but everything that we could claim ownership over, including our material property.’ This, in turn, was developed into ‘the ‘extended self’ concept by the marketing guru Russell Belk who argued in 1988 that we use ownership and possessions from an early age as a means of forming identity… Maybe this is why ‘Mine!’ is one of the common words used by toddlers, and more than 80 per cent of conflicts in nurseries and playgrounds are over the possession of toys.’
There is also a soupçon of my question in his discussion of essentialism: the feeling of the irreplaceability of something like, say, a wedding ring, or a gift. There is something of the self that clings to them which is ‘associated with some intangible property or essence that defines their authenticity. Originating in Plato’s notion of form, the essence is what confers identity. Essentialism is rampant in human psychology as we imbue the physical world with this metaphysical property. It explains why we value original works of art more than identical or indistinguishable copies. Why we would happily hold a biography of Adolf Hitler detailing his atrocities but feel repulsed to hold his personal cookbook with no mention of his crimes.’
So, maybe for an incalculable moment, I am that sunset, and my appreciation of it meshes with my identity. Though undeniably separate, in that moment perhaps we are one. At any rate, it seems immensely validating to think of it that way.
But maybe I didn’t really need to read it to find corroboration. I was sitting at a table in a Starbuck’s café nursing a breakfast bagel and a lukewarm coffee the other day when I noticed an old friend standing in the line and waved at her. I hadn’t seen her since university, so when she joined me, we spent a few minutes reminiscing. Apparently she’d married, moved to another city, and had only recently returned.
“You’ve got kids now Jean?” I exclaimed, remembering the Feminist activist she’d been at university.
She nodded, clearly delighted in her new role. “The oldest is 18 and the youngest is 15 now.”
I shook my head in pretended disbelief. “Who would have guessed, eh?”
She smiled happily. “Things evolve, don’t they? I mean, once you’re a mother, the world transforms itself and assumes a different texture…”
I smiled and watched her expression change. “How do you mean?”
She shrugged and stared at me for a moment, as if to check to see if I really wanted an explanation. Then her face relaxed and she sighed -but only for herself, I thought. “Identities are like colours, I think… More than colours, though… Clothes, maybe.”
She seemed to be having difficulty describing what she wanted to say, so I merely encouraged her with a nod and stayed silent.
She sipped her coffee and then put it down again with another sigh. “I remember when Laurie -my oldest- was young, she used to watch me playing soccer. She wanted to be just like me, she said.” Jean sighed again, but this time it was for me. “So she joined a team at school and they won most of the games that I went to.” She chuckled silently and her eyes twinkled at the thought. “There was a game, though, when she received a pass in front of the goal and smashed it home…” She glanced at me, still uncertain how much to disclose to someone who hadn’t seen her in years. She took a deep breath, as if she had decided to confess something important and wanted me to really listen. “You know, it was the strangest thing I think I’ve ever felt. It was as if I was her on that field: I got the ball and I finessed it into the net…” She looked at me again, a little embarrassed this time, I thought. “In that moment, I was there, not here…” she said tapping her head. She picked up her coffee a little too quickly, and some of it sloshed over the edge of her cup. “And that’s not the only time it’s happened… George just laughs nervously at me, though, so I’ve stopped telling him.”
She sent her eyes over to settle on my face. “Do you think that’s really weird, G?” she asked, using my childhood nickname. “I mean feeling –knowing– I’m not really in my body sometimes…?”
Her eyes pleaded with mine to reassure her that she wasn’t mad. She looked as if she wanted to cry.
I smiled and reached over and touched her hand. “When I walk through the woods, listening to the sound of my feet crunching leaves on the trail, and a bird calls from a branch above my head somewhere, I’ve never been able to stay inside my head for very long…”
She squeezed my hand and then sat back in her chair, nodding her head. “Never thought of it like that…” she said and the hint of a smile crept slowly onto her face again.