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How Did You Get to Be You?

Have you ever wondered how you got to be you?  Why you love Frank Sinatra?  Why you hate curry?  Where did you get that sense of humor?  Why are you bookish?  So scared of water?  So resentful of authority?  How come it’s easy for you to decide on a presidential candidate but not on a restaurant?  Why are you a sucker for girls with French accents?

Yeah, I know–you’ve got the answers.  Your dad played Sinatra all the time when you were a kid and your mom forced this curried chicken dish on you every Wednesday night for your entire childhood. There’s an explanation for why you’re you.

Would it were so simple.

What’s inherited and what’s not?  Nah—better not to try to answer one that right now.  These days evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics are riding high, but that could change.  I think it will.  Too pat.  People are mysterious.

It’s not just that we don’t know how much is inherited and how much is a matter of environment.  The thing that fascinates me is how, regardless of the answer, we are compelled to adopt some narrative as the “real” one.  Each of us operates under an assumed identity.  To make sense of who we are and how we got this way, we organize our memories into stories.  These are unlikely to be true and even if true may or may not actually explain anything. But they sound reasonable and they give us what we need:  A self-portrait, an autobiography—something to make our lives’ uncountable events and influences seem less like a handful of confetti that was tossed in front of an electric fan and floated randomly onto the floor.  Remember that the stars are randomly distributed in the sky.  The first thing we did was make constellations.

Why do I say that the stories we tell to explain ourselves are unlikely to be true?  First, because our premise is probably wrong—it could be that we simply don’t know enough about how identities get made to say with any validity, “That night on the boardwalk in 1963 made me like brunettes . . . ”  It could also be that, in the first place, we just don’t have access to all the facts.

When I was seven, my cousins and I were visiting our bachelor uncle, Lou, when he ran out of hamburger buns at dinner.  So, much to our delight, he rolled the ground beef into hot-dog shapes and we ate hot-dog-shaped hamburgers on hot-dog buns.  I remember that moment, the sheer innovative brilliance of the act–but more so, the permission we were getting from Uncle Lou to do things our parents would not have let us do.  I felt like a rebel.  I felt subversive.  Liberated.  I still remember it.

image of a sculpture of a man pondering on a bench by a lake

Pondering, pondering . . .

And I may, for all I know, be remembering inaccurately.  Certainly I am remembering incompletely.  And selectively.  Did it really shape me, or is it a memory plucked up and shown off to help explain myself and win you over?  More to the point:  For every event like this that I remember, there are countless ones—however much they may have shaped me—that I have forgot.

While my mother worked outside the home, I was tended each day for the first four years of my life by a West Indian woman named Clara Facey.  I remember not a single thing about Clara except the color of her skin, the lilt of her voice, and an impression that when we were together I was happy.  But how can I reliably tell you how I got to be me without remembering more about Clara?  And if I did remember more, who says those memories would not still be incomplete, or that the way I chose among them and stitched them together would really explain anything?

Up the street were five French girls whose last name was Bray.  Frances, Alice, Jacqueline, Beatrice, and Nellie.  Their father worked at the U.N.  They babysat for me when I was little, one after another as they reached babysitting age and then grew out of it.  I got through Frances, Alice, and Jacqueline before they moved back to France.  How much do I remember?  Less than I wish.  I know I’m a sucker for girls with French accents.  Is that where it came from?  I’ve always said it is.  But I could be wrong.

You weren’t actually expecting an answer to the question of how you got to be you, were you?  Better minds than mine have been working on this for awhile.  But it does make a storyteller humble to consider these things.  We are all, I suppose, unreliable narrators.

8 Responses to How Did You Get to Be You?

  1. Our personalities, which have genetic roots, predispose us to behave in certain patterns. Yet we learn vicariously through social learning (see Albert Bandura), although Charles Horton Cooley (along with Eminem) says we are who others say we are, possibly defining ourselves and being defined by the groups to which we belong (see Tajfel and Turner). Some people also believe we have multiple selves (not in Sible way) that occupy different “fields” in our lives (my work self, my home self, etc; see Lewin) and we can compartmentalize these selves depending on our ability to self-monitor to match the local environment. In short, I have no clue.

    • Wheels, I cherish our first 317am comment that includes scholarly citations! But you ain’t the only one without a clue. We don’t know what consciousness is, and we don’t know how the matter in our heads can generate–or perhaps I should say emanate–something immaterial. Do you think we’ll ever find out?

  2. Thanks. I really enjoyed that, Kaze.
    The false accuracy of our memory has fascinated me and is something I have been pondering as I get older and look back at my “newsreel highlights”.

    On Facebook I have reconnected with some people from my childhood that I have not seen for forty years. And in talking with them about things that happened, I have been shocked when they correct me on something that I have believed happened all these years. They were there and they point out what REALLY happened, and it comes back to me. And in amazement I see that I have remembered it wrong for 50 years now!

    And then they remind me of something really significant I did that I have NO memory of ever doing! They clearly recall and describe it, and it is nowhere in my conscious memory. And it was so significant that I am puzzled that I forgot it.

    Perhaps this has happened to you?

    Meanwhile, my recall is strewn with nonsensical little “scenes”, like walking across a parking lot on a rainy Sunday night in Flagstaff, AZ towards the a drug store and I clearly remember a little puddle in the mercury vapor streetlight on the asphalt a bit in front of me and to the side as I walked.

    Why did I remember that? And why did I NOT remember other clearly significant things in my life?

    Last year, looking through old things and seeing my grammar school report cards, I saw that although I remembered each of my teachers, there was a 5th grade teacher whom I had NO recollection of. NONE. And yet I sat in her class for a full semester! Every working day.

    Yes, memory is certainly an illusion of completeness.

    Thanks for a though-provoking post, Kaze.

    — Glenn

    • Glenn – Funny how we can all share the same planet and perceive it so differently. Is there anything like REAL empathy? As for remembering random stuff and forgetting important stuff, boy, could I make a list. Our family spent a whole weekend visiting my eldest daughter back when she was in college a decade ago–campus events, restaurants, hotel, etc.–and I have no memory of it at all. Not a thing. Blank. Before I forget, let me thank you for sharing your wonderful take on this with the rest of us. :-)

  3. Do the stories we tell ourselves, true or not, help to maintain an illusion of an unchanging self – that we are the same person today that we were, say, forty years ago – that the child was father of the man?

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