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Who Are We?


One of the habits I've maintained over the years when we've spent autumn weeks in Florida has been, on our return to Wisconsin, to pile unread back issues of our subscriptions on living room tables and gradually set about making sure I've perused each issue before I recycle it. Naturally, after we've come home this year, new issues have been arriving to be added to the stacks. As usual, it's unlikely that we will be up to date in our reading before winter sets in. I won't read everything in every issue, of course, but sometimes I need to tear out an article to reconsider a few times more after the rest of the contents have been disposed of. That's how I come to be contemplating an essay from a mid-October issue in the second week of November.


The subtitle of Joshua Rothman's New Yorker article "Becoming You" asks, "Are you the same person you were when you were a child?" and claims early on, "If we could see our childish selves more clearly, we might have a better sense of the course and the character of our lives." He eventually asks, "What can we learn by asking if we've always been who we are?" It's not a question everyone feels the need to ask themselves, since who we are today seems so much like who we were yesterday and who we expect to be tomorrow, but it can get you remembering your sense of self at various stages of your life.


Rothman refers to some long-term studies that attempt to gauge stasis and mutation in personality and/or character and/or sense of identity over time. One that originated in New Zealand examined the same thousand-plus individuals over a forty-year period to assess how they "have changed over the decades" and compared them to thousands more subjects studied in the United States and the United Kingdom. He also considers a series of documentaries begun by the cinematographer Michael Apted which focused on the same individuals every seven years between 1964 and, so far, 2019, ranging from "Seven Up!" to "63 Up." The subjects were initially grouped in relevant categories, and changes in those categories noted as they emerge. Rothman remarks that, "as the series has progressed, the chaos of individuality has encroached on the clarity of characterization."


Readers of Rothman's article are given a challenge: "Try to remember life as you lived it years ago, on a typical day in the fall." The article is in an October issue, after all, and looking out your window at your surroundings may help trigger your memories. Certainly, after glancing out at my present surroundings, I automatically flashed to my childhood neighborhood in western New York, the trees in our yard and my grandparents' yard and our neighbors' yards, and the fallen leaves everywhere and memories of my friends and I leaping into piles of them. The longer I recall those images, the more they expand my sense of being there, bringing back those neighbors and those playmates and those relatives, and the feel of the weather, and of eventually being old enough to be assigned to rake those leaves and pile them on the curb for city crews to pick up. Rothman's challenge for such memories is this: "Does the self you remember feel like you, or like a stranger? Do you seem to be remembering yesterday, or reading a novel about a fictional character?" That is, how close or how distant do you feel from the individual in your memory, the one you're certain was you?


Prompting memory to go off in search of younger, potentially different versions of myself certainly surfaces a variety of different images, mostly from that neighborhood and from the elementary school I attended and the nearby streets and stores and the park behind our house. Much of what surfaces is external: other people's faces and behavior, the surroundings that provide a background for their actions, some unintended shifts in seasons. The challenge is to turn my perspective around and envision my reactions to what those images display at the time I first saw them, first lived in them. At the moment, I'm not sure I can follow the linkage from who I was as a second or third grader jumping into leaf piles, running home from school, obsessed with Bomba the Jungle Boy and Davy Crockett and Robin Hood and superhero comic books, to the elderly author/professor retiree I am now, scribbling these thoughts. Have I changed? How often? How much? How? Rothman concludes, "We change, and change our view of that change, for as long as we live." He may be right, but I'll need to contemplate a lot more memories—reinhabit my earlier self more fully and frequently—to confidently agree.



Notes: Rothman, Joshua. "Becoming You" by Joshua Rothman. The New Yorker (October 10, 2022: 20-24)

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