I can see my friend’s face, her white skin and her hair dyed coal-black. It looks natural on her, just as the black clothing, and the frustrated smile. It looks natural because it is the only way I know her.
“She’s the most grounded person I’ve ever met,” she says about someone in her orientation group. “Just an amazing person.”
I believe her, because that is how I am carved. I believe people about things. I’ve met this person she’s talking about, just once. Just for one conversation. Her name was Pearl, and we talked about smoking and veganism and how she cheated only once in Spain when she was drunk and the tall Spanish waiter brought out a mountain of gorgeous, quivering flan. I could not tell if Pearl was grounded, but now, hearing this other friend about it, I believed her.
It was the first week of college. An intense, magical, impossible time. When I think back, when I picture the white skin and the black hair and the lyrically formal way her High New England accent formed the words, I don’t see an 18 year old. I see a person. A full person, developed and intelligent and strong. Like the people around me, now, at 33 years old. I don’t see that when I look at 18 year olds. They are so young.
In another place at another time, I can see the stairwell that leads up from the library to all three floors of the school. I’ve never walked up this way before. My old classroom was on the second floor, and I am walking up to the third. For the first time in my life, I feel older. Not old, of course. I’m not wrinkly or infirm. I’m just growing up, and I can feel it in my bones. I can see it in my classmates that run past me, excited in a way that is painful and exhilarating, for the first day of school. They are in fourth grade, now. So am I.
When I look back on memories of the past I see two Jesses. Two Mes. One of them is another person. A memory that I know is my own, but it doesn’t feel like it happened to me. Anymore than a half-remembered dream. I know, because intelligent people in books have told me, that some of these memories, maybe all of them, are just whispers. Copies of copies, printed from the scatterings of story others have told me about those times, or from my own memories of remembering.
The other Me is Me. I remember these moments as if they happened yesterday, only a yesterday that was a long time ago. But the Jesse inside those experiences is the same one who types these words. The same one who is listening to meditative music in order to stay calm during an anxious period of his life. The same one who breathes in air with just the faintest scent of cat litter still on it, and who is happy that it isn’t as strong as it was before he took out the trash.
I know that this Me barely existed as I walked up those stairs to Mrs. Robertson’s fourth grade classroom. This Me has millions of sensory and mental experiences that define him that were not present in the exuberant, long-haired 17 year old who watched his new friend’s coal-black hair as she spoke, and marveled at how she stretched out the A in the word “candle” in the same way that fairies must do.
And yet, it is Me. Deep in my mind I don’t believe that. I think the self is an illusion perpetrated by a series of neural impulses responsible for the well-being of a pattern of DNA that itself has no motivation at all. A moment ago I downloaded a book about Taoism I intend to start reading later today, and still I believe that.
I believe that, but my brain won’t let me feel it. I don’t know if I want to feel it. We can see ourselves only as who we are. Sometimes I have moments where I forget who I am, and suddenly I am observer in someone else’s strange life. How much of my conviction about the lack of self is truly an informed analysis of the salient research, and how much is informed by this dissociation? I feel that I can comfortably abandon the illusion of self because I am smarter and more aware than others. But I don’t know if that’s true. I’m very, very skeptical, because this view is comfortable. Anything comfortable should be viewed with caution. It could be a trick.
I’m obsessed with the idea that we are trapped inside of our worldview, and that this is the cause of much of the world’s suffering. And yet I fall for this delusion so many times a day. I think back on my fourth grade self and I can see through his eyes. I share not a single cell or molecule with that hilariously young and unshaped person who shares my social security number, yet my brain still believes we are the same.
I have faith that there is something powerful here. Something that no one reading this can understand because it can’t be understood. Only felt. Like the Tao, only with more references to psychology journals.
On the other hand, maybe I’ve just gotten too much sleep lately. The human brain plays tricks on itself for its own subtle ends. It is Loki and Hermes, locked in a battle of dendrites and cortisol and selective myelenation, their prize control of a pineal gland that way or may not be the gateway to an infinite procession of angels.
I curse and bless how glorious this type of thinking makes me feel, and the quirk of my character that allows me to survive with the dissonance that makes me cringe and the pretentiousness and still, despite that, click the “publish” button in the upper right hand corner.