If you could meet a previous self of say twenty years ago how close would you feel to that person? Would you feel comfortable for example in sharing the same clothes or toothbrush and if not how close would the gap in age have to be? You might or might not understand them – would they understand you?
Turning time around the other way will the person you are now fully exist a decade or two hence? Or would there be a steady fading out of that consciousness not just in the bodily cells but in all we rightly or wrongly consider lies mysteriously beyond them, in what we think of as the soul?
Throughout life through steady change we continually give birth to a new version of ourselves, becoming our own descendants. We inherit from our own past just as from our parents but in this case we are the old and they are the young. It’s a relay run by a sequence of selves with memory as the baton that is exchanged. Or a decades long daily performance of a play where the cast has been changed many times and the script is passed down only from memory.
In the same way that it’s quite impossible to imagine what it’s like to be another animal – the brain, the factory of thoughts being constructed so differently – we cannot as adults place ourselves as children or even perhaps previous selves.
Aging and death are deeply feared but consider how each would be unbearable one without the other; relentless deterioration without end or indeed an ending when we have so much to lose.
We are swimming in the ocean of time, trying to reach the shore but being pushed out further each year by a powerful undertow into deeper and darker water with shadows that may sting and bite or even pull us under altogether.
Physically we will likely want to stay the same or even regress some but psychologically we wouldn’t go back in time for even a minute. We hold our memories tighter than our bodies, indeed we identify completely with these thoughts of the past, recordings that are less fixed and trustworthy than we believe. Memory is in actuality nothing more than a present moment reenactment – how could it be anything else?
We’d like to keep our memories while changing past events but unfortunately there’s no dress rehearsal for life, no chance to do it all again this time for real, avoiding previous mistakes this time – or perhaps being unable to avoid them even then.
Contrary to how we usually verbalize and picture it we don’t really face the future at all but face the past as we travel backward through time. It’s only the past we can see and consider – and often a distorted incomplete view at that – while the future is behind our field of view and must be unknown.
The idea commonly held of a constant self through life is the wrong model not just for the physical cells but even for the psyche. Our cherished memories, pleasurable or not, are really from another being if one closely related. Is it possible to cease identifying with previous selves and if so what is the result? Memory, the use of information, is still vital as a practical matter but now impersonal and objective with a lowered emotional temperature. We can even consider – pretty much the reality – that our psychological pasts have happened to someone else.
Our hopes to live on in posterity, in memory, in art, buildings, foundations etc show us not that the self is immortal but that it never existed in the first place. Something that can live or die on the whim of someone else thinking about it or not is a fragile and volatile object indeed and far from the robust and eternal – if ethereal – spirit we imagine.