Thursday, September 17, 2009

Playing a role

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)--Walt Whitman

We have written in the past about viewing life as a role in a play. To us, such an outlook is the embodiment of the absurd, as it places experiences in their proper context. Said a different way, if nothing has any ultimate meaning, then one's actions in "real life" are no more (or less) consequential than those performed by actors in a play, despite the feeling that one "matters" and one doesn't.

Think about this for a minute. Consider why you believe one set of actions (those performed by the "real" you) are more significant than those you perform as an actor. If you spend enough time thinking this through, you will realize all the "consequences" of the former are but ripples on an infinite ocean of nothingness.

Along these lines, we recently came across a fascinating article about a man with a rare form of amnesia. Much like Jason Bourne, this individual (Edward Lighthart) has no idea "who" he is, and few memories of his prior life. According to the story, "Lighthart still doesn't know who he is, and is frightened over whether he will ever be reconciled with the man people say he is. 'The crux of the matter of who I really am isn't there yet,' he said in an often-emotional interview with The Associated Press on Monday. 'And I'm not sure that its going to come back. This is one of the frightening things.'...He says he still has no idea how he got to Seattle, only recalling several peaceful days in the park spent gazing at the trees and sky."

There is a lot here, so let's unpack it slowly. First, consider the claim that he doesn't know "who" he is. What exactly does this mean? To begin with, the concept of identity is fraught with difficulties--as discussed elsewhere, one cannot accept both that the world is entirely physical and that there is a separate self. Thus, the concept that there is some "I" associated with Lighthart assumes the existence of some as-yet-undiscovered mystical plane of existence.

But even setting this aside, we wonder to which "I" Lighthart refers. Is it the "I" that existed three months ago? Six months? How about 10 years? Yes, of course we know the answer - he wants to "be" whoever he was before he lost his memory. But this does not solve the riddle. What if (for example) Lighthart suffered a brain injury six years ago that completely changed his personality (as in the famous case of Phineas Gage). Which "self" would be the real Lighthart?

Clearly this all comes back to the ephemeral nature of the self, which seems so incredibly real, yet cannot exist in a purely physical world. (Where, for example, would it reside? How would you reconcile different versions of your "self" at different stages of your life? What happens to it when you die?) Douglas Hofstadter compared the self to a sealed packet that feels for all the world like it has a marble in the center. No matter how you touch it, the marble is clearly there. Yet when you finally open the packet, it turns out it was simply a stack of envelopes, and what you felt what the bump in the middle formed by the envelopes' "V".

To bring this full circle, our rejection of the self leads us to view life as a play, albeit a long-running and unscripted one. (Determinism, i.e. the view that in a purely physical world all is preordained, would of course argue against the second point [and free will in general]. That is beyond the scope of this post, but we will address this issue in the future.) Thus, rather than invest our actions with some sort of imaginary significance, we simply view ourselves as playing a role in this theater of the absurd (pun fully intended).

Indeed, we actually find playing more than one role is an excellent way to keep the absurd perspective. It is much easier to maintain a peaceful outlook when there is no single "I" to be offended, angry, or hurt. A belief that things "matter" is inexorably tied to the image of the self; eliminate the self and you eliminate the pain caused by believing things matter "to you." Thus, we play several different roles, none more or less consequential than another.

One final point. According to the story, despite not knowing "who" he was in the past, Lighthart nevertheless views his old "self" as preferable to the person that spent "several peaceful days in the park...gazing at the trees and sky." Are we the only ones to find this odd (and incredibly sad)? Put simply, is our hunger for self-hood so powerful we are willing to give up anything, including happiness, to achieve it?


  1. It seems so much easier to have a past. For the most part because of 'your story' you are on autopilot; decision-making is swift, and you also have something to aim for - You can project your future and have 'goals' that anchor you. Otherwise you float.

  2. I agree and also find it "sad" that he missed the opportunity to enjoy the "several peaceful days in the park...." Too many people just dont realise the importance and calming effect of this simple act.

  3. It seems to me that he did enjoy those peaceful days; it's just that without the context and knowledge of a missing life, day after day of that would get pretty old pretty fast.

  4. Dorset, what I meant was that the enjoyment and realisation of that serenity was lost on him after those days. I'm sure he enjoyed it while he "was there" but it soon passed. I didn't explain it good enough!