What is selfhood? I begin to realize, these days, that I cannot actually define myself. I begin to realize, these days, that I have so far done the opposite. I subtract everything from the universe that i know is not me, and declare the remainder myself. I am not defining myself so much as defining what is not me.
This approach is flawed.
We’d like to think the boundary between each self and everything else is razor-sharp. The notion that my skin transsects the universe is comforting. Me, or not-me: a simple dichotomous key. It is easy to keep track of.
A decade ago my dog and I found a little cove on a deserted Pacific beach. He was always a little afraid of surf, but on this particular day the roiling water intrigued him and he danced in the foam, a little. The sky was slate gray, a fog in the air, and the cherty cliff that backed up the cove bore a sheen of condensation. We sat in the sand and watched the waves. He is gone now and no one else was there. Is the memory wholly within me now? I am its sole keeper, after all; a “me” large enough to contain souls long dead, a planet-covering of ocean, cliffs of Miocene mud pressed into rock crumbling back into mud. Three decades ago a friend and I walked through Buffalo’s decaying streets to the harbor. Container ships rolled silent past us, close enough that we could see the fine tendrils on their barnacles. He has been dead a quarter century, and I am the sole proprietor of that walk. Do I contain it?
Ridiculous, I agree, and yet the half-digested bread I ate an hour ago, wholly contained within my skin for a time, is no more part of me than the cargo on those remembered container ships was part of the ships. Some few of the bread’s atoms will stay in my body for months or years. Is this body me? This hair, these nails? They grow and are cut away month after month, but I remain. A breath will pass out of this body in a second, the calcium in my bones in a few years. A candle flame a minute old contains none of the matter it did when it was lit. What is the flame? Not a thing. A specific process occurring in a specific region of the universe. It is easy enough to say where the flame is, or to describe its characteristics. But to define what that flame is, in a way that distinguishes it from all other flames?
Three and a half billion years ago in the thin fetorous scum that wet this planet chemistry folded in on itself and became biology. A cell split in two, then four, and then ten quadrillion living things emerged, diversifying in turn, bacteria absorbed into other cells to become mitochondria and nuclei and other organelles, those host cells teaming up to form living tissue, tissue joining with tissue to form organisms. A billion years ago some of those organisms began to perceive the universe, or at least that part of it that surrounded them. Biology folded in on itself to form the rudiments of sentience. Some time later came another fold: a handful of organisms began to perceive themselves perceiving the universe. The universe folded in on itself and formed selves.
I am an example of an emergent property of organisms with a sufficiently complex central nervous system. And this is still no definition, but merely a capsule history. Not even a flame: merely a spark in a long, slow conflagration, a literal banked fire, the whole clade of aerobic lifeforms of which I am an insignificant member.
It is not a coincidence that as I ponder what exactly it is I am these last weeks I have not been sleeping much, though in which direction the causality runs I am not entirely sure. In the creosote and Joshua trees the questions seem less pressing. I may not know what I am but I know whatever I am is thirsty and has sore feet, and then the coyotes distract my attention even from that much. I cease to think about myself and become a lizard, a trilobite, a central nervous system attuned to light and temperature and sound and not given overmuch to whinging metaphysics. In the city that dissolution is denied me. I ruminate. I run past events over in my mind. I exercise myself over insults yet to come. Someone once loved who pretends I do not exist, or an anticipated difficulty made more difficult by anticipation, and I lay alert and skinless as the helicopters wheel over the hills.
When dreams come they predictably take me — home, I was going to say, but it is no more. I dream of the Bay Area where I lived for longer than some of my friends have been alive, and yet there are aspects of other places mixed in, Niagara Falls and tidal basins and mountains that never rose out of any plain on earth. This is another tack people choose to define themselves: the where and what, the occupation and residence, the relationships and loves and possessions, to define “me” by listing what is “mine.” An object lesson, my own “me”: everything that was “mine” four years ago, in whatever sense of the word you choose, is “mine” no longer. A troublesome pronoun, that, ambiguous and prone to misinterpretation, used to denote relationship (my spouse), custodianship (my dog), ownership (my garden), responsibility (my job), membership (my community), and some odd hybrid of ownership and identity (my heart). The question “who are you?” is answered as often as not with a bullet-pointed list of “mines,” and yet I remain more or less who I was despite losing almost everything on that list in the last two years.
It is a question more easily avoided than answered, and were I in the desert right now — asleep, more than likely — I would. The boundary between me and not-me resists resolution, one state fading into the other an atom at a time, as the thin universal matrix fades slowly into Planet Earth, bit by exospheric bit. Hard vacuum outside, and then imperceptibly the temperature of your ablative shield begins to rise. Where does the atmosphere end and interplanetary space begin? Where does the candle flame verge into what is merely heated air? You may as well choose an arbitrary line. Each of us a fold into which the self-awareness of the universe is inexorably drawn. All of us events without event horizons. Soon enough the fabric of the universe will anneal itself of the aperture that is me, entropy fulfilled and order restored, and the question of what I am will lose what little meaning it has.