Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Symbols of Selfhood

Originally posted on July 15, 2009

On my website I write about the experience of being a coherent “self” as an aggregate experience, a sort of sum of a score or more of different types of sensory and cognitive input, and each type may in turn have numerous sources. These become more intense or more dilute, and sometimes other experiences happen that actively detract from their effectiveness and the resulting overall sense of self as coherent and valued.

Thus, I recognize that the sense of self is continuously being re-built and dissolving, much as the body needs to do that in every organ. Even the bones of the physical body are being dissolved by tiny cells called osteoclasts while nearby a new spicule of bone is picking up the weight or stress as it’s constructed by a gang of osteoblasts. All the minerals, chemicals, and atoms are being dissolved and replaced in an ongoing dynamic, so that I’m really, literally, not the same person I was a month ago, much less a year ago. So what if the self is a construction like that in some ways?

I’ve been amazingly fortunate to have a thick matrix of activities and things to decorate my soul, my self: cartoons (written about in another blog), favorite songs and melodies, different kinds of dances I know how to do—and some I don’t even know how I know them—body memory; there are artists, there are nicknacks around the house, personal symbols in my cartooning and sculpting, and so forth—and then, add to that memories more associated with the peculiarities of home town, historical era, and other themes. Of course, everyone else also has his or her own set of equivalent symbols, favorite books, poems, and other personal symbols.

What struck me is that the memory is a bit more dream-like and fragile than we might want to admit even to ourselves, and that we forget not only names and faces of acquaintances, but details of even intimate past events. I think the song from the musical and movie, “Gigi” (I Remember it Well (1958) Lyrics : Alan Jay Lerner / Frederick Loewe), and how we re-tell the stories of our lives. Someone once said that autobiography is bad fiction by a mediocre author.

There’s an important practical implication. Some things build up the sense of self, restore it, remind you who you are; and some things dilute it! Activities that could be done by anyone—it doesn’t matter who does it—in those roles you are more of an “object,” a function. You may leave with a feeling of accomplishment, but unless you sense that this act was special, it might not have had an equivalent effect if you and even your personality had been involved, then it is a bit weak—at least regarding any help in restoring your sense of who you are, are you special, what is your individuality, anyway?

This reflection offers a bit of guidance for how we tell others the stories of our lives, how we write our memoirs. It might help those who do oral history, journalists, those who might care about the person being interviewed reminded—literally, re- mind -ed—of who they are.

Your favorite colors, authors, times in history, types of art, pieces of art, toys, home, its layout, places you played, games you played, funny playmates, and on and on—such things can slip away; but if we can talk about them, re-tell these stories, the memories get thicker and stickier and stick to the imagined inside walls of the room of our life.

I fear that many people watch movies and are caught up in games and distractions, but at the end, returning to their imagined “room,” there’s nothing much on the walls. Even certificates of achievement, while having a little positive reminding value, still don’t really draw back into memory some of the highlights, details, of what life has been about, what has filled it so that it “feels” meaningful.

Note that I’m emphasizing the intangible feelings, intuitions, of how real, how full, how important, how valued a life, an experience, a period of time or role in life, has been. My point is that it’s surprisingly easy for this all to dissolve, and reminiscence work thus has more relevance, more rationale.  Well, I’ll probably build on this in some paper, but for now, your feedback or email will be welcome.

One Response to “Symbols of Selfhood”

  • Joan Champie says:

    Your discussion of ‘self’ is most interesting. I also have a variety of pursuits which satisfy, stimulate, or sometimes frustrate me.
    I recently read a most wonderful book Night Train to Lisbon, by Mercier, which I found filled with nuggests for self-reflection. Most memorable and applicable to myself is this:
    Everyone inhabits a dimension of personal time, extending from earliest childhood memories to the present. This broad spectrum provides a rich and individual environment.
    Additionally, everyone inhabits a dimension of personal space…all the places visited, lived in, glimpsed during one’s lifetime.
    These personal dimensions affect my outlook, my interests, my relationships. Despite the wrinkles and greying hair, I feel a deep reservoir of richness which enhances all my days.

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