Reflections on personal identity.
In the Gospel of St. Mark, fifth chapter and ninth verse, a man possessed of evil spirits responds to Christ’s question “What is thy name?” with “My name is Legion: for we are many.” Ignoring, for this post, the literal interpretation of this passage, the figurative is quite interesting. How many are you?
I first started thinking about this eleven years ago (almost to the week) when I heard Russell M. Nelson speak to this subject:
Danger lurks when we divide ourselves with expressions such as “my private life,” “my professional life,” or even “my best behavior.” Living life in separate compartments can lead to internal conflict and exhausting tension.
The rest of that passage—indeed, the whole address—is worth review, but that statement is the portion that lodged in my soul.
I suppose most if not all of us have a few selves to us, acting a different personality with our family, with our co-workers, etc. Part of this is unavoidable: my co-workers see how I approach proofs and algorithms which most of my other friends couldn’t see no matter how hard I tried to show them. But part is incidental: I consciously don’t bring up watching action flicks when I’m talking to people who prefer musicals. I’ve liked musicals for years but only recently developed a taste for action films. Perhaps I was just too lazy to fold the change into all my relationships? There’s no reason everyone oughtn’t know I enjoy both genre, but somewhere, somehow, the me that watches musicals doesn’t watch action films any more than he works proofs from both ends. It’s not part of that persona.
How many are you? How distinct are they? How shocked would your prim friends feel if they heard what you say and do with your gauche friends?
I periodically meditate on how to become one person. Part of the struggle is “finding oneself”: how to reconcile my different selves that seem at odds? Can anyone be brilliantly sarcastic, deeply sensitive, and impeccably rational all at the same time?One might ask if they can be these things sequentially either… different question altogether. Where do the various aspects fit, if not in separate compartments?
Perhaps the solution is to not answer the question, to leave aspects undefined and subject to change. Rather than saying “I like musicals” maybe I ought to say simply “I’ve seen and enjoyed several musicals” and leave my future enjoyment a subject for future exploration.
But I think Elder Nelson was aiming for something deeper—or simpler. I think he was advocating letting the godly self be the only self, inclusive of all of activities and acquaintances. Is it worth compromising the things about some persona that I like best in order to have only one self? Or is a virtue I cannot apply everywhere a mere facade, a hypocrisy even, a lie to be treated as such?
At present, I am still legion, for I wear many labels; yet it is a much smaller, less divisive legion than it was eleven years ago. Some day I will stand, one single person. I really look forward to meeting that person. I hope he’s nifty.