The Modern Survival Guide #18
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. Insofar as there is a “me…” and I supposed even in that case, it’s Past Me who wrote this and Future Me who will be editing it. Tenses may suffer. In any case, in this article we’ll be talking about the different selves and facets of our minds.
There is a persistent and harmful falsehood that many people believe, and it is: each person is a single, constant individual. That is to say, each person is a single entity that incorporates all of their hopes, fears, dreams, and whims; all of their positives, and negatives, rolled together, into a single cohesive mental package. This concept is central to our ideals of identity and individuality, and is the basis for many of our moral characterizations and decisions.
It could not be further from the truth.
You are not one single holistic package. Neither am I. Nor is anyone else. We’re all a hodgepodge of different mental constructs, emotions, indoctrination, experience, and changes over time. None of these factors necessarily impact the others. Once you accept this state of affairs, people make way more sense.
One of the most common questions you’ll hear about another human being is, “They believe X, so why do they act like Y?” Why does the gossip in your office hate other people talking about them? Why does the holy-roller preacher have an affair? Why does the child abuser treat their dog so well? How could Hitler love? And so on.
The answer is that there is a person¹ walking around in the body of the gossip who loves talking about other people, and there is another person in that same body who hates to be talked about. These are entirely different facets of the mind, and thus generate entirely different responses, and thus appear to be entirely different people with entirely different ideals of acceptable behavior. Same thing with the holy-roller; there’s a person in there who wants to follow God’s word, and another person who wants to get laid. They fight it out, and for a while the lustbunny wins. Maybe the holy roller will win tomorrow. Maybe not.
This is further complicated by changes over time. You are not the same person you were yesterday. In some cases, probably not even close to the same person. Life hits us every day, all day, and it changes us. Perhaps today you’re a quiet, mild-manned kindergarten teacher. Maybe tomorrow you’re falsely accused of being a drug mule and you go to prison. By the time you get out, you will be different. You’ll probably be a gang member, for starters (because prison has certain rules for survival). You’ll certainly be a bit more skeptical of the judicial system. You’ll probably be a little paranoid, a little traumatized, a little bitter.
Now compare your actions after you get out of prison to the actions you would have taken in similar situations before prison. They will be different. People who knew you from before will probably have difficulty reconciling the current “you” with the person they knew. That’s because you are no longer that person. You’re just walking around in the same (slightly older) body.
This is why it is so difficult to judge character; a person’s current character is not what they were like a year ago, much less ten years ago. It is influenced by those other people, but the current person is something else. This is also why intoxication can be a mitigating factor in some criminal cases — you really are not quite the same person when you’re drunk that you are when you’re sober.
Now for the tricky part: you are never, ever absolved of responsibility because of this. Society expects us all to present a unified moral and social front, even if our internal people are fighting about it. Your survival as a productive member of society depends on you obeying most of the rules, most of the time. There isn’t a way for anyone outside of your own head to really be 100% sure what’s going on in there, and our system relies on people behaving as though we have free will, so it’s your job to pick your sides, choose your path, and fight your own demons to the ground to make sure you walk that path and stay on that side.
If our minds were capable of synthesizing and totally incorporating our preferred moral and social outlooks, this would all be simple. For better or worse, though, most people are simply incapable of that kind of totally integrated mindset. Your “self” is at best a moderator in your internal debate. There will always be cases where people appear to act “against their nature.” It is a critical component of survival in a complex society like ours to understand this process, acknowledge that people are constantly changing, and be prepared to extend or withhold support as the situation demands.
We are seeing this currently with the sexual harassment scandals rocking Hollywood and the political elite. These are all people who lost a battle with their internal lust monsters (or never fought them at all, from the sound of it). This is the facet of them that we see, for the moment. But they will not be the same “them” next year. Maybe they will be better then. Maybe some of them will deserve forgiveness then.
This is the final point: the facet of their mind a person presents determines how society treats them now. But should it determine how they are treated forever? Our society is still wrestling with this question, and at its core it comes down to whether or not you acknowledge that people lead multifaceted, complex mental lives… or not. It comes down to whether you acknowledge that people change… or not. It comes down to determining what the response should be to that change… if any.
I don’t have final answers for these points. They are in flux, and will likely remain so, and that’s probably a good thing. But I do think it is important to acknowledge the reality that we are not so simple as the moralizers and demonizers of the world would have us believe. You are not just “you.” You are all of your “yous,” all the things you’ve ever thought, all the hidden desires, all the paths you chose, even the ones you really don’t like. It is very difficult to arrive at a place of peace and mental stability without acknowledging your own conflict; and it is perhaps the greatest lie a person can perpetrate to fail to do so.
¹I.e. a specific grouping of impulses and mental patterns. I’m not trying to say that everyone has multiple personalities. Well, actually that’s exactly what I’m trying to say, but not in the crazy-town way.