I take my usual walk along the promenade, lasting approximately the same number of steps as usual, past the same houses, seawall, and sand. Yet, walking this familiar route is always a different experience. Today, it’s in greyscale, and the windows of limpet houses look out with seal eyes, reflecting back the shades of the sea.
And I find myself thinking about my grandmother losing her memory. Sometimes she forgets what’s been said, names, events. Has this loss of memory, knitted together with aging, changed the person she is? Or, are we always changing? What makes us who we are in the first place?
More than that, can we ever actually know ‘what’ we are? From conscious experience, we know we are a physical being, housing a personality (made up of patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving), and – perhaps – an eternal soul. Like a Russian doll, each layer papered with subjective memories.
As I walk, I take careful steps over the dizzy spirals in puddles.
Early dementia chips away at the layers. I know my grandma came to this beach as a child in the 1930s – does she remember that? Can she recollect the last time we walked down this path together? We went slowly with my children holding our hands, and she bought them surprise afternoon ice-creams at the van. Does she remember how delighted they were? And, if she doesn’t remember, does that mean she is now someone else?
Removed from those days of summer trips to the beach as a child and a great-grandmother, her life at the moment is smaller and shaped like a compact, easily accessible flat. It is largely populated by basic needs – medication, pain management, diagnosis, appointments, etc. It is often sad and difficult, especially when she does something out of character. That unexpected behaviour casts pained shadows, and we remember in flashes the vibrant, fun person she was.
So, coming from this place of worry, I would argue that opining that one’s “main interest in life is to become someone else” speaks from a place of immense privilege. It’s not a new argument that “The unexamined life is not worth living” [Socrates]. But if that was truly one’s principle concern, it would surely be a charmed life.
I pause at the sea wall, huddled in my waterproof jacket – the sodden sand is giving me no answers today. Blank parchment paper; it waits.
And so, I examine – have I become someone else? Although I’m at a different stage in my life, my opinions about privilege and equality have not altered greatly since I was a student. In other ways, I know I have changed. Since becoming a parent, I can no longer detach enough to return to my previous profession – supporting women, children, and young people with a background of trauma and abuse, in various settings. I can’t leave their stories behind at work now, firmly shutting them in as I close the door behind me; their voices follow me home and singe my dreams.
In that line of work, our aim is largely to support positive changes in the client’s life. Not to forget the trauma, but to understand it and move on to something else; something better. In one role, I was supporting a young teenager, working intensively one-to-one. They were sleeping rough, using substances, had a history of self-harm and sexual assault, had left education, and their relationships had broken down. Their background in an abusive and neglectful household meant that chaos and being treated badly were what they expected in life. The ongoing trauma had formed their personality. Many of their behaviours were ‘classic’ and expected, coming from that kind of upbringing, as were aspects of their personality (e.g.: difficulty in maintaining boundaries, manipulative at times, low self-esteem). We worked together, along with other professionals, to make changes. I saw them grow and develop confidence in themselves (I believe that was my privilege). It was an imperfect, and very long process.
I re-start my walk, solitary on the promenade aside from the seagulls. The clouds shift and grumble, and the rain becomes heavier.
But imagine from the other side – supposing you have had a largely loving and supportive upbringing, and a pro-social family – how long would it take you to live another kind of life? Would you ever? How long would it take of living in abusive circumstances to change your feelings, thoughts, and behaviour – and therefore your personality?
Perhaps the experiences of babyhood and childhood are so formative that they set a blueprint for the person we are. When we move into adolescence, are we clay pots already fired, hard, in a kiln, or can we still be moulded? Can the cycle of abuse be interrupted and trauma ‘undone’? These were questions we constantly wondered, working in project work and related fields – can the work we do actually make a significant difference?
So, for me, I can’t take my eyes off the self-interest in the quote. We know that there are people in need due to poverty, disability and additional needs, homelessness, mental health issues, loneliness – the list is endless. Morally, our main interest in life should not be inward-looking, but outward, even more so in this age of climate change. In this time of great need of change – not to develop our ego, but to benefit the planet as a whole.
At the end of my walk, I stop at the river mouth which purges into the sea – the water level is much higher than usual for this time of year. It would have looked different in the 1930s.
If we are lucky, we grow to a great old age, sat in our forgetful armchair, often relying on others as we once did as infants. We are remembered in relation to others – when she cuddled me when I felt sad; when she made me laugh until my tummy hurt; when she taught me about flowers and plants; when she helped me. Perhaps, in the end, we are what we always were – what is left behind in the memories of others.