Are we merely an amalgam of all the things we remember? Is our sense of self predicated on the memory of experiences throughout our life? Julian Baggini (in his book The Pig that Wants to Be Eaten) suggests the possibility:
“…if we are in a sense composed of our memories, what happens when those memories become confused with those of other people….Or when our memories fade and trick us? Do the boundaries of the self begin to dissolve as the reliability of memory deteriorates?”
Am I really what I remember? If so, then we might have a problem. Take this old friend of mine. About twenty years ago we were in a bar in London. We were drunk and we’d made friends with a group of Englishmen who were in town to visit the Earls Court Boat Show. There was this American man with a limp and a beard who was the boyfriend of the barmaid. Something about him aggravated the young English man with whom I was speaking. Towards closing time, the two men became involved in a scuffle.
My friend, a mostly nervous and timid character but now full of English ale, leapt on to the American’s back and endeavoured to restrain him. With a powerful backwards sweep of his arm, however, the barmaid’s boyfriend cast my friend through the air across the room where he landed amongst a clattering of chairs. The scuffle ended, someone alerted the Bobbies who sent us all on our way. The night was over.
Or was it? Funnily enough, the night has actually grown and metamorphosised over the past two decades. My friend, through a re-telling and re-imagining of the scene, has incrementally transformed his actions into a heroic epic. And I have watched it grow with wonder having, as I do, the contemporaneous account in my diary from the time.
And here is the rub. As his memory of this time and others is recalled, he too has changed. He has gradually become less timid and more the person recalled from the bar in England. He is, at least in part, an invention of his flawed memory.
If we become the sum of our memories, then which memories constitute our essence? And what if our memories are false or merely embellishments? Who are we then?
And who would we be if we could remember all the things we’ve forgotten?