One of our kids’ favorite books many years ago, “A Birthday for Frances”, movingly captures the complexity of love. “Happy birthday to me is how it should be”, Frances sings. She announces she is not going to get her sister a birthday present, then dissolves into tears because she is the only one not getting her a present. We love ourselves, we love others, how can we love both at the same time?
But do we even have a self? “Writers aren’t exactly people,” according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “they’re a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.” I remember that feeling. Every reflective adolescent goes through the same existential scare. For me, it was exacerbated by the then-recent publication of “Three Faces of Eve” about a woman with three separate personalities, by Colin Wilson’s more intellectually respectable “The Outsider” and by the fact that one of my closest friends whose father was a psychologist was deeply expert about schizophrenia and dissociative personality disorder and saw evidence of them everywhere.
A few years later, it seemed to me I did have a self even though it had an unusual combination of interests. Most of us come to that conclusion. We start work to support ourselves, maybe do some self-actualizing in the process, perhaps start a family, in any case become very busy – too busy to consider whether our self has any fixed properties. We might notice our interests and behaviors changing, that we react the same way our parents did, that we’re looking increasingly like someone else in our family, but we don’t consider what those changes indicate.
Only recently I came to realize there’s actually nothing at all fixed about “me”. Now, I see that more and more of the pieces of what I used to think of as “me” are the result of genetic and experiential memories. I see they’re continuing to change, and I haven’t identified anything at all that is fixed. I’m lucky to have lost that delusion of “self” because it helps me resolve Frances’ dilemma, the selfishness I’ve tried for so long to overcome.
That’s why I had Facebook show today as my birthday. It’s not the anniversary of when my mother gave birth to me but the day I began life in the USA. It might better be termed my rebirth but that whole way of thinking – birth, death, rebirth and so on – just leads to confusion. There have been so many days, before and after my physical birth, that gave birth to what still feels like “me”.
Knowing deeply that “self” is an illusion will require a lot more work. That’s work worth doing – a good birthday resolution. How fine it would be if every one of us could wholeheartedly celebrate every instant as everyone’s birthday.
Isn’t the part of us that experiences our lives–our thoughts, feelings, events, everything–our self? That part of me seems to have remained the same since I can remember.
It seems to me there is a continuum of individuality from moment to moment, i.e., a continuum of consciousness, but no eternal, unchanging, abiding, permanent self.
The Buddhist explanation of the continuum, the “mindstream”, as I understand it so far, is there is only process, no “things” as we imagine them, nothing that’s indivisible or fixed. We perceive the process as phenomena instant after instant after instant. That’s the continuum. Phenomena appear to have some permanence for the same reason a flow of still images appears as a movie. The other important thing about phenomena is they all have innumerable causes and results.
The practical benefit of the little I understand so far is the realization that nothing is fixed. Whatever it is underlying my sense of self is something I can change. How cool is that!