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The Girl Who Didn't Discover Herself on a Park Bench
Sam sits on her local park bench brainstorming on how to write her college essay. It is fall, and the ragweed pollen count is extremely high. The air smells faintly of damp leaves and apple cider. It’s a beautiful day. Sam’s prompt is: What/who has made you who you are today?
Sam (thinking to herself): Well my mother meeting my father at an ABBA concert and having me is a good start. I got my dad’s eyes and my mom’s nose. And neither of their mouths.
Elderly Lady on park bench adjacent to Sam: uhhhhhhaaaaaCHEW!
Sam: Bless you! Would you like a kleenex?
Lady on park bench adjacent to Sam: I’m okay, but thank you!
Sam (thinking to herself): Okay, so I’m my freckles, red hair, blue eyes, unproportional torso, weak arms, round face, pizza shaped birthmark, and long toes.
Lady on park bench: uhhhhaaaaAaaaaaChetweW!
Sam (thinking to herself): Thank god, I’m not allergies.
Lady: Excuse me. I’m sorry… is that Kleenex still an offer.
Sam: Yes. Here you go.
Lady: No, it’s okay. I’ll come to you, dear.
The Lady practically skips over.
Lady: What are you up to?
Sam is caught off guard by her youthful prancing and her familiarity.
Sam: Oh just college essays.
Lady: College! Girls go to college these days! I forgot! You know they also don’t enforce kid’s menu age limits? Age is just a suggestion! You can be any age you want. What a great time to be alive.
Sam: I did know that. I always get the kiddie corndog at Freddie’s.
Lady: What are you writing about?
Sam: Who I am.
Lady: Who are you?
Sam: Actually, I was also kind of wondering who you are? I’m Sam.
Lady: I’m Alice. And I think your going to have to get more specific than that.
Sam shows her the long list of physical attributes she scribbled down. Alice takes out a butter knife and a bagel. She appears to be smathering air on her bagel.
Alice: Okay, Sam. Let’s say if I cut off your long toes with this butter knife right now, then would you feel like you lost your identity or who you are?
Sam: No! I’d be Sam, but no toes Sam.
Alice: Exactly. So, I think it is safe to say who you are isn’t what you look like or your body. I know I don’t love you for your red hair and blue eyes. I love you for your kindness, sassy attitude, and extensive knowledge of the Louisiana Bayou.
Sam: Well we just met, but thanks! I’m still a little confused. You wouldn’t recognize me by these internal qualities. You can’t even see them. You would say there is Sam because you would see my red hair a few inches above everyone else. It seems that you just infer because you see my body, I, Sam, am also in it. Isn’t that identity?
Alice: Gollygee, you are a smartie! Remember when you didn’t want to watch “Leave it to Beaver”? I asked you why you weren’t acting yourself!
Sam: Umm actually I don’t really remember that. What’s “Leave it to Beaver?”
Alice: See! I’ve had the opportunity to observe you throughout your life and have learned your psychological patterns. Yes, your psychology isn’t directly observable, but it does show in your behavior.
Sam: So, it is safe to assume the body and self have a close connection.
Alice: When I was a girl I shared a fortune cookie with my mother. This witch gave it to us, but, anyways, I woke up the next day ready to go put on my school uniform when I realized I was in my mother’s bed and I had her saggy arms. We got it all figured out, and now I have her saggy arms anyway! See you don’t need to see your body to know if you are yourself.
Sam: Okay, so I’m not my body. What am I?
Alice: You tell me!
Sam: I guess I am my brain, if my family and friends judge me by my beliefs, attitude, behavior, and therefore, psychology.
Alice: Imagine your brain, all the psychological states, is copied and put into a another body.
Sam: Nice! Two of me!
Alice: Which one is the real you?
Sam: Aren't they the exact same? How can one be more me than the other?
Alice: That is a good point, but you cannot be both because two can’t be one.
Sam: So, neither is me. That seems wrong. If I cease to exist because there is two of me, then I have basically died.
Alice: See! There must be something wrong with psychological states being the basis of identity. Let’s try to put our finger on what the exact problem is.
Sam: Uhh… I might just switch to a different essay topic.
Alice: Are you the same person you were when you were 5?
Alice: How about 10 year old Sam?
Alice: 13 years old?
Sam thinks about her middle school days, braces and track suits.
Sam: Yikes. I’d like to think not.
Alice: You get the point. How do you know you are the same person? Do you have the same beliefs or desires?
Sam: Not exactly. When I was 5 I thought babies were put into lady’s stomachs when god thought they were ready to be mothers (obviously he wasn’t always the best judge). All I wanted when I was 5 was a house plant.
Alice: And now you know storks bring the babies and all you want is to go to college. You sound like a completely different person!
Sam: I can’t be! Everyone changes a little. You grow and learn.
Alice: A little? What if someone’s beliefs and desires change a lot? They go from being Christian to Buddhist. Or they have an epiphany and stop hanging on the streets with the gangs and get a job in a nice bakery! Are they the same person? How do you create a line where they have changed too much to be the same person?
Sam: Can’t people change but still be the same person? Just like my physical body has changed a lot from when I was five, but people still recognize me.
Alice: Not if our criteria for identity is psychological continuity. If everything about you changes from the five year old your mother knew, what keeps her from throwing you out because you are an imposter?
Sam: Because my mom remembers me being five! I remember me being five.
Alice: So, if you forget being 5, like most people do, are you not the same person? Some will say having the capacity to retrieve those memories from when you were five is enough to maintain your identity. What do you remember from being 5?
Sam: My mom always tells this story about me falling into one of those sewer holes.
Alice: And I remember being Julie Andrews and accidently killing one of those kids in the mountains. How do you really know that was you?
Sam: I guess I don’t. My mom has told me the story so many times I have this vision of her giving me the world’s longest bath afterwards. I looked like a giant prune...or Larry King.
Alice: You don’t actually remember it! You only seem to. The only way to solve this is by making the criteria for psychological continuity having the same brain which made those memories. This gets super mysterious.
Alice makes ghost cries.
Sam: Why? I obviously have the same brain.
Alice: Go back to our problem earlier, where there was two of you. Having the same brain becomes arbitrary. One of you doesn’t have your real brain, but the logical answer is you are both, but we know that is impossible. Psychological continuity can’t be identity.
Sam: Alice, I really hope you aren’t about to go where I think you are going.
Alice: And where would that be? Vegas? Oh no no no, I said I was done gambling years ago.
Sam: The soul.
Alice: Oh, Sammy, wouldn’t that be nice? To have a soul! I stopped believing in all that voodoo when my yoga instructor took all the money we had collected to go to Cambodia so he could buy Miley Cyrus's dog. If we had souls why would we all be so scared to die?
Sam: I’m not scared to die!
Alice: That’s because you are 17 and you think you will never die. But that’s not the only problem I have with the soul. According to Plato, we have no way to detect it. Give it a try yourself. Hypothetically, souls could be coming in and out my body whenever they want. I would have no way of knowing if a soul is the same soul. What it really comes down to is their insignificance. They may or may not exist, but they really have no place in identity.
Sam: I have no idea who I am!
Alice: Wait! It’s not that hard. What has caused you to be who you are?
Sam: A lot of things. This IS hard!
Alice: Okay, I’ll start. I’m the smell of sweet potatoes for breakfast, my foot twitch which made me hesitant to sit for long periods of time, glitter, the tears I shed when Louis Armstrong sings, pie crust on Thanksgiving, and caramel apples (even though they make my teeth fall out).
Sam: I’m this loud cackling laugh like my mother’s, the softness of my cat, going to the zoo, the bubbles in diet coke, the Party City on 16th street, reading book four of Harry Potter over and over, red (when I’m in the sun for more than an hour), popsicles, the Grand Canyon echoing, playing tic-tac-toe with my brother at church…
Alice: It sounds like Sam is a bunch of different experiences all bundled together.
Sam: Yes, I think Sam is.
Alice: Then what mushes all these experiences together?
A very long silence.
Alice: Let me help you. Your imagination. It is responsible for linking all these experiences together, creating the illusion of identity.
Sam: Don’t you think it’s a pretty unfair essay question then?
Alice: Quite unfair.
Sam: It would take me days to write, if I even could write it. There’s a jumble of too many causes. I can’t trace them all. I guess I have to do the other prompt. Do you have any knowledge on California Gold Rush?
Alice: I’m not that old.
Suddenly, a woman pulls up in a small red car. She gets out and starts walking towards the pair on the bench.
Cindy: It looks like you found a friend, Victoria.
Sam (think to herself): Who the heck is Victoria?
Alice: Sam, it’s Obama from Obamacare! I want you to stay behind me and I’ll protect us.
Cindy: Victoria c’mon. You had your two hours. Sorry, Sam, was it? I’m Victoria’s daughter. Victoria has Alzheimer's. Time to go back to the nursing home, old lady!
Alice or Victoria?: Stay away!
Cindy slowly pulls her, and she yells about a homosexual squirrel.
Sam (thinking to herself): Then who is Alice?
Sam thinks about Alice/Victoria for a long time in the park and it becomes dark, eventually. Sam came to the conclusion the Alice she knew for approximately 45 minutes in the park had no identity. Cindy’s mistake was believing in this magic which made Alice the same Victoria she once knew. Cindy’s memories of Victoria couldn’t keep her alive no matter how hard she tried. Even Sam had no identity, and it didn’t really bother her.