Scientists reduce our identities to fingerprints, to voiceprints, or to genes. All that misses everything important about us. We aren’t just bundles of verifiable facts. We are stories—and stories vanish in the light of laboratories. Scientists study what we share—the objective truth about us. But only stories—which belong to us as individuals—reveal our unique, contradictory selves. As Lambert Strether says of himself in Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors: “I’m true, but I’m incredible.”
The body you lay down in yesterday is not the one you woke up in today.
And so we must conclude there’s more to you than scientists can certify is true.
Nevertheless, when you reflect, you see that who you are is who you used to be.
I’m not sure any of us know much of anything anymore, but everyone used to know: that boys are made of snips and snails and puppy-dog tails while girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. I don’t disagree with that, but step back a bit and you will see that both boys and girls alike are made of stories. The comedian Fred Allen . . . Remember him? No, of course not, but he wisely observed in his autobiography, All About Me, that “A human being is nothing but a story with a skin around it.”
STORIES AREN’T MADE OF STUFF
I can’t rely on who I was to keep me who I am because who I was is gone, so he can’t be of any use to me.
Nor can I rely on who I am to make me who I’d rather be because there’s no way I can stand beside myself and take myself in hand.
And so my character depends on family, strangers, enemies, and friends. We spin the stories of each other’s lives in ways we only rarely realize,
Of what? Don’t ask. Stories aren’t made of stuff. We’re made of them and they are made of us.
Infants imitate their mothers. Adolescents imitate movie stars. We imitate the people we love, of course, but also the people we hate. Who are more alike than two boxers? Sometimes we do this deliberately. Often we are not aware of what we are doing. Then we look in a mirror and wonder who we are.
LOOK AT YOURSELF
Look at yourself. You’ve changed. Nothing’s fixed about how you’re arranged. What’s at the heart of it? Your memory?
What if you’re mugged? Your purse or wallet’s gone. So is your past. A blow has left you blank. But you’re still you—and your story’s adding up like an account forgotten in some bank.
You’re in a story that you can’t escape. no matter where you go or what you do. Change your job and language. Change your tune. It matters not. Your story’s you.
But though it’s yours, its shape depends on parents, brothers, sisters, strangers, friends, on places, money, movies, books, the weather, on the unborn and on the dead, together.
We inexist. To find myself, I read a book about somebody else. And I am read by people I can’t see who in their image make me me.