Ego Death III: Who Am I?

This is the third episode of a series on ego death. Read episode one and two.

Driving home last night, all I could hear was the engine working and the tires talking with the road. That’s because I’d turned the radio off to create what Maria Popova calls a pocket of stillness. Typically, in these periods of relative emptiness, my mind begins to wander and wonder, and yesterday was no exception. I begin to think about the following diagrams:

The circles represent size and space. The smallest is ourselves, the biggest is the universe, and the one in between is our world. The straight lines represent time. The smallest is a single moment, the longest is the entire timeline of existence, and the one in between is our lifetime. Of course, neither the circles nor the lines are drawn to scale. And that’s the point. In terms of time and space, we are infinitesimal.

I don’t know about you, but I find comfort in that thought, in the briefness and the smallness of our existence. And in the stillness of the drive home yesterday, I think I figured out why. It’s because that perspective on time and space is a direct counter to the experience of our self-concept.

We are the stars in our own movies. Everything that happens in the world is processed by our own apparatus of perception and understanding. So we cannot help but tint each event or observation with a shade of concern for our own wellbeing. “Does this matter to me? Does this have any bearing on my life?” 

This isn’t a bad thing. It’s not even really a good thing. It’s just how it is. But it does become quite absurd when you contrast this viewpoint with that of an impartial spectator, with that of someone who has no concept of self and can hold the dimensions of time and space in his mind. To such a spectator, our self-concern and care for our own self-image must look absurd. 

But as a human, not an impartial spectator, it’s easier to ask why our self-concept arises than it is to hold its existence in a constant state of absurdity and wonder. So that’s what I want to ask today: “What is our self-concept and why does it even exist?”

In Ego Death I, I said the idea of self-concept is easiest to define as the answer we give to the question, “Who am I?” But think about it. How would you actually answer that? I’ll try myself.

“Matt, who are you?” Well, I’m my memories. I’m my experiences. I’m my fears. I’m my loves and my hates. I’m my desires, drives and ambitions. I’m my philosophy and my perspective. I’m my relationships and my feelings and my thoughts. I’m my decisions, my actions and their consequences. 

Taken individually, these answers are wrong. We’re not just our memories or our actions. And taken collectively, these answers are still wrong. Yes, we’re all those things, but we’re really something more. Our whole is more than the sum of our parts, so to speak.

See, it’s actually quite difficult to answer the question, “Who am I?” There is another way to come at it though. The Wikipedia page for “self-concept” says the following:

“Self-concept is made up of one’s self-schemas, and interacts with self-esteem, self-knowledge, and the social self to form the self as whole. It includes the past, present, and future selves, where future selves (or possible selves) represent individuals’ ideas of what they might become, what they would like to become, or what they are afraid of becoming. Possible selves may function as incentives for certain behavior.”

The first thing I’d like to draw attention to is that our self-concept is a combination of “self-schemas”. Here’s the definition of “self-schema”: “The self-schema refers to a long lasting and stable set of memories that summarize a person’s beliefs, experiences and generalizations about the self, in specific behavioral domains.” Here’s how I visualise that idea:
We could think of the “self” as these three circles, as a collection of set, stable and shifting ideas about ourselves, the world around us and our place within it. Or alternatively, we can use the analogy of a wheel on a car. Our set beliefs are the axle, our stable beliefs are the wheel that turns on it, and our shifting beliefs are the tyre interacting with the road.

The second thing I’d like to draw attention to is more intriguing: the temporal dimension to our sense of self. It’s something I’ve never considered, but I suppose it’s pretty essential. I mean, I have visions, pictures, of the person I used to be, of the sort of child, adolescent and young adult I once was. And those pictures—we could call them narratives—inform how I understand myself now. And looking into the future, considering the person I want to be and the life I want to lead, that also significantly affects who I consider myself to be in the present.   

So, we can describe our self-concept as follows: sets of beliefs of differing stability concerning our past, present and future selves

Now, notice the use of the word “belief”. I didn’t say, “sets of accurate and reliable observations.”

Our self-concept, our self-image, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, often don’t correspond to reality. They’re distorted in a way which makes them easier for us to accept. It’s almost as if our beliefs about ourselves and our world through time are filters for the very reality we stomp around in. And as you can imagine, nobody uses a filter that makes themselves look bad. Think about uploading a photo to Instagram. You don’t use the filter that makes the image look flat, weird, fake, ugly or boring. You choose the filter that you think will make your friends and followers—and makes you—go, “Ahhhh, how funny/cool/beautiful/sad/interesting.”