I Have Died Many Times

At a recent dinner, my wife and I realized we've known each other for ten years. This, naturally, led to our reminiscing of what we were doing ten years ago and discussion of what we might do ten years hence. The answer: 'we' won't be doing anything. We will be dead.

Not in-the-ground dead but, dead in the same way our decades-younger selves are dead. The death of no longer existing.

We're grateful for the decisions our younger selves made. Their marriage in the desert led to our dinner by the river, but though their lives are connected to ours by a string of contiguous days, they are not us. They are no more.

Like the Ship of Theseus your mind replaces itself one small part at a time. Memories fade, memories exaggerate, the new pushes out the old. It happens slowly, but it happens, until your mind is a new inhabitant of an old skull.

This is why we so often look back at the thoughts and actions of our younger selves with incomprehension. Who was that person? Just who did all those stupid things? Just who had those foreign thoughts? Someone else did.

This is more difficult to perceive in adulthood: often a span of years less and less differentiated. But the further back you go the more undeniable it is. Would you and your 20-year-old self agree on career decisions? Would you and your teenage-self get along?

What have you in common with your ten-year-old self? Though he may share some basic traits and he may look like you, is he you? Would he make any of the same decisions as you? Like what you like? Think what you think?

No. He's dead.

Go further: that baby in the photograph isn't you. He isn't even anyone. Though, through the power of accumulated days, he will become someone. His brain grows and prunes itself daily. As does yours.

This slow death is what allows for change: take control of it, encourage it. Murder yourself to make room for yourself.

You can thank or curse the dead past-yous for the decisions they made, but it's meaningless. Your past-selves are like The Peloponnesian War: necessary for the shape of present-day Europe while also completely irrelevant to it.

Your decisions affect the landscape of the future-you: where you live, your family, your work. But when making decisions, make them as though for a stranger: if the change is big enough or the time long enough, that is exactly who you will be to your current self.

The present-you is all there is, and the future-you is built daily on his ashes.

The Internet Never Forgets

The Internet archives all things as soon as we are old enough to hold a phone -- even earlier -- given the number of baby photos posted by over-sharing parents. Every embarrassing photo, every ill-thought-out comment: preserved forever.

For me, in the pre-social-Internet world, the great benefit of going to college was leaving high school. What a freedom, what a unique opportunity.

I picked my college, in part, because only one other person from my high school applied -- and I took great joy when learning of their rejection. Total isolation was oxygen for the pyre. The slow-burn of time would have killed high-school me eventually -- but I wanted high-school me to die faster.

And so he did. And so my life was greatly improved.

As an adult, teaching in a post social-Internet world I saw my students carry with them an ambient high school. Their friends and followers a public popularity meter. Their photos the foundation of who they are.

How does this affect their ability to grow, to change?

I worry.

The proportion of the population with their lives exposed (voluntarily or not) for all to see only grows. The Internet is like a forest that never gets cleared of debris: the lack of fires seems better for the trees at first, but it's worse in the long run.

What does it mean to a forty-year-old when their whole previous life is searchable? When every partner, every friend, every boss can see their timeline exposed. Are they always held to account for the sins of their past-selves? Do their past friends, always ambiently present, continue to reinforce who they are as who they will always be? Does an unforgeting Internet make it harder for people to change? I suspect so.

Perhaps we need a new cultural norm: decade death. To treat information about a person from ten years ago almost as though from a different person. Though I doubt this will come to pass -- it's too easy to view others as monolithic, unchanging.

But that's not our nature: we are all the phoenix.

I have died many times, and so have you.