Sometimes my mom asks me to take her to our hometown’s cemetery. That’s where my dad is buried, and my uncles and aunts and grandparents and great-grandparents. And a cousin who passed when he wasn’t even a year old. I remember vividly when it happened: I was five or six and asked a lot of questions. He wasn’t well and God flew him back to heaven, they would respond.
Most people go to cemeteries to visit the graves of loved ones so they can honor their memory and feel a sense of connection with them. Something that makes little sense to me, but I respect. I don’t need to be in front of his grave to feel connected with my dad, or talk to him. I entertain long and colorful and reassuring and laugh-bursting and sometimes painful conversations with him in my head. Like with my friend Saverio, who left this world when we were both fourteen. I’ve talked with him a lot over the years but I’ve never visited his grave, or brought him flowers. I don’t even know where his grave is, exactly.
When I'm gone, give me thoughts, talk to me, but don’t come visit, I won’t be there. Why do I have to be where a bunch of bones that I used to carry around in me are kept? And don’t bring me flowers, I always say to my kids.
I like going to cemeteries. I like visiting these quiet spaces filled with cypresses and the remains of what once were molecules and atoms and smiles and voices. It makes me think of the universe of past lives and stories and their many moments and the colors and scenes that these eyes saw and the cold that these bones felt. The thoughts and the ideas, the hopes and the loves. I like walking the aisles of graves without a destination, and losing my sense of time. And reading tombstones, where whole lives, with all their myriads of pictures and intakes of air and complexities and uniquenesses, have been reduced to a few, etched words.
These epitaphs are always so generic, as if “Great man and father” could tell anything about a human. When asked to describe ourselves, we tend to talk in general terms, maybe because we find the details of our lives somehow embarrassing or uninteresting or superfluous or boring. But it’s the details that paint the picture of a life, that shape its uniqueness. What’s wrong with writing “He liked fantasizing about what’s behind a lighted window when walking at night” or “He had no problem changing idea when facts changed or someone convinced him” on a gravestone? I’d love these on mine. Each combination of details is like a fingerprint, a helix of DNA -- it’s ours and only ours.
The other day I went to the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano (Milan’s Monumental Cemetery -- where “Monumental” here doesn’t mean “great in importance, extent, or size”, but that most of the graves have monuments on them, like statues, sculptures, or other artistic creations dedicated to the deceased). It’s a beautiful and peaceful place where I sometimes go to shoot photos or just walk around and think. Contrary to most large cities' cemeteries, that are located in the suburbs, this one is walking distance from the center. It’s a monument in and of itself. One of the city’s many.
And so I was walking past these sumptuous graves enriched with elegant pieces of art and I thought of some questions that have become somewhat recurring during my recent cemeterial promenades -- do these epitaphs refer to the latest phases of the deceased’s life, or are they meant to embrace their entire existence? Which then, spontaneously (and consequentially), turns into: do individuals stay the same throughout their lives? Or do they change substantially over time? Is what I was like at four or five still there today? Or have those personality and behavioral traits made room for something else?
In “Are you the same person you used to be?” Joshua Rothman explores the question of personal identity and whether or not we remain the same person over time. I read the article hoping to find a conclusive answer, but there isn’t one. Essentially, Rothman goes through several examples and pieces of research to conclude that there’s no statistical regularity and everyone is different -- “Some people feel that they’ve altered profoundly through the years, and to them the past seems like a foreign country, characterized by peculiar customs, values, and tastes. [...] But others have a strong sense of connection with their younger selves, and for them the past remains a home”. When trying to remember life as you lived it years ago, he continues, “Does the self you remember feel like you, or like a stranger? Do you seem to be remembering yesterday, or reading a novel about a fictional character?” If you have the former feelings, he says, you’re probably a continuer; if the latter, you’re probably a divider.
So, that we may either be continuers or dividers is obviously an over-simplification that’s fun to read about, and some of us might fall in-between or feel “a little more” of a divider than the next person, for example. What emerges though is the impossibility to really wrap a model around such an elusive question. This inconclusiveness ties into a view of personal identity as something too complex to pin down and stay the same for an entire life. And I find it kind of obvious that such a broad, vast question doesn’t have a conclusive answer.
Our identity -- as evasive and convoluted as it may be -- is like a bucket that gets filled over time through experiences, connections, people and ideas. When we’re little, our identities contain small amounts. So the bucket is almost empty, certainly emptier than it will be at thirty or forty or seventy, when it might very well be close to full capacity. But the bucket might also have a leak, as some elements of our identity (slowly or quickly) drip out of it to make room for new ones as time passes. Or maybe it has no leak, and we decide to empty part of it deliberately at some point to accommodate and welcome new elements. And when we add new elements into the bucket, they mix in with the existing (or remaining) ones to create a new concoction. In other words, identities are variable in capacity, and this variability may be deliberate or random or built-in. They are also variable in content, but not infinitely spacious. I don’t know whether mine has any leaks, but it’s not very large. And I like to empty all or part of it frequently myself, as I find making room for new elements, creating a new concoction, exciting and revealing. Energizing and refreshing.
To really address the “Are you the same person you used to be?” question properly, one should have many clear memories of what they were like when little, which is no small feat. I myself have some disconnected flashes of faces and colors and objects and voices, but no remembrance whatsoever of feelings or thoughts or convictions. I remember some visible and audible things, but I don’t remember almost anything invisible and inaudible. I may infer how I felt from some actions or behaviors that I remember, but that would be an interpretation based on today’s mind and cognitive tools. Remembering how we felt about a particular situation or person or idea at age three or four is rare, but really important to answer that question. One might argue that, to obviate such problems, we could compare what someone was like at, say, age four to what they are like today through the eyes of someone else. I could ask my mom to describe what I was like when I was little, for example. She could tell plenty of stories and anecdotes, of course, but that wouldn’t really help. Identity is strictly personal, not something narrated by someone else, as close as they may be.
So, it’s a conundrum.
My take is that it’s close to impossible that we are now the same persons that we used to be. I don’t think any serious analysis or research or brainstorming is really necessary to reach this conclusion. No matter how you slice it, people change because environments, friendships, ideas, and situations change, and because they get hit by positive or negative events. By definition. Over the years, I’ve heard people say “I’m exactly the same as I was when I was little”. But I think that’s an unconscious lie.
As I walk past the grave of Alessandro Manzoni, a poet, novelist and philosopher famous for the 1827 novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed, among the masterpieces of world literature), and one of the many Italian eminent historical figures buried at the Monumentale, I try to remember a detail of me that was there when I was four and it’s still there today, one that has characterized my being me over my entire existence.
And all I can come up with is my hair twirling obsession.
Thanks for reading The Semi-Serious View! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Yes, please, take me on a walk with you. Any time.
". . .where whole lives, with all their myriads of pictures and intakes of air and complexities and uniquenesses, have been reduced to a few, etched words."
You'd better write your own epitaph in advance, otherwise your family will have the impossible task of choosing one uniquely detailed phrase from those that litter your writing.
Excellent, as always. Your story inevitably reminded me of the Ship of Theseus, which in the end is us. And, if I remember correctly, that one does not propose a solution either, since it is a paradox. Are we paradoxes, then? I guess we are.
One day I was talking to a friend and I was saying, "This is not how I imagined my life in my 20s," and I don't remember what we were talking about but we were laughing, so it didn't have to be anything important or at most something you could laugh about. So we should talk about identity, memory and time and those are three giant topics. I'm going straight to the cemetery, which is a place I love very much and which I don't frequent as much as I would like (at least while I'm alive, then I'll have time). I have often wondered what I like about cemeteries, and I am talking about any cemetery. I think the peace they inspire and that they don't ask you questions or have answers. The questions are about time (the past and the future) but there is no time there, there is a silent end. They are places where time has no power, that's what they are. Or at least human time. That's why I don't consider them places of remembrance (like you) or of dialogue with those who are no longer with us. They are the places we have made up so that we don't have to deal with time for a while. So that we don't have to wonder if the Ship of Theseus that has arrived at its destination is the same one that had sailed years before.