In a previous post, The Problem With Reincarnation, I wrote: “The sense of self I feel and have always felt has seemed constant throughout my life, which is why I feel as if I even have a core self. But a moment’s reflection reveals that what’s really remained constant is the feeling of the sense of self itself, not the content of that sense. Am I even remotely the same person I was at five? At fifteen? Last week? A moment ago?” In this post, I’d like to argue not only that we have no fixed identity but also that when we consider ourselves over the course of our entire lifetime, we are, in fact, just that—many selves—meaning, that is, to our ever-present-now-selves all our other selves might as well be entirely different people for the way we sometimes treat them.
Certainly you could argue I’m much more like my five-minutes-from-now self than I am my five-years-from-now self, that the smaller the difference in time between my now-self and a given future self the more likely my two selves are to be similar. But, 1) my five-second-from-now self could learn something that makes any choice my now-self makes a bad one and 2) no matter how similar a given future self might be to my now-self, my now-self seems just as likely to make a choice that harms my future self as it is to make a choice that harms someone else.
Part of the reason for this is that our now-selves sometimes have a hard time imagining that they’ll feel differently in the future than they do in the present. Or if they can imagine it, they have a difficult time attending to such feelings—acting in accord with such feelings—when such feeling run counter to what they’re feeling in the now. This is partly why we so often make decisions today that run counter to our values tomorrow. Do we eat that delicious piece of cake in front of us or not? Our now-selves want it. Our future self—maybe even our five-minutes-from-now self—may regret it deeply, feeling as it does a full stomach and thus no longer craving the cake but instead focusing on a desire to lose weight. Or perhaps our now-self want to avoid making a difficult phone call, so hands it off to our end-of-the-day self, who then resents his past self for dumping on him.
Of course, this is all just another way of saying we all want to live in a hedonic present, a present where everything is easy and we suffer no consequences for making whatever choices we want the moment we want to make them. Equally as obvious, however, is how unsuccessful and unhappy a life that would result from such a living-in-the-present-only approach. We must learn to strike a balance.
The key question, though, is: a balance from whose perspective? That is, to whom do we owe our greatest allegiance? For this isn’t just a contest between our now-self and our future self, because we don’t only have one future self. We have for all intents and purposes a nearly infinite number of future selves, all of whom potentially have competing interests and desires.
This is really the same question we face when deciding what to do with our income: do we spend it now or save it for later? Or rather, how much do we spend now and how much do we save for later? In both cases, the answer is, of course, it depends. We must use our best judgment—our wisdom—to carefully balance the needs of our now-self with all our future selves.
A good way to think about how to do this, then, is to imagine our future selves as separate people whose interests and desires matter to us, perhaps as members of our immediate family. This might make it easier for our now-self, when he’s confronted with a choice, to summon up concern for any number of his future selves. (For many of us, it’s easier to feel concern for others than for ourselves.) That might also put the consequences of the choice our now-self wants to make in clearer perspective: for imagine if the cost wasn’t to one of our future selves but instead to our spouse—or our child. The choice our now-self makes might then end up being quite different. At the very least, the weight of any negative consequences might be felt more heavily, enabling our now-self to make a wiser choice—or to make a choice with his eyes open wider.
Next Week: How To Manage Anger, Redux