Past Lives

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Recently I found out that a former wife was seriously ill. I didn’t discover it on my own but from a mutual friend – a person who has kept contact with both of us even though the two of us have been apart for more than 25 years. This was a woman I spent seven years of my life with and, so, I am sad to hear the news. Yet, not nearly as sad as I feel for other people I know who are facing similar challenges. We were once intimate but there is now no immediacy to the feelings I have. It is like it is happening to someone else in some other life.

I’ve taken a look to see how she is doing and while I recognize her on one level, on another she seems like a stranger. Not only because of the passage of time but rather because of what time — and all the events that happen over the span — does to us all. It changes us. But not in a linear fashion; not like a movie that tracks our lives from one moment to the next as if there were not disjunctions along the way.

Yesterday, I had coffee and conversation with a new friend — a face-to-face with someone I had previously only known over Facebook. He told me — in the course of our wide-ranging conversation — about his daughter, Anna. Anna judges her present actions based on what she thinks future Anna might think about them. Will she be happy and proud or disappointed? She also looks back on past Anna, sometimes, I suppose, with pride but also with disappointment. The more I thought about it, the more impressed I was with the profound understanding this young woman has about herself.

When we look back, we tend to see a cord that connects our present self with our past self — a single line of connection that gets us from there to here. Yet if we look closely, often that cord is filled with tangled knots — the complex and difficult situations we’ve passed through. Failed marriages, ruined careers, traumatic events. Looking closer still we might discover that the cord that enters the knot is made of one thing — say, nylon rope — while the cord that emerges is made of something else — perhaps braided cotton. It is quite possible that somewhere inside the knot those cords are not even connected. We entered as one thing but came out as another.

It makes sense in a way. We know that people can sometimes change dramatically — converting from one religion to another for example. Why would we think that the person who emerges from such an experience would even be the same after? Isn’t that what is meant by the change from Saul to Paul on the road to Damascus? But if we can change so readily — and I now think, so often — what does it mean to say: I am this person. What does it mean to think that I could continue to be me if uploaded to a machine or taken up to heaven?

And more practically, what does it mean for a society whose youth seem attracted to becoming something else — a different culture, a different religion, a different view of what makes anyone human, anyone valuable?

So I am left with this. The ties that bind us are not certain; they unravel at the lightest touch. So the best we can do is imagine future selves and wonder how our present actions will make them feel — or, in fact, make them, real.

And that’s ten minutes.

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