One of the most treasured aspects of our lives revolves around creating, and forever cherishing, our memories. My oldest recollections are inevitably connected to my parents. I vividly recall my excitement as I listened intently, with my mother at my side, to the silver-toned voice of broadcaster Bob Wolff as he skillfully reported the impossible: New York Yankees pitcher Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
Two years later, my father and I were glued to the family radio (there was a television blackout) as the same announcer called the NFL Championship game as the Giants lost to the Colts in sudden death overtime in what was later named “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Not too many years later, my entire family would make it a point to catch every episode of “Mission: Impossible” as the always entertaining actor Martin Landau played his character Rollin Hand to perfection.
Perhaps what brought these recollections racing back to my mind was the fact that both Mr. Wolff and Mr. Landau passed away last week after having lived long and productive lives. Their superb works afforded me the opportunity to create wonderful memories of shared experiences with my loving parents. Concurrent with the happy times, however, are sad recollections of my mom’s deteriorating condition over a three-and-a-half-year period in a nursing home.
Strokes are heartless thieves, stealing from their victims the use of sections of their body and often eroding their brain’s capacity for thinking and remembering. So it was with my mother. Slowly, with a cruel inevitability, my vivacious, funny, elegant and intelligent mom became, in her last few months, a vacant shell of her former self. Often, I felt like James Garner’s character in “The Notebook” as my efforts to bring up happier, earlier times were, more often than not, met with sad, vacant stares.
As my mom’s condition worsened, her body’s functions began to fail and in the end she became unresponsive to stimuli. The family was faced with a decision that no one should ever have to make: do we remove the feeding tube and let nature take its course? While mulling over these terrible no-win alternatives I recall someone saying, “She’s not there, she is already gone.” Decades later, the overwhelming sadness of that moment and the painful nature of that statement still haunt me. Was that her? Was she no longer there? Of course to answer that, we must first ask: What does it mean to be a person?
Sixteenth century thinker John Locke, in “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” suggested that personal identity equaled what he called psychological continuity. For Locke, to be a person you must be a “thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself...” Locke required that a person have the ability to maintain memories that it could then utilize to link its past, present and future, making, in the process, an integrated self. My poor mom, in the end deprived of her memories, would not under Locke’s definition be considered a person.
Let’s consider Locke’s hypothesis. Looking back on your own life, can you remember when you were eight? Would you say you are the same person today? Of course you’ve changed but is it the same you? Locke says that what connects you to your younger version is your memory and nothing else. For him, your ability to connect those thoughts with today’s self is exactly what provides the continuity that comprises your identity.
Locke’s mistake, in my opinion, was that he got it backward—we have memories, they don’t have us. As my mom deteriorated, her ability to access her past vanished but that didn’t make her not her. Memory is only one aspect of consciousness. It is the continuity of our entire psychology over time that gives us identity, not merely our ability to recollect past experiences. Philosopher Thomas Reid, echoing my position, posits that memories do not make the person but rather allow the person to know its own past. My mother was deprived of one of the real joys of living—to remember and rejoice in our happier moments—but despite that inability, she was still her. Even though we could no longer laugh at the old shows or the commercials she found amusing (e.g. “Nuttin Honey”) I still desperately tried to communicate with her right up until the end.
Futurists imagine that in an effort to dodge death in the near future, we will be able to transmit all our neural connections into a robotic clone of ourselves immediately prior to our demise. As the theory goes, this new being, containing all our memories, ideas, idiosyncrasies, proclivities and reasoning abilities would literally be us.
I disagree. This scenario misses the entire nature of consciousness. This new being would undoubtedly act and think like you, but it would be a completely separate being. Even though an outsider would have difficulty in differentiating this new being from the original you it still would be a new entity.
Reflecting on my life, I have a renewed appreciation for the Bob Wolffs and Martin Landaus of the world: the entertainers, the athletes, the announcers, the writers—past and present—who have provided moments of joy, humor and just plain entertainment, making my life that much richer in the process. Although my mom’s fate could very well be mine, I nonetheless pray that I will, until my dying breath, be able to cognitively maintain my everlasting gratitude for my family and friends who have made my life worth living.