1. Different Versions of You
In the book “One, No One and One Hundred Thousand” (Original Italian: Uno, Nessuno e Centomila), the main character is struck with a sudden, haunting epiphany:
Inside the imagination of every person he comes across exists a different version of himself—a version that’s a mismatch of his own self-image.
He realizes “he” was only “him” to himself. Everyone around him had created their own copy of him in their minds.
Take a moment to think about that.
The story you tell yourself about who you are is different than the story everyone else has constructed about you.
Your parents, siblings, and friends all have their own version of you.
- Strangers you pass by on the street
Everyone who you cross paths with in life has a different version of you in their mind, and their versions differ from your sense of the true “you.”
2. How to Disappear Completely: The Paradox of the Self
We live our entire lives in a tiny locus of consciousness that we experience as our own self. It’s as if we’re in a tiny little home, peeking out through a window that’s the focal point of everything we experience. It creates a very real, vivid sense of identity.
If you were to ask yourself the question “who am I?” right now, the answer may seem obvious.
But as you continue to dig deeper, the walls begin to crumble. Follow the logic tunnel far enough and you wind up right back where you started.
This is what’s called the Paradox of Self-Consciousness.
Although we have the conviction that there’s an “I”, it can’t be logically proven without using circular logic. We’re using the mind to think about the mind; your sense of “I” is what defines its own existence.
In an empirical sense, no “you” even exists.
“As I ran on like this, a fresh anxiety laid hold of me: the realization that I should not be able, while living, to depict myself to myself in the actions of my life, to see myself as others saw me, to set my body off in front of me and see it living like the body of another. When I took up my position in front of a mirror, something like a lull occurred inside me; all spontaneity vanished; every gesture impressed me as being fictitious or a repetition. I could not see myself live.”Luigi Pirandello (One, No One and One Hundred Thousand)
3. Sonder: Flipping the Mirror
It can be interesting to imagine someone else having this same realization: that although their perceptions feel very real and vivid, their way of viewing the world is unique to them.
Use the first person that pops into your mind as an example. Imagine them having the epiphany that their version of stories, memories, emotions and identity is unique to them and that you have your own version of them living inside your head.
At some level, we all understand this. But it’s one thing to know it logically and another to have the complete awareness of it.
There’s even a word that’s been created to describe this feeling: sonder.
The story you tell yourself inside your head feels very real to you, but each person is walking around with this own sense of realness. That version of reality feels just as real to them as yours does to you.
4. A Spider Web of Influence
The people you come across in life help influence your actions, behaviors and thoughts. You, in turn, influence theirs.
The degree of influence depends on how big a role you play in one another’s lives. But whether it’s the person you run into on the street or your parents, you create a version of each other. What that version looks like is greatly dependent on your own version of self and the stories you tell yourself.
Who we are is a complex amalgamation of these relationships. You’re helping shape others’ sense of self just as much as they’re helping shape yours. “You” don’t exist independently.
People come into your life just as quickly as they leave it. Some influence you for long periods, and some for just brief moments. But even long after the memory of the interaction is gone, the imprint remains.
But here’s the kicker: moment by moment, thought by thought, we’re all constantly evolving.
Our thoughts, beliefs, psychology and entire sense of who we are is ever-so-slightly different this moment than it was just a moment ago. Every new thought we have subtly changes our own version of ourselves and in turn, the versions we’ve created of others.
It’s an ever-evolving spider web of influence.
These different versions of us and everyone we encounter never really exist in a concrete form. Since we’re constantly changing, trying to conceptualize them is nothing more than a failed attempt at capturing a fleeting process.