In most instances, even the coldest utilitarians nurture a romantic image of themselves. From fry cooks to heads of state, few men see their personalities as something less than exquisitely unique. No matter how modest our station in life, we all take sustenance in knowing there is no one else navigating it quite like the inimitable us. I say sustenance advisedly since the broad belief that our personalities, our decisions, our essence that makes us like no other, is probably crucial to evading mass nihilism and the social pathologies that would inevitably flow from it. Being specially and specifically you tends to make most people a conscientious steward of that persona and its reputation. This effect being far more robust than if they believed precious them was merely a manifestation of blood flow and brain structures.
But is it?
Are we our own distinct consciousness because of man’s inherent variance, or because no one else’s occipital lobe has exactly the same topology? If that topology could be recreated with utter precision in a lab, would it be you? Or is our cognitive clay molded strictly by divine hands? Here’s a personal story that gave me pause to consider.
A few years ago a friend of mine suffered a brain injury. The type and cause is unimportant, though it was of sufficient severity that his life was in grave jeopardy. I was there when he was being airlifted to a critical care facility, and the look of fear in his still-conscious eyes was haunting.
His recovery was painful, grueling, and at times shocking. The mind is no mute appendage. As a result, his convalescence was a carnival ride in which he suffered constantly fluctuating symptoms. He went through a period of extreme sensitivity to light. Later he would become paranoid and terrified by multiple sources of stimulation. He could listen to music, but not while looking out the window. He could walk around the house, but only in silence. Much later his first visit to the grocery store ended in a near nervous breakdown as the kaleidoscope of colors, movement, and announcements overwhelmed his compromised ability to process them. That wasn’t all.
His wife soldiered through bouts of complete personality upheaval. Previously very stoic, he became a garrulous and raunchy comedian for a time. Then a philosopher. Even his tastes fluctuated. Moods, perceptions, opinions: the entire foundation of what distinguishes us as an individual shifted beneath him. As his brain struggled to heal, the being that is he was revealed as far more elastic than anyone imagined.
He has since made a full recovery. Or has he? Periodically we’ll discuss the injury and its aftermath. And one response always leads me to a lingering question. He says he feels fine now and can function normally; but he is not entirely who he was. He is someone slightly different. He can remember the old him, but can not completely relate to that person. It is as if he is a doppelgänger living another man’s life. Over time I think he has grown comfortable in that subtly alien role, though what of the man he replaced? I sometimes wonder if the guy lying on a stretcher looking at me in terror that day didn’t actually perish after all.
Which leaves us with more questions than most people find comfortable to ask at birthday parties. Such as, am I a unique personality of immutable hate? Or could a one degree shift in my hippocampus leave me so mentally inert as to savor Tennessee Coates columns? That I don’t know the answer is a source of some disquiet. Are we something fixed, enduring, and inviolable while our bodies last? Or are we instead just the manifestation of one particular neural traffic pattern, and something else entirely when that’s rerouted?
I’ll tell you why I ask.
Some of you may have heard of the blogger Countenance. He is a small voice in the broad dissident right discussion. I’ve never had an exchange with him of any kind, don’t know any of his positions, and only glanced at his address probably once per year. Though doing so last week I was dismayed to see that he suffered an egregious brain injury this summer, with his prognosis for full recovery (or perhaps any meaningful recovery at all) looking increasingly bleak. A steward is posting in his stead, and probably offering too much personal information if I were to opine.
The injury apparently resulted from his being hit by a driver who was fingering their i(diot)phone, and has stripped another man of his functional life as a result. I can’t claim a virgin’s innocence on that front, but texting while driving is truly an assault on civic responsibility. You may accidentally hit an antifa, but most of the time a collision while distracted will have negative results. So don’t.
Aside from that, I hope who Countenance was remains who he is. And that his unique personality will eventually reemerge from the ruins of his trauma. Whatever the source of our consciousness, we all have a place and a role. The romantic in me wants to believe his role is more than being felled by an imbecile stabbing at the facebook icon.