Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The Only Way We Ever Discover Who We Really Are

Not long ago, I returned to a school I attended between the ages of 10 and 12 to find it so unrecognizable that I at first insisted that I was in the wrong place. The buildings and grounds were all, mostly, the same, but it wasn't until I'd been there for a couple of hours that I began to be convinced that I was not there by mistake. Of course, I told myself, I was thrown by all the changes. There had been repairs, refurbishments, and replacements over the course of the intervening three decades. There were even a couple of new buildings and the playgrounds had been upgraded. And I had to recognize that I myself had changed as well, have lived through my own lifetime of repairs, refurbishments, and replacements.

By the time I left the grounds, I'd puzzled it all out. It was once again the school of my memories

The Ancient Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch proposed the well-known Ship of Theseus thought experiment by way of thinking about identity. If you have a ship and, over time, you replace every single piece of wood in it, does it remain the same ship? It's the sort of chicken-or-egg conundrum over which philosophical types like to naval gaze, but I'm thinking that maybe those of us who work with young children might also benefit from thinking about it.

We don't have to imagine this scenario. The children in our lives will undergo precisely this process, as all of us have, as they grow up: every single atom in their body will be replaced, not just once, but multiple times. In this sense, as with the Ship of Theseus or my old school, they will literally become completely new people. 

Those of us who are already grown ups, on the other hand, can look back over our lives and despite being made of an entirely different collection of atoms, we know there is a kind of continuum of self. We are in some way the "same" person who was born however many decades ago. What is that thing that connects us as a single, unique human throughout our lives? Many suggest that we remain the same person over time through our memories, but cognitive scientists tell us that our memories, while perhaps based on real events, are incorrigibly malleable as witnessed by my experience at my old school. Indeed, the more often we think of an event in our past, the less like actual events it becomes. The act of recalling alters the truth which is why we so often disagree with loved ones about the facts of what "really" happened.

So if we're not connected from past to present through our bodies or memories, how is it that we know we are the same person throughout our lives?

Perhaps it's not the specific facts and acts of our memories, but rather our emotions that we remember: we might forget the details, but we never forget how something made us feel. This is the domain of therapeutic processes which seek to not necessarily help us reconstruct the past, but rather to find the connection between our past and present selves as a starting point for healing. This seems closer to the point for me. What allowed me to finally see my old school wasn't my sense of sight, but rather the feelings that began to come over me as I walked the grounds. Only then did I know that this was my old school. 

I reckon this is what allows us to recognize ourselves again and again even as everything changes.

Carl Jung, one of the pioneers in modern psychology, wrote: "People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls." And here we enter the realm of spirituality, a subject we tend to avoid, at least as secular educators. At the recent Teacher Tom's Play Summit, I spoke with a number of indigenous educators (Maori educator Brenda Soutar, Aboriginal educator Jackie Bennett, Ojibwe educator Hopi Martin) all of whom placed "spirit" at the center of their approach. They were all less interested in helping children define who they are as individuals, than they were with helping them understand how they are connected to the rest of humanity, not just in the present moment, but through time. Instead of focusing on what makes each child unique (e.g., through grades, tests, etc.), their approach is on how each child belongs

In the end, it is belonging that survives through time and space. It is belonging that heals. It is belonging to family, to community, to Mother Nature, that ultimately makes us who we are, not just from birth to death, but for as long as there is time. 

No matter how much the world changes, no matter how much we change, it is the belonging that really defines who we are. We are born knowing this. As educators, I think, it is our job to keep reminding one another, and especially the children in our lives, that it is all connected. This is what we finally see when we face our own soul. This is the only way we ever discover who we really are even when everything changes.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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