• Irene Radley

What's the Self?

When I gave birth to Otto, I prepared myself for a deluge of questions about the world. I was unprepared for the deep philosophical analysis parenthood has become.

The first such question arrived when he just turned three years old, "Mama, what is time?" My first instict was to say "Otto, time is a human construct." But I knew that it would inevitably be followed by "What does 'human' mean?" and "What does 'construct' mean?" So I have learned to use simple terms and concepts when answering these questions. When I started doing that, I saw that I became much more clear on my views on matters at hand, as well. And my answers created a clarity within me about philosophies that I take for granted and yet are my foundational guiding principles.


So when the titular question, "Mama, what is the self?" came, I wasn't surprised, but I was also not prepared. I know that the self is far from the identities we adopt during the course of lives: mother, entrepreneur, teacher, wife, woman, Pilipina, immigrant. I knew that the self goes beyond those. But how do I enter this discourse with a 4-year old so that my initial answer feels sufficient for him?


I looked around and clamored for ideas. Then my eyes happened upon the box of his puzzles. "No two pieces are the same!" it declared. "Well, no two people are the same!" my subconscious replied. And there it was, my retort came from a packaging lure for consumers:


"Otto, the self is like the shape of puzzle pieces, where the puzzle is life. The curves on the sides of the puzzle make it so there are certain pieces that fit your life. You can call those pieces your family, friends, close relationships, teachers." Your bond with them is unmoving, and they, in turn, connect you with those close to them and so forth. The self only exists in relation to others, otherwise defining the self becomes unimportant. The self is unique and yet interdependent. That is why we feel a loss when any one of those bonds are broken by death or separation. That emptiness remains in the shape of the person we lost. When pieces connected to those closest to us are lost, we don't feel their loss as deeply, but we do feel shaken, because we feel the emptiness just on the other side. The further that loss is from our immediate surroundings, the less we feel it, and yet, if we are at all empathetic to our world, we can probably sense in our deepest self, the instability of our collective existence.


I, of course, only gave him the answer in quotes. After all, unless I start singing and dancing my words, all this discourse is just boring stuff to a toddler. And I agree. And I am grateful to my pint-sized guru for reminding me to distill my philosophies into concepts I can remember, by which I can be continuously guided.

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