The selves on the shelf

I am looking at old pictures. I see the child I was. I look at him in the picture and I perceive him as a separate person, i.e., not me. However, when I evoke the emotions and sensations that I felt back then, stored on one of those shelves in my memory, it feels immediate, as if that person were here now, inundating me. The person in the picture is not me, but the feelings and sensations… there is a ‘me’ in there, a sort of presence. Not a spirit or soul or schizophrenic companion, but a conscience. Not a past-me, but an always-me.

When I re-play in my mind memories from my youth or my thirties, I know that I am not them. The emotions and sensations in the memories are different from the ones I experience today. We are different entities. But there is a touch of immediacy in those memories too, they activate something in me that I can only call ‘I’. A presence that is precisely that: present. It is surprising to me that there is an immutable aspect to our selves, considering that we are constantly changing, as the pictures show unequivocally.

Is that collection of emotions, thoughts, and sensations a person? Are they the shell of a person, inhabited by that permanent conscience? My ambitions, feelings, wishes, expectations, attitudes, even some personality traits have changed over time. And yet, there is always this ‘existence’, this presence that in my mind has the aspect of a black dot in the centre of several concentric circles. I can say that I – the person who is now writing, the ego – is not ‘it’, we are two distinct entities. If I had to give it a name, I would call it the conscience of existing, the mere act of being alive, a present presence. I (the ego) constantly change; ‘it’ does not.

I can remember that as a child I was fully conscious of this immutable presence, who I considered to be the essential me. Over the years, I can see how I (the ego) have changed. I can take memories from the shelf, play them, know that I am not that person any longer and yet at the same time feel an immediacy as if I were there.

I can see the line that connects the 4-year-old-me and the person who is now writing this nonsense. I cannot remember much from those days, but I can remember that I existed and that I was conscious of it, much more conscious than I am today. And I also see clearly that I (the ego) have deviated from that line that sews us together through time. The ‘now’ seems a bit ridiculous, as if I had concerned myself with ‘problems’ that are utterly unimportant. All those wishes, ambitions, practicalities seem a bit absurd when I compare my current self to the child I was. Growing up seems to be more like growing out, estranged, lost in a colourful yet empty ridiculousness. Brief moments of lucidity seem to set me back on track.

That conscience of existing seems to care nothing about my petty concerns, my ridiculousness, or my apparent lucidity. It just is.

Thirty years later I again stood on that slope. I was a married man, had children, a house, a place in the world, and a head full of ideas and plans, and suddenly I was again the child who had kindled a fire full of secret significance and sat down on a stone without knowing whether it was I or I was it. I thought suddenly of my life in Zürich, and it seemed alien to me, like news from some remote world and time. This was frightening, for the world of my childhood in which I had just become absorbed was eternal, and I had been wrenched away from it and had fallen into a time that continued to roll onward, moving farther and farther away. The pull of that other world was so strong that I had to tear myself violently from the spot in order not to lose hold of my future. I have never forgotten that moment, for it illuminated in a flash of lightning the quality of eternity in my childhood.”
Carl G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections