What makes a person? A personal essay

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As I near the end of college I keep thinking of a quote from one of UC Berkeley’s own, Joan Didion: “I have already lost touch with a couple people I used to be.” It’s also gotten me thinking about what makes a “self.” Are we the products of myriad outside forces pressing down on us until they morph our interiority, or are we made up of something innate within us, elusive and inherited, that shows itself under pressure? And how do we know when we’re done, when we’ve finally arrived at that ever-shifting dot on the horizon of personhood?

Earlier this semester, I read George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” arguably one of the best narratives of personhood in the English language, and was struck by how deeply the novel’s narrator dips into each of the character’s minds, sharing their desires, fears, and ruminations with us, only to dip back out again until all these separate, individual stories merge into a coherent, 800-page tale. It’s the most beautiful use of free indirect discourse, a style of third-person narration where the narrator slips into the consciousness of its characters, I’ve ever read, and it perfectly renders the project’s overarching thesis — we are as formed from the outside as we are from the inside.

And this makes sense; it’s a question I ask myself whenever I’m doing something I enjoy — do I actually like this or has some twist of circumstance or sociality caused me to? What if I hadn’t been raised in the concrete of Chicago but a mountain town — would it have untapped some secret predisposition I hold toward bobsledding? What if I hadn’t signed up for gender studies my first semester, hadn’t randomly sat three rows from the back, next to someone who would become one of my closest friends? What if I’d gone ahead and majored in history instead of English, or if I had picked economics or math? What if a pandemic hadn’t struck halfway through college?

Sometimes, I think of those seemingly, at first blush, innocuous choices I’ve made that put me onto paths I wasn’t even aware I was turning on to as predestined or inevitable. I was bound to be a writer — I used to spend my childhood tyrannically forcing my mother and grandmother to listen as I read out pages of poorly written stories I’d hastily scribbled in the car. But I’d also loved to play the board game Operation and, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up in kindergarten, wrote “eye surgeon” because I wanted to be like both of them.

How have those details slipped to the wayside over the years; why do I remember the former incidents in such clear, stark detail and the latter with murkier, blurry lenses?

The theory of narrative identity offers up an answer; it proposes that everyone forms a self by compiling their life experiences into an orderly, evolving story in order to experience a sense of coherence and larger purpose in life.

And other people may be the key in teaching us about ourselves. As Toni Morrison wrote in her novel “Beloved,”She is a friend of mine. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”

After all, it’s often other people — their ideas, their outlooks, the way they love us — who can catalyze us into unexpected transformation.

How much do other people make up who we are?

French philosopher Michel Focault sees the concept of individual autonomy — a concept near and dear to American culture — as a fallacy. For him, individuals internalize the norms laid down by the sciences of physicality, sexuality and morality and constantly monitor themselves in an effort to conform to these norms. Essentially, we’re all just temporal agents of the state we live under, governing ourselves to fit into the culture around us.

Ouch. How depressing.

The first time I actually sat down to read Focault’s words, I sat with them for days after. Hearing that we have no control over our lives can be a tough pill to swallow.

It wasn’t until I took a UC Berkeley psychology course called “Human Happiness” that led me to start questioning Foucault. According to professor Sonja Lyumbomirsky, much of our way of moving through the world is already fated, predetermined by our genes. In calculating a formula for what determines a person’s happiness, she argues that 50% of the equation comes from our genes, 40% comes from our mindset and life circumstances and experiences only account for a meager 10%. Some research suggests the heritability of happiness is even higher, falling somewhere between 70-80%.

To illustrate the power of inherited traits, Lyumbomirsky used twin studies to exemplify her point. She tells the infamous story of two twin boys, both named James, who were separated at birth and first encounter each other again at age 39.

The day they met, both were 6 feet tall and weighed exactly 180 pounds. Each smoked Salems, drank Miller Lite and habitually bit their fingernails. Both had married women named Linda, had divorced them and then remarried women named Betty. Their firstborn sons were also named James, one James Alan and the other James Allen, and both men had named their dogs Toy. Each James had owned a light blue Chevrolet and had driven it to the same beach in Florida for family vacations.

There’s a sad loss of agency here. The two James’ nearly identical lives paint a predestined life where each of our quirks and habits are easily explainable, made at the mercy of inherited genetics. Do we really have so little choice in who we are, who we become?

Early in the morning last Monday, as students slept beneath waking birds and the sun gently brushed against empty streets, I went for a run through campus. Telegraph Avenue and Sproul Plaza sit empty now; my feet the only visitor to grace their lonely pavements. But at the corner of Bancroft Avenue, I lingered, pausing to imagine and remember where students once zipped in and out of class, reveling in the city’s newfound, even after a year, unfamiliar silence.

I kept running until I reached the cherry trees blossoming with the first blush of spring. As I looked at each of the individual flower buds, suddenly, I didn’t feel so lonely anymore. Because there they stood, brushing and rustling amid the whispering wind, at once static and dynamic, each one different, each one the same.

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected]