The Pursuit: A Letter


I've been thinking a lot about hammers. It's been my secret, but I'm ready to share now. 

No, I haven't taken up carpentry as a hobby, and I didn't quit my job and end up in construction. You know I'm too in love with books and air conditioning for that. However, it's books that are the problem. I've been reading a lot lately, and I can't get these ideas out of my head. My head?

I can't stop yawning, which means I need to hurry this up as much as I can. You'll understand why soon enough. I hope it's me that makes it to the end. 

The first book had a section about what I eventually came to call the Dilemma of the Hammer. It's a version of a problem known as George Washington's Axe, but ancient people knew it better as the Ship of Theseus. No matter what you call it, it deals with the same question:

A man has a hammer, which was owned by his great-grandfather. One day, while working, the handle splinters. Since the hammer has great sentimental value, he replaces it. Some years later, the head cracks. Rather than buying a new hammer, he replaces the broken head. Since the handle has been replaced, and so has the head, in what sense is it still his great-grandfather's hammer?

It's not the hammer that bothers me, of course. My problem is that the same week I read about the Dilemma, I also read a book on anatomy. I'm an eclectic reader, as you know; you're about the only thing that's been able to keep my head turned consistently. I love you for that, which is why this is so hard.

After the usual chapters on digestion and respiration, the book said that our body replaces almost all of our cells on a regular basis. I put two and two together and felt the floor fall out beneath me. I kept reading, even as my stomach (my stomach?) turned into knots.

Inside our intestines, the book said, cells last about five days; our skin, about two weeks; our blood, about four months; our bones about ten years; and our muscles about fifteen years. The book said that, as far as modern science can tell - and this book was from six years ago, mind you - the only things not replaced are the cerebral cortex, the inner lens of the eye, and maybe the heart.

I took comfort in that last part, at least initially. Our eyes, heart, and brain are some important bits. As long as those are constant, Dilemma solved. I never wanted to be a brain in a jar, but it looks like that's what I got; what we all got.

Speaking of eyes, mine grow heavier as I write. I almost trailed off in the middle of that word. I think I can do this. Remember me.

My curiosity was peaked, despite my slowly dawning horror. You know how I get. I'm like a dog with a bone, worrying it until it's only a scrap of a thing. 

I know a body is made of systems, which are made of tissues, and tissues are made of cells. But cells are made of molecules, and molecules of atoms. How often do those change, I wondered? 

So I went and found another book. This one said that 98% of our atoms are replaced each year. It also said that we were made of star stuff, symphonies of matter comprised of elements like brass instruments in an orchestra. I liked that bit, but it was thin comfort; it was like finding out your parents were dead, but there was free ice cream tomorrow. 

Then it occurred to me – I’m not my body. I'm a mind, damn it! I'm thoughts, I'm feelings! Who cares if the address changes, as long as the occupant is still the same! Right? This quelled the uneasiness that sat in my stomach – which was probably only five days old – for a while.

I eventually ran into trouble again. One day, I tried to remember my sixth birthday party. I couldn't, not a single thing about it. I tried for the birthdays after that, with some small success. Each one grew clearer, until I could draw you an agenda of what happened last year. My old memories had been deleted, without my permission, to make room for the new.

While disturbing, this fact wasn't a hammer blow (ha ha) until I realized that someday, the memory I have of right now, this exact moment, will be gone. What did you eat for lunch last Thursday? What color were your socks January 23rd? How many people did you say hi to at work?

What made it even worse was knowing that I remember things differently as I get older. Everyone does. It's not the facts that change, it's that we reassess and reevaluate; how we see things and what we think about them can change each day, even gradually. After enough days, we're Republicans instead of Democrats, or pro-life instead of pro-choice. We become strangers to ourselves one step at a time.

Descartes’ response was "Cogito ergo sum". He may be right, but who is it doing the thinking? Which I is I?

Remember what I told you last week, at the park? We were under the trees and it was warm. Do you remember what you said? I'm holding that tight now. I won't give that up. I won't.

Someone – you don't know him – told me that if I can remember being the age before this one, I'm set. That "me", he explained, remembers being the one before it with more clarity than I do, and so on. It's a rational chain of memories, tying me to some instance of self. I felt better at the time, but eventually I was exhausted. I felt this fatigue down to my bones, which are less than ten years old.

That system places the onus on me. If I want to exist, I have to hold this chain of memories in my head; I have to remember to remember. If I slip for a moment, I'm adrift in a sea of consciousness. 

The hammer that started all this doesn't seem like a real, physical object; not anymore. Instead, it's become a phenomenon, a localized occurrence of hammer, the Platonic idea of "hammer" given a temporary expression. This is why I'm nursing insomnia - if all I am is a conscious perception, desperately holding to the localized expression of myself, what happens when I fall asleep?

I've been fighting somnolence since I came to my conclusion, but I'm going to lose soon. It's been four days since I went to bed. Four. Have you been able to tell? I've tried my best not to scare you, but there's only so much coffee and eye drops can do. I wanted this time together to be special.

Right now, as I finish writing this, it feels like I'm trying to fly by grabbing my feet and lifting. I can't carry myself into the sky, and I can't keep this up.

I have this hope that somewhere there's a great mind holding all this together, remembering us along. I don't know if that's what God is, but maybe. I’d pray to him, if he would have me. I would even trade my autonomy for the freedom of being held captive in a knowing that dwarfs my own. As far gone as I am, my freedom in exchange for continued existence sounds like a bargain.

Because...because if there is no great mind, no holy safety net for struggling souls, then these are my last words - I'm going to fall asleep soon, and everything I've learned tells me that a stranger will be here in the morning. He’ll wake up in my clothes – will they still be my clothes? Were they ever? – and walk into the kitchen to greet his wife.

For this new man, the long nightmare will be over; he fell asleep, and woke up as himself! Sleep was the midwife that delivered him, even as she interred me. That man confronted his fears and found them wanting. He’ll forget all this, how it feels, discarding it like so many other things have been discarded. So much lost, so many selves.

“I have something crazy to tell you,” he might say, and then spill the details of this past week. He’ll regret writing this, probably think it sounds crazy. He would never show it to you, and I hate him for that. Thankfully, I’m going to mail this to you at work as soon as I finish.

I get nauseous and weak to think that you won’t be able to tell the difference between us. You know me. You know me! I keep saying that, holding on to the truth of it. It’s not your fault. I know that too.

I’ve obliterated those that came before, and that's what he'll do. You might even think it's fair. What compounds my guilt, however, is that I’ve watched your death uncountable times. I even held you for some of them, pressing your head under the icy waters of sleep until you went still, and silent. I am so, so sorry. I hope you can forgive me. So tired now.

Please be kind to him, though; trust him, even if I don't. Maybe he'll figure all this out and become something – someone – lasting. I know he'll do his best to take care of you, because that's written deeper than any cell, any atom. Whatever I am, if I am, I love you. Even if they discover that my heart is as transient as the rest of me, you're in it. You're in every version of it. 

I hope there's a place after this one. If there is, then maybe it will be full of the selves you've discarded next to me, one night at a time. In that happy place, regardless of all (so very tired) we are, and all we have forgotten that we are, we will be together. Forever.