Bridging identity

My weekend was highlighted by a ceremonial event on Saturday for a man who never stood on ceremony, and who probably wouldn’t have approved all the pomp and fuss of the occasion. My late father-in-law, Freddie William Roth, was honored with the dedication of a bridge named in his memory.

It was, in fact, the last of more than a thousand such bridges he built in middle Tennessee over the span of a decades-long career. Several of his old coworkers commented on his intelligence and memory, his uncanny ability quickly to calculate the complex mathematics involved in supporting weight and defying gravity, and his absolute refusal to cheat or cut corners. “When you crossed one of Freddie’s bridges you knew you were safe.” “If you wanted a job done right, you called Freddie.”

He had a year of college, but mostly taught himself his craft and code of honor. “School of life,” indeed. And he knew exactly who he was.

He’s who I think of first, whenever my philosophy classes address topics like today’s –  personal identity. How do you know you’re the same person you were yesterday, or last year, or last decade? I think Freddie would just shake his head and chuckle, and remember why he became impatient with school back in the day. If you built a thousand bridges, you’d know. You wouldn’t have to ask.

In fairness to my discipline, I think most of us have little use for extreme versions of the identity question. We realize that if we ever really don’t know who we are, we probably need to consult psychiatric specialists. Urgently. Most of us accept the continuity of life as we encounter it in our own individuated experience, and in our accreted memory, as bedrock common sense.

And yet, it’s worth wondering how the experience of memory secures that sense of self, worth pondering how tenuous our identities are when memories fade, are forgotten, or are falsely resurrected. Thomas Reid, of the Scottish “common sense” school, said we just need enough overlapping memories to hang our stories on, to know we’re who we think we are. That does make sense, more at least than the unrealistic Lockean demand for total recall; but it doesn’t eliminate the worry that at least some of our overlaps may be more fabricated or reconstructed than accurately recollected.

So, the practical common sense solution is to take good notes and archive them. Notch experience on your stick, as you go. Build a lifetime of solid recorded memories, and they’ll be a bridge to the past you won’t fear to cross, a legacy to attach your name to.

Podcast
5:25/6:59, 35/70

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