Birth, Memory, and a Bigger Self
Reckoning with the past and the present in “these uncertain times”
It’s a staggering thing to watch a human being take their first breaths. The first moment a baby emerges into the light, they aren’t breathing yet. A few seconds pass, they gasp for air, sputter out a cough, and then they are alive.
My son Jack was born two weeks ago. Two years prior, the birth of our first son had been marked by medical complications that culminated in a difficult delivery and recovery for my wife, a NICU stay for my son, and panic attacks that sent me to the doctor.
This one was different. The baby was delivered by a midwife, and the less-medicalized experience was calming and energizing. My wife listened to hypnotic affirmations that put her into a positive state of mind. She was incredible, and the delivery was everything we hoped for. Jack is as healthy as a baby can be.
On top of this, I am immensely privileged to be in a life situation where I am able to focus on enjoying this moment and be present with my family without the stress of wondering if I can provide for them. From that vantage point, this moment has been a re-centering one.
In a very real way, the present has been a distraction from the uncertainty of the future.
A few weeks ago, I hauled a couple of boxes of old video tapes and cameras out of my parents’ closet in suburban Virginia and drove them back to my house in DC. I rummaged through the tapes; the earliest ones, on 8mm cassettes, bore my Dad’s handwriting: “Our wedding,” “Christopher’s birth,” “James’ baseball championship.”
My pre-Netflix childhood were the days of Blockbuster and VCRs, and my dad routinely copied our old 8mm analog tapes onto VHS cassettes for us to watch as a family. I remember often watching videos of myself as a small child. Many of these moments became deeply engrained in my memory — the humorous exchanges between my brothers, my dad constantly drilling me with math problems on camera, and the images of the places where we lived and played. My memories of those early years are intimately woven with my memories of watching those videos, so much so that most of my memories of those moments are actually memories of the videos my dad and mom had captured.
My two youngest brothers were born into a completely different era of technology. By then, I was the one filming most of our family events. But I headed off to college when they were 3 and 8, and for some reason most of those tapes ended up in a box. My little brothers, now 17 and 22, have barely engaged with the videos I captured those many years ago. I hadn’t really, either.
I wanted to set out on a journey back in time.
Over the last decade, I’ve been pretty good about archiving all of my smartphone photos and videos, which means I can open up my iCloud photo library and scroll back to any random month in 2013 and see what I was doing at the time. I wanted to make all of our old videos accessible in the same way.
I quickly realized that technology had changed more than I realized. The family cameras weren’t working well anymore, so I’d need to find a couple of secondhand cameras. To transfer digital video, I also needed to use a technology called Firewire. This was state of the art 20 years ago, but you can’t even find Firewire cables in Best Buy nowadays. What’s more, the last Mac that actually supported Firewire (with an adapter) was the 2015 Macbook Pro.
Thankfully, I’ve got one of those computers lying around, but I had to trek down to a niche electronics store in Virginia to get the cables. I found a guy in California who sold me his old skydiving cameras on eBay. A woman in Pennsylvania sold me her family digital 8mm camera. Lastly, I bought a one-Terabyte solid state hard drive to store the imported videos; humorously, the entire drive is physically smaller than each of the tapes I would be transferring to it.
I conquered the forces of technological obsolescence and got to work.
People often don’t like watching themselves on video. Engaging with a video representation of yourself raises a lot of existential questions. I don’t remember doing or saying that, so what does it mean that this person is actually me? Most of the cells in our bodies are constantly recycling themselves. What is it that connects my self to the person on the camera?
Philosophers have been debating the concept of personal identity for centuries. Traditional (often religious) perspectives focused on the soul as the entity that ties together personhood, especially when rationalizing and explaining the permanence of personhood in the afterlife. John Locke countered the soul-focused, Cartesian viewpoint, opining on his own theory of consciousness focused on continuity of memory. Memory, he thought, was a precondition to defining a personal identity.¹
Philosophers and memory theorists have made many other objections and modifications to Locke’s philosophy, but these general ideas resonate with me. Memories fade, and because of this, I feel more tightly identified with the JD of an hour ago than the JD of a week ago, which in turn feels more like me than the JD of five years ago, and on into the past.
When I look at the three-year-old version of myself playing leapfrog in the living room with my brother, I have to take it on faith that the person I’m watching is actually me.
I texted my 22-year-old brother a video clip captured only moments after he was born. “Your first breaths,” I said. He had a moment of existential reckoning. He had never seen a video representation of his younger self and his chain of memories didn’t reach back that far. His sense of self was being reconfigured in real time as he watched his adult parents talking to a version of himself he didn’t remember.
In my case, by re-engaging with the past and filling gaps in my personal timeline, I’m becoming more appreciative of the people who have been in my life for so many years. Counterintuitively, it is making me aware of how long life is. So many things have happened between then and now. How many more memories are yet to be made?
In the last week, I’ve watched myself as a 3-year old celebrating my Mom’s 30th birthday and reckoned with the fact that I am now older than she was then. I’ve listened to my great grandfather (who passed many years ago) as a 78-year-old man giving 1-year-old me advice on life and work.
On a smaller scale, I‘ve remembered things that I had long forgotten and reawakened aspects of myself that had gone missing. The pink plastic plates or the green-striped bowls that we used for years. The squeak of the playground in my childhood house. The thrilling feeling of my grandparents coming for a visit, always with a new toy or other gift in hand.
Somehow, engaging with the past gives me a bigger sense of my own self. I think and hope that it is also helping me to synchronize more deeply with the childhood energy and feelings of my own children to enable me to be a better dad.
¹ The Lockean Memory Theory of Personal Identity: Definition, Objection, Response, by Ryan A. Piccirillo
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