Friday, March 03, 2006


Bear with me because I'm going to be asking some odd questions--and yet they're questions that, really, could not be more central to the very idea of self-help.

For starters: What is the self? Who are you? And what makes you who and what you are?

At first blush this might seem like one of those old "if a tree falls in the forest..." chestnuts from Philosophy 101. We could in fact follow all sorts of metaphysical threads here--and we'll tug at a few of them before we're done. But I'm more interested right now in approaching the question literally: What is the literal you of you?

The launching point for this discussion is a case now much in the news--that of 71-year-old Lily McBeth, who's seeking to retain the job she has held as a substitute teacher in a small New Jersey school district for the past five years. Complicating matters is that to this point, the kids in the Jersey school district have known Lily McBeth as William McBeth, the name s/he was given at birth, and the person s/he remained until a year ago; that's when William underwent the gender reassignment surgery that yielded Lilly. Though in her former life as a man McBeth was married and fathered three children, s/he says--like so many transsexuals--that s/he always knew she "was a woman under the skin."

Hence, my questions, above. Let me be more specific here: What defines the essential you of you? What are the limits--if any--in deciding how different you want to be from what you were to start with? And when--if ever--do you stop being "you"? Or, in the end, do you remain you, no matter how far you stray from what you used to be?

Airy as it may sound, these questions and related ones are being confronted and debated hotly not just in New Jersey school districts, but in many different forums, in many different ways, as we speak. Moreover, a closer look at some of those debates reveals that the lines we draw between "you" and "not you" are arbitrary and inexact. What say we look at just one of those areas: baseball, and its steroid controversy. Major League Baseball forbids players to take steroids, partly because they're deemed unhealthy. But I'm not sure that's truly the "operative" part of the argument--at least to baseball purists. The purists believe that steroids are unnatural and thus (a) give a player an unfair advantage over his contemporaries and, perhaps more important, (b) enable him to mount an artificially enhanced challenge to some of the sport's sacred records. Barry Bonds' angriest critics have suggested that if the long-running steroid allegations against him are ever proven, his 2001 single-season homerun record of 73 should be wiped out. They also contend that if Bonds breaks Hank Aaron's career homerun record (755) while still under a steroid cloud, that achievement should carry an "asterisk," identifying it as tainted.

All well and good. Polls routinely confirm that most fans resent the black eye that steroids have given today's game of baseball, and believe that MLB needs to take a tougher stance on policing the abuse of same. But--just for the sake of argument--what about other types of "enhancements"? What about, say, Tommy John surgery? In Sandy Koufax's era, an injury to a pitcher's throwing elbow was career-ending. Today the player goes in for an hour of reconstructive surgery on his damaged wing (which involves rearranging body parts, or even, in some newer slants on the surgery, using synthetic materials), rehabs for maybe a year, and voila!--perhaps a decade instantly added to a player's career. Doesn't allowing a player to have an extra decade of useful elbow life allow him to mount an artificial threat on baseball's sacred records? Especially when you consider that pitchers often say they throw harder after the surgery than they did with their original-equipment arm. Reliever Billy Koch, who pre-surgery threw in the quite-fast-enough-thank-you upper 90s, was unofficially clocked as high as an astonishing 108 afterwards.

Are pitchers like Koch the same players they were before? Or have they become something else?

Or what about knees, hips and other joints that, through the magic of advancing medical technology, become wholly or partly artificial? Is putting "space age materials" into a joint all that different from putting--at some future point--a computer chip into our heads or nervous systems or other critical systems? You really think so? Tell me why.

For that matter, what about Lasik and other high-tech vision enhancements? Slugger Ted Williams, widely considered the best pure hitter who ever lived (and thus the prototype for Roy Hobbs in The Natural), also was legendary for his documented 20/10 vision. Today that same visual acuity is achievable to just about any athlete willing to have an ocular surgeon cut that little flap in his cornea and do some laser magic for a half-hour. Better vision = better hitting. Even in athletic pursuits where vision isn't quite as critical as it is in baseball, athletes swear by Lasik. Running back Tiki Barber makes much of the fact that he enjoyed his best season ever after undergoing the surgery.

A few more questions. William/Lily and other transsexuals have said that they "always knew" they were born into the wrong skin. it always up to us to decide who and what we are? Suppose we're misguided, delusional? Do we always know ourselves best? Or could it be said that others often know us and evaluate us better--which is to say, more coolly and honestly--than we know and evaluate ourselves? William McBeth decided he was really meant to be a woman. Suppose I decide I'm really meant to be a sheep? And no, I'm not kidding. The issue of whether or not it's surgically doable is irrelevant here. After all, it wasn't until the 1950s that transgender surgery became doable. (And really, transgender surgery the other way--woman to man--is still something of a, ahem, stretch.)

But there are bigger fish to fry here. Beyond the question of how many things you can change while still remaining the same person, there's the question of how many things you should change in a philosophically well-grounded effort to self-actualize. Let's take a true outer-limits example. For someone who grows up as a serial killer, would a true self-actualization plan attempt to get him to stop killing? Or would it help him perfect his craft, as it were--become the best serial killer he can possibly be? I'm not trying to be purposely silly or provocative in posing that. It's a serious question. If what you're doing is becoming someone or something else, then you're not really "self-actualizing." Regarded in this manner, self-help is not just a misnomer, as we say in the subtitle of this blog; it's a complete self-deception. One could make the case that it should really be called self-abandonment.

At some point in the not-too-distant future we're going to further muddy the waters by reexamining all this from a determinist perspective. But it's late, and this is a lot for one day.

* * *
MARILYN BARRY update, March 6. Today we seem to have tangible proof of what I've long suspected: Amazon's complicity in the whole Love Smart affair. The "Marilyn R. Barry" review has been given another brand-new date--no big shock there--but also has been allowed to carry all of its 12 feedback votes along with it--which is something new (even if the actual review isn't). And remember, though 11 of the 12 votes are in the "helpful" category, I know of two people in different states (thus, not using the same computer or IP address) who gave the review a in a fair universe, the "Barry" review would be at least two votes short of perfection, not just one.


Anonymous said...

I'd say it's the self-help groupies who've decided that they're sheep, willing to follow wherever the self-help shepherd (be it Dr. Phil, Tony Robbins, or any of the endless others) leads...

acd said...

Nobody stays the same. Who you are 10 seconds from now is technically going to be different in some minute way from who you are right now. Therefore, the essence of "you" must allow change (unless you subscribe to the theory that the individual does not exist at all; however, for the sake of argument, let's just assume that you exist). No one can draw a line defining where one ceases to exist and allegedly becomes someone else. So the self remains the self, even with changes. It is still the same entity, living one continuous life, albeit potentially in different forms.

Athletes improving their performance with steroids or surgical enhancements are still the same people before and after their steroid use or surgery. Whether or not Barry Bonds broke a homerun record while using steroids, Barry Bonds broke a homerun record. That's all there is to it. Put an "asterisk" next to the record if you will, but don't wipe it out. Moreover, if the achievements of athletes using enhancements of some sort are under attack, then what about certain works of art or music or literary masterpieces whose creators were under the influence of some mind-altering substance? Should we not appreciate these things because the people who produced them were in some altered state, like a steroid-using baseball player?

Regarding whether it is even up to us to decide who and what we are--well, who else is going to? Each of us lives our own life and makes our decisions. I'm very much aware that at this point the determinists could attack that statement. However, there's a time for purely philosophical arguments, and then there's a time for pragmatic arguments. To run a society, we have to assume that people make decisions and can be held responsible for them. Perhaps it is somehow determined that we will make the "choices" we make, but, regardless, we constantly make decisions that change aspects of ourselves. The "self" is not abandoned. If someone were to argue that making any sort of change means becoming someone else, then there can be no self, because change is inevitable and is always occurring in some form. Therefore, to allow for the existence of the "self," one must accept that changes in oneself do not automatically imply the formation of a wholly different person.

Steve Salerno said...

This post (ACD's) intrigues me on several levels--chiefly for its tacit implications for human nature as well as the process of (conscious) "self-actualization" as a whole. For one thing, it seems to deny the very possibility of being "not your self"--no matter how far you stray from the original (expected?) "you." Which sounds plausible, probably, to most of us--"of course you're always you! who else would you be?!"--but, taken to its logical end point, carries implications that some may find unwelcome and/or disturbing.... I think a lot of us want to have it both ways here--but for now, I'm deferring a fuller explanation of what I mean by that, as well as any kind of comprehensive response, hoping to have more feedback from SHAMbloggers.

Anonymous said...

Why we are what we are, and what it takes to make us otherwise, is indeed fascinating. One would hope that wisdom and balance had something to do with it, but usually it's something much more dramatic and much less pleasant. And I often think that, at core, we're still the same in our brave new guise, just expressing our core traits differently. (For example, the pleasure-loving gourmand whose excesses lead to a stroke at age 24, and who then goes on to become a doctor of nutrition and a crusader for an extremely low-fat, vegetarian diet--perhaps simply transferring his tendency to excess from one end of the spectrum to the other.)

Anonymous said...

I agree with acd's first point and disagree with his second. Who an enhanced athlete "is" is irrelevant when it comes to competition. If the public wants to see enhanced athletes--or, say, chess masters with embedded computer chips--compete, that's fine. But they should be acknowledged as such and either comptete in their own leagues or openly compete against "natural" athletes, either in split teams (so many enhanced, so many not) or in entire teams pitting enhanced against "natural" teams. Perhaps in time enhancement will be what differentiates professional athletes from the rest of us (let the gladiatorial games begin!), but hidden enhancement is unacceptable.

Steve Salerno said...

OK, but just to keep this going--how are we managing to draw such neat lines between what is supposedly artificial, and what isn't? Are the sorts of surgical interventions possible nowadays--often involving synthetic materials--"natural"? Or not? What about Lasik? (Or for that matter--here's something else that has always bugged me--why is card-counting illegal in Vegas and other gambling meccas??)--SS

Cal said...

At one time in my academic career I wrote an op-ed about steroids in baseball and how it was tainting the game and ruining everything that was so great America's pastime. I still think MLB is not doing enough to punish these athletes that are blatantly cheating. The athletes are choosing to obtain an edge over their other competitors and this is done through the use of an illegal drug. As for Tommy John surgery and knee surgery and others the athletes are fixing something that is broken it is an ailment, something that needs to be done in order to continue on and it is offered to anybody that needs it. New ideas and advances in technology are signs of growth, signs that are helping. Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs are signs of cheaters. As for LASIK surgery, why not? Again, it's not a drug, it's an advancement, and if you need it there is no LAW saying you can't do it. Heck, if you didn't need it and still wanted it you could get it. Everybody can get it if they needed it and wanted it. That is not the case with steroids.

Rodger Johnson said...

The Quest for You(ness).

So finite are we that we cannot, of our own resolution and will, bring ourselves originally face to face with the notion of self. So bottomless does finalization dig into is(ness) that our freedom's peculiar profoundest finality fails.

Here we have the answer to our question about you(ness). The notion of "you" is neither an object nor anything that "is" at all. You(ness) occurs neither by itself nor "appart from" is(ness)--as a sort of self-adjunct.