They say that every seven years, the cells in your body undergo a complete replacement. That is, compared to you seven years ago, there are none of the same cells in you that used to be there. By this logic, your memories, and whatever mysterious particles that comprise them, are only maintained by a continuous process of renewal by recollection, like throwing so much plaster on a statue to cover up its blemishes and rebuild it. The features of your face change, too—definitely. The thing that we think is “us” morphs and contorts over time, as your nose and ears grow unceasingly and your features change. There are some outlines which you keep, which help guide the process of refilling, but as they are pressed on like the banks of a river they begin to deform and change.
And they say you never step in the same river twice, either. Philosophers have long argued whether or not an object retains its identity over time, considering that things are always being rebuilt and destroyed. I think it’s just the name that stays, personally, just our idea of the thing. They last as long as we make them last. . . and this thought is comforting to me; it eases the pain of loss.
I thought to myself; is there any one thing I’ve had for more than seven years? What is it that has really stayed with me, keeping its identity? The old teddy bears and blankets from my childhood have all been mangled and thrown away; my face has changed shape, gaining a severe look over the years, and my hair has begun to thin. I suppose I still have my yearbooks from high school—though these artifacts, immediately stored away and frozen for the significance of their identity, I don’t know if these count.
I got my backpack in tenth or eleventh grade, so that would make the seven-year mark. I remember how springy and resilient the straps were at first, and how excited I was when I saw Bear Grylls carrying my black Jansport through the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. I have stuffed it full of books, clothes, water bottles, Gamecube controllers, journals and notebooks, food, and climbing gear. I know every pocket intimately, can sense the proper configuration for an array of objects intuitively, making arrangements unconsciously, in seconds. The straps have worn down by now, the black exterior has faded to a greyish red from exposure to the sun, one zipper has frayed, and a small hole has opened up in the bottom of one side. But it seems to be in a relatively stable state, for now. I still use it every day. It is still my backpack.
Hands, too. Even though one’s hands are the most-used part of the body, and they retain the most damage (in the form of calluses, dings, cuts, splinters, arthritis, tendonitis, and so on), and even though they are constantly, quickly regenerating, I feel like I have had the same pair of hands all my life. When I wake up every morning, disbelieving reality, the first thing I see are my hands. They are more me than my butt, dick, elbows, feet, shoulders, zits, knees, or hairy legs. They are the means by which my will enters the world, and as such, they exemplify me. Their identity is solid, despite changing a lot physically.
So what about other people? How about this ghost I am trying to shake? Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you’re blessed), I think that the things others have done to you stay with you longer than any physical object. Even the big events, though they may have happened more than seven years ago, the neurons comprising the memory being long switched out—the big events go right down to the core of you, changing the outlines, the river banks, altering the subconscious rules by which you rebuild yourself. These memories are re-lived, reincorporated. They shoot up anew like a fountain. The mutable re-tellings which we keep in storage affect us still, dodging the physical time limit of seven years.
I don’t know how to run from the past, and it feels like I don’t know how to incorporate it, either. I want to be more than a damaged thing with plaster thrown over my cracks. I want to be my own entity. I want to grow, and yet I don’t know how.
Eventually I know that the people who have given me love and pain will change, following the mandate of time, and then even if I went to see them again they wouldn’t be the same person I remembered. The slice of the person I knew, from 2013-2014, would be buried amongst countless other hours, years, experiences. They would have grown, aged, changed. But these feelings within me, that fountain ever-fresh, seem to last longer than the physical reality of my ex-girlfriend, my mom. They are a portrait, unchanged and unchanging, that I am forced to look at every day—the real Mona Lisa, stored behind closed curtains underneath the Louvre. In this way, memories are more enduring than the people who caused them.
And with time, even these memories will fade, whether they take seven years or twenty. For now, while I endure and suffer their effects—their sweet intolerable longing, their grief and vulnerability—I suppose it’s up to me to prove myself more real, more secure in my identity than anything which would undo me, and find significance in the great things that I do, and say “Yes, that is me. That is my purpose.” Just like my backpack carries things as my companion, and just as my hands make real the imaginary, I purpose myself to be an instrument of love and understanding. And this identity is eternal.