The Great Puzzle

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!"

 – From Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

After my wife’s 20th high school reunion many years ago, I didn't attend another such event until I was invited to lead a workshop at my own 45th prep school reunion.  There were the inevitable adjustments to waistline and hairline among my peers.   Some classmates were barely recognizable, if at all, after nearly half a century. Others had unaccountably defied the ravages of time.  More surprising were the strange turns that some lives had taken, even among the graduates of a staid New England prep school: the neurologist who left his job as head of research at a major pharmaceutical company to open a bookstore, the high school administrator who made a splash in the New York Times with his cabaret act, the brilliant student who settled down to life as a country lawyer in Vermont.  And who knows what had become of the numerous absent classmates who did not care to have their lives held up to scrutiny by attending a reunion.

There is a faint undertone of melancholy to these proceedings, perhaps because we are so forcibly confronted by reminders of who we were before we attended college; before we got married or did not; before we started careers; before we started families or did not; before we divorced and remarried or did not; before we were merged, downsized or put out to pasture; before our kids grew up and started down the same path.  There was no escaping who we once were, because that’s how our classmates remembered us; and no escaping what we had become, since we were all expected to bring everyone up to date, a lifetime telescoped into a single weekend.

At what point in all the twists and turns of one’s life can you say definitively this is who I am or what I am or even what I look like?  Little Alice plunges down a rabbit hole and in rapid succession is shrunk and then stretched.  She can no longer count on being the same person from one moment to the next.  “But if I’m not the same,” she puzzles, “the next question is, ‘Who in the world am I?”  For our heroine, modeled after ten-year-old Alice Liddell, the question is less philosophical than practical.  If she is no longer herself, then she must be someone else, perhaps another little girl her own age.  But before this question can be resolved, Alice is once again shrunk to a fraction of her former self and nearly drowns in a pool of her own tears.  Other adventures swiftly follow, and the question is not addressed again until it is broached by a large blue caterpillar smoking a hookah.  “Who are you?” he demands.  Taken aback, Alice stammers, “I-I hardly know, Sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”  Refusing to be put off, the Caterpillar insists that Alice explain herself, prompting her to suggest that he might feel differently about things if he were suddenly turned into a butterfly.

Although Lewis Carroll’s Alice books have endured, his reputation has been tarnished by intimations that he may have been overly fond of little girls.  There is also speculation that some of the more hallucinatory episodes in his stories were inspired by something akin to whatever it was the Caterpillar was smoking in that hookah.  It is known, for example, that Carroll at least occasionally used laudanum, an opium derivative commonly found in medications during the Victorian era.  However, there is another explanation that is more medical than medicinal.  It is also known that Carroll suffered from migraines, which are often preceded by auras that can produce perceptual distortions similar to Alice’s rapid bodily contractions and elongations.  English psychiatrist John Todd coined the term “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” in 1955 to describe the bizarre distortions in body image that can occur during migraine auras.

If Lewis Carroll experienced these sudden metamorphoses during migraine attacks, he may have wondered more deeply than little Alice just who in the world he really was.  To a considerable extent, our sense of self is rooted in our bodily self-image.  Normally, of course, changes in our appearance are incremental: a gray hair here, a wrinkle there, a few pounds packed on over the holidays.  It is quite something else to be confronted by a growth spurt in which one appears to be “opening out like the largest telescope that ever was,” as Alice exclaimed just before her head bumped up against the ceiling.  Similarly, I found myself walking about at my class reunion with a name tag that bore a yearbook image of me when I was half the age of my oldest son now.

We naively ascribe some degree of permanence to this puzzle I call myself, but what in fact abides?  Certainly not my appearance, which presented its own puzzle to some of my classmates after 45 years.  The family and friends who were significant in my life then are long gone – dead or dispersed to the four winds.  The house I grew up in is still there, according to my baby sister.  But it was sold in the early 1970s, and I have not even visited my home town in decades.  An entire career – employers, colleagues and contacts – has come and gone.  My kids have grown up and have lives of their own.  My marriage has lasted, but the girl I married 40 years ago is no longer the same woman who shares my life now, any more than I am the same man.  We do not lead the same lives or think the same thoughts we once did; and if we are ever tempted to believe otherwise, it is only because even our memories of who we once were have faded.

It seems that the puzzle of myself is exactly that – but one in which each piece that is fitted into place completes a picture that is slightly different from how it appeared before.  There never seem to be any missing pieces.  Yet if you rummage around in the box, you can always find another one.  And there always seems to be a space where it fits, producing yet another picture that now seems complete until you go rummaging around in the box once again.  This is who I am.

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