What Defines A Life?

What defines a life? Not the biology definition, I’ll leave that up to the scientists. I mean what defines a life, what is its value? How did I become the man I am? Nature, nurture? Genetics? Fate?

I can look back at my life, at the thousands of days, tens of thousands of hours, and much of it is a blur. I can’t tell you what I ate, or did, or watched on TV on any particular day. I can’t tell you if it rained, or if I was sick, sad, happy. But there are times that it seems that life slowed, came sharply into focus, and I remember those things. Some of my older memories are so out of context, I can’t remember how old I was, or even what month it was, but I remember. Are these things, these crystal clear snapshots, what build the foundation, the walls, the structure of my character?

When I was young, very young, my brother and I had a tree fort. It was actually two; one in each set of trees a few feet apart from each other. I climbed into one, and could see into the other. I saw a huge spider in the other tree fort. It was huge to me, and since I was little, probably not that big today. But there it was. I was scared to death but also fascinated. I carefully laid out a plan in my head so as to avoid being captured or bitten by said tree-fort-invading-monstrous-spider. I picked up a stick and slowly climbed up to peer into the fort.

Here’s where my memory fractures, like trying to look at my reflection in a broken mirror; different angles of the same image, but I can’t quite make sense of what I see. The spider appeared to have a dried paper-like body. When I poked it with the stick it just crackled like paper, and broke. I tried a few times and ended up making a mess of the whole thing. Here’s the thing that stands out in my mind: I felt enormous relief that the monster-spider was dead and couldn’t harm me. But along with relief came a moment of sheer terror. What if the spider had shed its too-small skin, and was lurking nearby? Maybe sick, or hurt…or hungry? The hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I was paralyzed with fear. I never did found out what it was. Maybe my brother was playing a trick on me. He doesn’t remember.

When I told my Mom, she didn’t believe me. She thought I was mistaking a toy for this monster. My memory fades off here. I don’t remember if I showed her the proof, or even if there was any proof left. I actually can’t remember anything after that.

The point is, it's there. Among all the days and weeks, there it is, this piece of driftwood on the sandy beachscape of my memory. To me it’s obvious that I’m a collection of memories, meaning, that I function because I remember all the things that have gone before. I remember not to touch the stove, I remember my phone number, who my mom is, and how much I love my wife. Everything I do, feel, say, think are contingent on that collection of memories.

But is that me? Is that my life, this pixelized canvas. Would I be the same if that spider memory wasn’t there? Or maybe another was missing? How much of who I am is me, my soul, my personality? Or would anybody with the same memories plugged-in, turn out to be me? I guess philosophers and psychologists have tackled this question long before my time, and will continue to do so long after I’m gone; after the ocean of time has eroded away my little patch of beach and my pieces of driftwood.

So will I have mattered? Do I matter now? See where I’m going with this? If something so small, this tiny memory might (let’s agree, for simplicity sake it does) impact the totality of my consciousness, then do I impact the totality of humankind? Where do I fit in? What is the value of my life?

Do I matter?


© Steven R. Smith


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