Defined by morals, not memories

Defined by morals, not memories October 4, 2016

This piece popped up in my FB memories from last year, and I was moved again by it.

The article is by Scientific American, and talks about how patients with Alzheimer’s disease (which affects memory) but not dementia (which can affect moral traits like honesty and compassion) continue to be perceived as “themselves” by their loved ones, and maintain close bonds with caregivers. In a study on memory loss and identity, statements like “The patient seems like a different person” were rarely endorsed by caregivers unless moral changes came about.

Efforts aimed at helping sufferers to understand themselves in terms of their moral traits—characteristics like altruism, mercy, and generosity—can restore their sense of identity and control as memory fades or cognition declines. Simply knowing that others continue to perceive them as the same person, even when they feel that their own identity is changing, can allow them to securely protect their sense of self.

As someone with a…well, “poor memory” might almost be understating just how fuzzy my recollection tends to be…I find this both reassuring and intuitive. And, of course, from a metaphysical perspective we are ourselves regardless of age, condition, disability, or other changes.

There’s a lot of focus sometimes on “making memories.” And experiences do enrich our quality of life. But perhaps more important is that we understand that we are, every day, making our selves. Who we are affects our choices, but our choices also shape who we are. Our moral choices mark us more deeply and more legibly than the things that have merely happened to us.

And there’s a kind of peace in this for me. Whatever storms come, I will always be able to choose to live from my values, my faith, my center. It might be difficult–it might sometimes seem unfairly difficult–but it is in my reach always to be a moral person.

And if I break and fail to be my best self, there is always another moment, another choice, another chance to begin again. To be someone who loves. To be someone who is constant. To be someone true.

To be, not a collection of skills or abilities, or a collection of memories, but a person striving to be ever more fully whole.

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