Yesterday was Thanksgiving. At the dinner table, our far ranging discussion gave me the opportunity to ask a longtime family friend a simple, yet deeply profound, question. I asked him, “Am I the same person I used to be?” We may all ask this question and we may all hope for an honest answer. As we go through life we change. Sometimes dramatically and sometimes subtly. We know that our bodies physically renew, rebuild and repair at such a rate that we are “new” roughly every seven years. Our thinking changes as our experiences shape our consciousness. Traumatic events can mold us and teach us. The physical connections in our brains change as we swim in our personal and shared universes. Amazingly, minute particles of energy from space whiz through us and the planet we stand on and nick away at us on an atomic level. So obviously we change. But are we the same person we used to be?
For me this was not just an existential question, it was a practical one. You see, I’m a transgender woman. I was born a boy and lived bound by that seemingly unchangeable destiny for many years. It was always wrong and I knew it. I was always “other” and I knew it. The range of options opened to me just seemed to exclude any sort of remedy. Finally after half a century of this limbo I acted. I stopped being a guy. I started being a woman. I transitioned from one life to another. I told the world that I needed to make changes and that I would take the outside that had been visible and replace it with something from inside. I would make the reflection I saw in the mirror match my self-image.
So when I asked our unsuspecting dinner guest if I was the same person I used to be, it meant a bit more to me personally. Had I morphed so dramatically that I was no longer that “me” that I had carried along for so many years? I know that some people in my life have mourned through the changes while also welcoming the birth. I know that some people have been left behind, unwilling or unable to comprehend what needed to happen. And I know that some people in my life now never knew me any other way and would be deeply uncomfortable if the “old me” were to come rushing in.
I know that I remember a life that is becoming a distant wisp of memory and I embrace a life that is vibrant and immediate.
But what was our guest going to say? What was this young man who had known me for eight years going to say? Would he say that, yes, I was the same person? And what would that mean? That I had just changed my clothes and hair and name, the outsides, but that I was still the same old dude as before? Would he say that I was a totally new person and that I had killed the old one, that I had taken that life so I could lead my life? Would I still be real?
I asked him, “Am I the same person I used to be?” Without pause to consider he answered, “No.”
This was no philosophy class thought experiment for him. It was a practical question that was now asked and answered. No, I was not the same person I used to be. I admit to letting a little sigh of expectantly captured breath escape. Because I knew that this meant that the many people from “before” who have shared my adventure did it because they accepted the “old me” and they now accept the “new me.” They aren’t waiting for the previous person to come back, because he can’t. They are here with me in the present and going with me into the future.
For my part, I look at pictures of “me” from the past and I can’t help but see a subtle tinge of pathos. The smile is pinched, the eyes are tight and the lips are thin. Pictures of this new me, the one that is not the same person I used to be, are different, the smile is genuine, the eyes are bright, the lips are laughing. It is the real me that was masked inside before. The old person was a shell that finally popped open. The seed that released the plant. The chrysalis that let out the butterfly. The man that mothered a woman. I thank that old me and let him go.