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Rethinking the soul

What makes you, you?


Some people immediately this about appearance. Others recognize you from behind because of your hair. Some could pick out your voice. Colognes and perfumes can quickly remind us dad or mom. Those who love you might talk about your eyes.

But bodies are inherently unreliable. We age. Our hair changes color and/or leaves us. We get hurt. We develop illnesses.

What makes you, you? The way your look, think, respond, or something else? Photo via PXHere, CC0.
What makes you, you? The way you look, think, act, or something else? Photo via pxhere, CC0.

Also, science tells us that the body you had 10 years ago is vastly different than the one you have today. No kidding, right? But the scientists are talking about your cells and their lifespan. Most of the cells that made up your body 10 years ago, have been replaced.

I once heard a story (from Rob Bell?) of a man slowly restoring a wooden boat. One season, he installs a new motor. The next, he replaces part of the bow. A couple of winters later, he rebuilds most of the interior, and another winter part of the stern. Then one day, the owner realizes that every piece of the boat is different than it was when he started.

Is it a different boat? Certainly the owner wouldn’t feel the need to re-register it or rename it. Although every part of it is different, it has retained its essence.

Plato might have said it retained its “form” of being that boat. But he would have also said that the form itself was unknowable.

For the purposes of discovering what makes you, you, that would mean there is an ideal version of you, and your relation to that idealized form makes more you or less you. I find that totally unsatisfying and frankly, frustrating.

Memories, learning, knowledge

If it is not our bodies, maybe it is our mind. Some would say your experiences and memories make you, you. Others might talk about the way you think (until recently, that would have been my default) or your view of the world. But brains, like bodies, are unreliable.

For one, we have different levels of recall. Some people seem to remember every detail while others’ memories are often cloudy. We also know that two of us could experience the same event and remember it vastly differently.

Who among us, north of a certain age, is not acutely aware that we are not as sharp in our 50s as we were in our 30s. We’re wiser, but the processing is different.

When you take into account dementia, Alzheimer’s, brain injury and the like, the idea of my brain being the essence of me breaks down. I cannot accept that tragic illnesses/events change one’s essence. You don’t stop being you because your brain isn’t working like it used to.


The people closest to me know a great deal about my personality. They can reliably predict how I will react to most stimuli/situations. They know what makes me laugh, what scares me, and what brings me peace.

Bart Simpson's soul.
In a wonderful episode of The Simpsons, Bart sells his soul to Milhouse for $5.

But we “mellow” with age, a description of a change in our personalities. Not only that, our personalities are inconsistent. We say it this way, “I’m one person at work, another with my family, another with my friends, another at church…” So which personality is really me?

I’m guessing therapists spend a significant number of hours having that conversation with their patients/clients. Again, add brain illness/injury and the personality changes that may accompany that, and the waters are muddied all the more.


All of this is leading me to a different understanding of the soul.

I’m coming to understand that your essence, your core, the intangible thing that makes you, you, is expressed in your body, brain and personality. But none of those things — individually or collectively — contains or confines it. Your essence, your soul, is far greater than event he sum of those parts.

I’m beginning to wonder if your soul is the essence of you that is held in trust by those who know and love you best. That essence that they know of me, that which when everything else is stripped away is still recognizable to family and friends; that which is known better by others than we know ourselves, is the soul.

Maybe that is my truest self, your truest self. Not some Platonist idealized form of you that you need to live up to or into. Not some ethereal part of ourselves that comes to life when our bodies die. Not your brain, body, or personality.

Maybe your soul is contained in the love you receive.

In a sense, this means that others hold your soul in their hearts. They are the caretakers/stewards of your soul. And it is through the receiving their love, that you and I begin to get in touch with our truest self.

This completely flips for me the old, “If they only knew the real me, they wouldn’t love me,” into, “If only I would receive their love for me, I would get in touch with real me.”

I have been deeply drawn to this understanding this year. My dad has Alzheimer’s and in some ways he seems to have changed. But he is still him — he is still the man whose love for me tells me something about who I am. My love for him, is part of who he remains as his body, brain, and personality betray him.

When we struggle to connect in the ways we used to — he doesn’t remember all the stories of our past that I do — I still feel a connection. We meet essence to essence; core to core; person to person; soul to soul.


For me, this is re-forming my understanding of what it means to be “saved.”

It is Jesus’ love for you and me that saves us. Because our essence/core/personhood is held in trust by those whom we love and who love us, and the God who loves us is eternal, then our souls are saved for eternity.

This is also helping me understand Jesus’ statement that the kingdom of God is both among us and still to come. As we participate in God’s love for one another, we are doing the very work of God.

I know I would recognize the soul of those I love anywhere, and that they would recognize mine.

What makes me, me and you, you may not be something deep within us that is yet to be discovered. Nor is it some idealized form of who we ought to be, who we hope to be some day.

Rather, my soul is the love that others have for me, and I am charged with caring for the souls of those I love.

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