This century will be a painful one. Our generation has already suffered through a recession, a pandemic and an authoritarian in the White House. The years ahead don’t bring much hope.

The climate catastrophe will only worsen, leading to sinking cities, water shortages and more. Technology risks rendering jobs obsolete and the threat of nuclear weapons continues to hang in the background as the international community becomes more volatile. When I try to imagine where I’ll be and what the world will look like when I’m 30, 50 or 70 years old, it isn’t a happy picture. But this is no reason for anxiety.

In the essay “Personal Identity,” British philosopher Derek Parfit offers a radically different view of personal identity that can help alleviate this anxiety. Instead of viewing every future moment of my life as something I will experience soon, I should focus on what will happen to me within the next few weeks. We should all incorporate this mindset into our anxiety about the 21st century. 

Courtesy wikimedia Commons.

Parfit distinguishes between psychological continuity and psychological connectedness, which are traditionally thought of as making up our personal identity. Psychological continuity refers to the continuous stream of consciousness that connects me to my entire life. Psychological connectedness refers to the values, memories and beliefs I might hold onto at one time. As a person, I am psychologically continuous with both my past and future self. But, I am not psychologically connected with the past and future versions of myself. I can’t remember anything of my younger years, and I have forgotten all the ambitions, beliefs and fears of toddler me. Likewise, many of the ambitions, beliefs and fears that define me right now will mostly be abandoned in the coming decades. If I were to meet 70-year-old and six-year-old me, it would almost be like I was speaking to two different people.

Instead of thinking of all the versions of us as one personal identity, we ought to incorporate Parfit’s theory into our daily lives by thinking of ourselves in degrees. I am more psychologically connected and related to the person I will be in two weeks than the person I will be in 10 years. When we think of ourselves, we should think of our psychological connectedness rather than our continuity. This way of thinking helps alleviate some of our fears for the 21st century.

When we think of facing climate catastrophe and nuclear war, we are…

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