My all-time favorite New Yorker cartoon is of a beagle standing among the clouds at the pearly gates of Doggie Heaven. He is looking up at a dog version of Saint Peter sitting at a desk. The beagle asks, “Is there any chance of getting my testicles back?” The cartoon was created many years ago by the talented and still prolific Sam Gross, now 80. I have saved it on my computer since it was first published.
Like all good jokes, it contains an element of truth. If the dog had his testicles, his life would have been promiscuous and aggressive, and he probably would not be entering heaven. Is this all that determines an eternity of glory or damnation—a teaspoon of hormones? If he gets his testicles back, would he be the same dog? He clearly misses them, indicating he considers his old self his real self.
Now that I am emerging from years of testosterone poisoning, I feel I am becoming a better person from that alone. But what is a “better person?” Are not the male characteristics of promiscuity and aggression necessary for the survival of the human race? If so, men are the sacrificial lambs whose base actions should be honored, not reviled.
I was reminded of all this by a piece of fiction in the current June 2 issue of The New Yorker, “Ba Baboon,” by Thomas Pierce. The story is about a man suffering from brain damage. His doctor tells him, “Try not to think about who you were before the accident, and concentrate instead on who you want to be now.” Good advice for anyone, even Biblical in nature.
He has random, temporary hallucinations, like a coat rack asking him for a grilled cheese sandwich. His doctor had warned him he could no longer implicitly trust everything he saw or heard and had to evaluate them by logic. Coat racks do not require human food, he should remind himself. What we see with our own eyes, what we hear with our own ears, is not necessarily reality.
His sister wonders if personality is not just malleable but also separable from the self. Are we nothing but a collection of memories and quirks that can be smashed away so easily in an accident? Can a simple bump on the head—or removal of testicles—transform us into someone else? If so, is anyone accountable for anything they do?
I have known people who have been transformed by a stroke from kind and generous friends to a mean and aggressive strangers. We like to believe the new characteristics are just an aberration of the real person, but are we ever one, real person? Are we more like a river, always changing but always the same?