Saturday, January 13, 2007

Barbie visits the Bardo

In filling out grad school applications and writing essays for them this fall, I found that the most difficult aspect of it was defining myself: telling a story describing my life, experiences, and interests that would let admissions committees know who I am. I found that I needed to write three different essays for the three different schools; each of them was very honest, I think, but they all told different stories. I've been thinking about what that means.

Seems to me that the relationship between what we really are and what we say about ourselves, is kind of like the relationship between a quantum state and a classical state in quantum physics. (I'm not claiming that quantum physics really has anything particular to do with how the mind works; I just think it's a good metaphor). What we really are is a bundle of contradictory possibilities; but when we describe ourselves or make choices in our lives, we make some of the possibilities manifest and turn the others into might-have-beens.

For example, suppose there's someone you know, and you really haven't decided if you like them or not yet. They say what they mean and ask for what they want; they could be assertive and self-confident, or maybe they're pushy and egotistical. You haven't really thought about it.

Then someone asks you for an opinion. You think about it, talk about it, reach a conclusion. After that, you're more likely to see evidence that that person fits your judgment; if you said they were egotistical, everything self-confident about them will feel like egotism to you. What was a contradictory, ill-defined collection of impressions has become a preconception that every new impression is now fitted to.

Here's an article talking about how people choose "friends" on MySpace; what is a fluid and ill-defined thing in the real world has to be narrowed down to a black and white decision on a social networking site. There's people you like when you're in one frame of mind and dislike when you're in another, kind of like that poor cat that's both alive and dead, but rather mistreated either way.

This all makes it sound like I think it's a bad thing to have to describe yourself. In fact, I think it's what life is all about. In doing these grad school essays, and playing around with my profile on social networking sites, I've been realizing how much a different attitude towards the same set of facts and expressions of interests, can make a person seem totally different, without being the least bit dishonest. It's just good to maintain your awareness of the fact that these manufactured identities, that you use for grad school essays, friendster profiles, and smalltalk in bars, are just roles we play in the stories we make of our days; but in fact we're much foggier and full of potential.

A naked Barbie doll is full of potential; you can dress her up as a nurse or a ninja or a firefighter or a fashion model, and then she's fun to play with because there's a story to tell. Her power comes from her versatility, but it's not realized until she adopts an identity: temporarily limited, she trades breadth for depth, and has an adventure in her spacesuit as the first woman on the moon, before returning to the foggy bardo of naked plastic non-being from which the next adventure will begin!

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to go forth and adopt a different identity for a day, and see how you like it. The rules: you can't lie about yourself; you have to take the actual facts of your life and see if you can tell a different story about yourself. Emphasize a different subset of your experiences; be confident about different things and vulnerable about different things. Dress differently than you normally do. Meet someone you don't know and strike up a conversation as that new person, and see what it's like. The goal of the mission is to notice that you're a naked Barbie doll on the inside, and the way you present yourself to people is an optional set of accessories; fun and rewarding, perhaps, but totally interchangeable.

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