The identity monologue

I had the misfortune of being floored by a minor, but extremely unpleasant, illness for about 10 days earlier this month.

Nothing like an abrupt change in circumstance to give a bit of perspective.

What I noticed, especially because the illness came on so fast (and showed little sign of getting better for a little while) was how an abrupt change in how I spent my time totally flipped my perspective.  Home-bound, practically quarantined, counting the minutes (because I was absolutely miserable) for 72 hours (= 4,500 minutes!), I felt powerless, and time shifted for me.   My life is often regimented and tightly structured, nearly down to the minute, which is my way of trying to be productive and fully engaged and present on multiple fronts.  Going from optimizing my commute and my Inbox and meetings down to the last minute to watching a two-hour movie and then another, waiting for time to pass and watching the clock not move, left me feeling miserable, unproductive and, temporarily, powerless.

It reminded me of a day I spent over the winter, an exercise called “everyday barriers” that all Acumen staff participate in.  It’s something the Acumen Fellows undertake as part of their training.  Like our Fellows, each Acumen New York staff member came to work and then left everything in the office except for $5 in cash and a round trip Metrocard.  We were to spend the day in New York City and come back with suggestions for how to improve public services.  It’s an exercise in what we call “moral imagination,” cultivating the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and to see problems from a new perspective.

Having talked to Acumen Fellows who had participated in this activity in the past, I recalled profound stories of connection, as well Fellows gaining a much deeper understanding of the challenges of being a poor person in New York City.  I recall a Fellow telling a story of a woman who walked everywhere with a giant box filled with papers – they were all of her identification, phone bills, records, etc. because the woman had gotten sick of getting to the front of a long line only to be told that she didn’t have the right paperwork.  Fellows experienced what was and was not working well in the provision of New York city public services, and the day served as a jumping off point for discussions about identity, empathy, and social change.

To me the most surprising part of the exercise came right at the beginning.  After about an hour of walking, feeling pretty relaxed, I started to feel a bit hungry and thirsty, and it hit me that it was 9:30am and I had 8 hours to spend in the city on a cold day with nowhere to go and almost no money in my pocket.   While part of my plan was to go to new neighborhoods, suddenly the very familiar parts of the city started to feel different.   The glass windows of a coffee shop or a high-end clothing store felt like they had “keep out” signs flashing at me with my empty pockets, big parka and heavy boots.  The transformation in my experience of something as simple as walking down the street in an upscale neighborhood was profound and shocking.  How could a shift happen so quickly?  I bought an apple for 50 cents and trudged on, making my way to a church (where the music was uplifting), a homeless shelter (for lunch), and then taking a massive trek (that turned out to be a wild goose chase) to an employment center in Queens, with a lot of time in the NYC subway noticing how everyone except for me was in an iPod / newspaper / book bubble.  Time passed differently, and most of New York City felt like it was for someone other than me.

How can the experience of self shift so quickly?  The troubling notion is that we have a silent but persistent “identity monologue” going through our heads, an active but unconscious process of defining and reiterating our own identity.   (I guess the Buddhists would call this “ego.”)  The humbling part is that the constant process of self-(re)definition actively colors my sense of self and how I interact with the world, and what’s surprising is how fragile and mutable it is.  Just think of what it felt like to lose power in Hurricane Sandy (or whatever natural disaster is closer to home for you).

The positive side of this realization is around mutability.  As quickly as my outlook darkened when I got sick, it started to improve three days later once I got out of bed, and within a week I was mostly back to normal.

I’ve had times in my life when I’ve been stuck, where a situation, or where I was living, or a crummy job was sucking the energy out of me, and where it felt like there was something fundamental and permanent about my situation.  Making changes at moments like that can seem like too tall a hill to climb, partly because of the story we are telling ourselves about ourselves feels big, real and permanent.

It is none of these things.

And it is wildly freeing to know that even one small change in our circumstance can begin to change our whole outlook; and that changing your circumstances can change your outlook and perspective (not the other way around).