Identity is a funny thing. We use many words to describe our identities like artist, doctor, writer, mother, son and so on. These words feel important and we wear them like badges and use them like calling cards. Have a conversation with any stranger and pay close attention to how they work into the exchange some verbal clue as to what they perceive as an important part of their identity. The clue may lie in the vocabulary they chose to use, or a reference that they make – the verbal clues we drop as to who we think we are and how we want to be perceived can be very subtle.
But there are other clues to our identities that, while not subtle at all, are barely acknowledged. Sort of. People see these clues and register them very quickly but we are the ones who are dismissive of their importance in our lives. These clues are visual – how we dress, our hairstyles, jewelry, makeup, tattoos and so on.
During the Inquisition, one of the punishments for more minor crimes was to shave a man’s beard off. Removing the beard (a symbol then of status) stripped a man of his sense of identity and place in society. Strangers could no longer simply look at him and know how to behave toward him. If our personal, visual clues are stripped from us, we will have a difficult time recognizing ourselves in the mirror and that is one of the most disconcerting feelings around. It is why people receiving chemo who lose their hair are so thrilled to have wigs or hats – it is not about covering the baldness, but regaining a recognition of the image of their selves.
It is a strange fact to wrap one’s brain around but since time began, humankind has been incapable of recognizing themselves except through external means. Think about it. Think about what your external clues to yourself are and imagine what it would be like to have them taken away from you. Would you be able to function? Or, I should say, function as well?
I used to think that it was possible to maintain recognition of the self through internal methods but I believe I am changing my mind. We are mammals that are sensory driven. We perceive everything through our senses, absorption of the external and it would make sense that our perception of ourselves would also be the same. Even in heightened states of meditation and “nothingness,” our sense of not being is defined by an external sense of ourselves in relation to the world.
I just learned about something called “ICU psychosis.” It is a temporary psychotic state induced in ICU patients from….the television. It is common in ICUs for the TV to be left on 24 hours a day as company and entertainment for the patients. What happens, as the person is lying there divorced from their body, is a constant barrage of sound and images overloads their external senses. They can’t move to “check themselves” and wind up internalizing a hodgepodge of images and sound as their thoughts and experience. Outside of the ICU, we can protect ourselves from similar barrages of sound and images because we can move and experience our bodies. We affirm our selves through our sensory experience of our bodies. To prevent a similar psychosis or identity break in quadriplegics, mirrors are often fixed so they can look at their faces and have visual evidence of their existence.
Evidence of our existence.
Viktor Frankl wrote, of his experience in the concentration camps, that it was those who could remember something outside of themselves – a love, a faith – that reflected back their identity who did not go mad or succumb to subhuman behavior for survival. That is important to remember, if you lose what reflects the evidence of your existence you go mad.
I usually, about this time of year, do a post about holiday grief. This season there is a new kind of grief that many people are sharing in and that few recognize. That grief stems from the loss of jobs, economic security and hope for a better future. This is as powerful a grief as that which stems from the loss of a loved one but it is slightly different. This new grief does not have an immediate end in sight. There is no body to be buried. No memorial to attend that signifies that this passage has ended. The best way to understand it is to imagine the kind of grief a caregiver experiences while caring for a loved one who is terminal but has months to go before they die.
In this day and age, our jobs are often the strongest reflectors of the evidence of our existence. We don’t have the kind of culture that has equally strong sources through religion or art to supplant that mirror. And this puts many of us in danger of developing that kind of “temporary psychosis” in which life becomes unreal, unstable and infinitely frightening.
Whether you agree with the Wall Street protestors or not, bear in mind that they have created something that reflects the evidence of their existence. They have, in fact, avoided madness by creating a new mirror.
This holiday season, bear in mind that grief stems from many sources. And if yours comes from the instability of the economy – create a new mirror. Find something outside of yourself that you can hold on to that shows you your face. It could be a renewed closeness with a loved one, long term volunteering for a cause that is important to you, developing your faith in something larger than yourself that cares for you or even working to develop and maintain consistent online friendships.
The mirrors we hold do more than just reflect our image, that reflection is also the door that allows us to enter the world beyond ourselves.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Prove to me I am even here at all.
c.2011. Cassandra Tribe. All Rights Reserved.