Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Day in the Lives

For this week's assignment in my class, CSP 653: "Topics and Issues in Cultural Sustainability: Identity," we were asked to reflect on Kenneth J. Gergen's 1991 text, The Saturated Self, and to respond to the prompt, "Describe some of the different 'selves' that you were today and under what circumstances." I found this exercise, along with our recent class discussions, to be a great entrance into our exploration of this elusive concept of "identity." Beginning in an honest struggle with the question, "Who am I?" will provide us with a lens of humility and compassion needed to purposefully inquire about the collective and individual identities of "Others." As seriously as I considered this assignment, of course, I also had a lot of fun with it....


"...as others are incorporated into the self, and their desires become one's own, there is an expansion of goals - of 'musts,' wants, and needs. Attention is necessitated, effort is exerted, frustrations are encountered. Each new desire places its demands and reduces one's liberties." (Gergen 74-75).
I dealt with a lot of "musts" today. Before you dismiss me as another graduate student complaining about my busy schedule, I take full responsibility for these "musts." I brought them upon myself, and I don't mean to complain about them. In fact, with all of the reductions of my liberties through the obligations, desires, distractions, and cravings, there came upon me a sense of potential. In the same moment, I perceived this sense as both a brush with insanity and a brush with the ability to juggle. It was perhaps the closest I have ever come to thinking I might be capable of multitasking. 
Of course, I was likely more conscious of this moment because of the assignment at hand, the attention I have been paying to the many "selves" I embody throughout the day. In that moment, I suppose that particular self was Ben the student in CSP 653. But I woke up today as a different self.

Let the fragmenting begin....

For a few minutes, I was one of the selves I enjoy the most: Ben the happy fiancé, seeing the love of my life off to work in the morning. Soon thereafter, I became aware of a "must," and I suddenly became Ben the graduate student who needs to send some kind of work to his thesis advisor for review before tomorrow's meeting. This particular Ben was not very happy with Ben the overambitious procrastinator this morning.
As I began typing a rough outline of the research I've only just begun, I magically transformed into Ben the hopeful scholar, excited about the work I'm doing and the brilliant scholars I am very fortunate to have on my capstone committee. I was in the zone for a little while, as I began to organize my thoughts and see them written out on my computer screen. But then, alas, a simple text message grabbed me by the serotonin receptors and shook me violently until I was reconfigured into another self: Ben the activist who somehow became responsible for a big project.
This is where Gergen's comments about inadequacy resonate with me:
"It is not simply the expansion of self through relationships that hounds one with the continued sense of 'ought.' There is also the seeping of self-doubt into everyday consciousness, a subtle feeling of inadequacy that smothers one's activities with an uneasy sense of impending emptiness" (76).
At this point in my day, still early in the morning, I am second-guessing myself because someone needs my time, attention, and resources, and I am very short on all of the above. Meet Ben the doubter. "Why did I ever think I could handle this responsibility?" he asks some version of himself. Then, in a rare act of courageous compartmentalization, he decides to put the phone down and delay responding until he has completed the task at hand. But now, Ben the graduate student who needs to send some kind of work to his thesis advisor is struggling to hold on to the frontmost frontal part of the frontal lobe, as Ben the doubter moves in, vying for this coveted position.

Thanks for noticing my blog.

"I knew it wouldn't be long before the Focus Factor wore off," said Ben the pessimist, from his smoky corner in the right temporal lobe, where he sat and underestimated what Big Ben would accomplish today. (Curiously, the appearance of this cynical character coincides with Ben who shuns the use of present tense in storytelling.)
The doubter and the thesis writer somehow found a way to share the driver's seat for a while, and slowly but surely got enough work done to be mutually satisfied. Before Ben the work-from-home employee took the reins (he prefers to think of the brain as a horse, rather than a car, apparently), Ben the facebook addict spent about a half hour fighting online bigotry with the help of his fearless sidekick, Ben the debater who shuns the term "liberal" but easily grows weary of conservative talking points.
Ben the work-from-home employee actually ventured out to a café to do some writing today. For the most part, he was focused and productive, occasionally allowing Ben the friendly stranger an opportunity to smile or say something to the guy who asked me to watch his laptop while he went to the bathroom, and the awkward employee who referenced some of my favorite South Park episodes for no apparent reason. And of course, Ben the happy fiancé enjoyed a brief phone conversation with the luckiest woman in the world.
One highlight of my day came during a little break I took from work, as I enjoyed a bowl of vegetable soup. I was reading an article in the journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology, thinking about how brilliantly it might inform my thesis research, when a voice within me said something like, "Am I Ben the ethnomusicologist?" I believe this was an emergent self, and I hope it makes several, consistent, and more confidently articulated appearances in the months and years to come.
As my mental energy waned throughout the rest of the day, I accomplished less and less work, but the rush hour emails and text messages propelled my consciousness turbine, spinning all of the aforementioned Bens toward the cockpit of my brain (see, now it's an airplane), where each self sat almost long enough to steer, but not quite. Luckily, Ben the occasionally health conscious soon-to-be groom met his fiancée at the gym, where a good run on the treadmill managed to set his brain on autopilot for just enough time to let these exhausted selves get reoriented. 
It was in that moment that Ben the slightly detached observer of his exponentially fragmenting selves, with a whisper of suggestion from Ben the student in CSP 653, realized what was causing the flight controls to malfunction: my cell phone. And I use the word "my" because this is the part of the story where I begin to resolve my perspective, returning to a reflection on that moment in which I felt almost insane yet almost plate-spinningly spectacular.
As I realized that the multiple email accounts, the texts, the voicemails, the Chrome browser, and the Evernote app on my phone were all disrupting my ability to focus (not as causes, but as vessels of my several roles, responsibilities, and worldly cares), I realized that I was experiencing what Gergen calls "multiphrenia." But all was not lost.
"Simultaneously, the somber hues of multiphrenia - the sense of superficiality, the guilt at not measuring up to multiple criteria - give way to an optimistic sense of enormous possibility" (150).

Everything is unfolding as it should.

I was once a limb-flailing infant, unable to make sense of the myriad stimuli of my world; and then I organized that world into sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and thought. I once defaced walls and furniture with crayons, markers, and pens; but then I learned to neatly reproduce what my parents explained to me as letters, numbers, and representational images. I used to get drowsy or dizzy reading Levi-Strauss; but... well, I still do, although that could just be a matter of poor translation from the original French.
We fall, we get up; we fragment, we re-organize; we become completely powerless over our chaos, and then we find our deepest strength in faith, hope, and love.

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