growing up as a chameleon and learning to wield shapeshifting for my own ends
I'm sitting in a cute coffee shop in Amsterdam trying to undo my jet lag adjustment before my flight back. I really love the coffee/cafe culture here. Not only is the coffee excellent, but also there's an attention to details that offer homeyness, like a side cushion for drinks, vibrant plants, and a light-filled space. It exemplifies the sort of mid-century, modern living that permeates the city: the bike-filled streets, the abundance of upscale furniture stores, the neat rows of brownstone houses.
I've been thinking about what it feels like to be perceived by others and how that resulting pressure changes how you act. I have a history of my authentic identity feeling repressed by some pressure to embody the "right" image in whatever social environment I inhabit. If I broke up my life into arcs, this would characterize the biggest character development arc, one to unlearn this automatic conforming.
I grew up learning how to be a chameleon. I learned to perfectly blend into my surroundings to avoid drawing attention. Survival via obscurity was encoded into my very being. Even being "successful" was a form of obscure survival. Being successful as a kid meant finding a good professional life that many in society sought—the stable, "normal" life that you were supposed to work towards. The American dream story of working hard, having a large social circle of friends, and coming back to a happy family every day.
At some point, I realized that the dream was a mirage—that hard work sometimes made you worse off than not working at all; that friends come and go and intimate connections can be found in the most ephemeral of places; that a happy family is really a composition of millions of infinitesimal daily commitments to working on it rather than a one-and-done deal. Life is a series of illusions. I learned how to weave my own, an image to appeal to everyone.
Now, I'm learning to leverage my shapeshifting intentionally. I met someone recently who chose different names for different parts of his life. He had a wardrobe of identities for meeting new people. Instead of the conventional advice to always be yourself, which I find too general and pithy to be useful, this gives you the freedom to embrace multiple identities. We're always inhabiting an identity, and our "real selves" can manifest as so many diverse embodiments. I'm thinking of the parable of the blind men and an elephant, how there is an incomprehensible amount of detail to be perceived even in one person. When others perceive you, they're only experiencing such a small portion of your constellation of being. That's not to say that the amount they are experiencing is small in absolute terms—rather, your fullness of being is so deep and always expanding. So much so that we spend our entire lives learning more about ourselves, how our bodies curl in the shape of an aubade in the filtered dawn light, how our hearts swell to bursting at the sight of a crush, how our minds can leap between mental and emotional universes at the drop of a word.
Being able to see others is a gift. It's an opportunity to comprehend a piece of an infinite world. We're living in a glacial field, millions of icebergs bobbing together in the sway of salty ocean waves. We drift together and break apart. We shine beautifully in the evening light. We hide bulks under the surface in our hearts.
I want my infinite identities to reflect what I find most compelling in every moment. To use my shapeshifting in a way that amplifies the goodness in the world rather than blending into the background. To fight with kindness. Always. Waging war on behalf of our little field of ice in the wide ocean, all for the fleeting moments we share drifting together. And isn’t it nice drifting here, in this moment?