paper dollOct 18, 2023–You are not who you think you are.

You are who everyone else thinks you are.

Like every fictional character, Bart Simpson does not exist.

He is simply the aggregation of traits thought up by a committee of writers and artists.

They have produced 750+ scripts around him. It has reached the point where he seems real, because now the voice actors are saying, that’s not something Bart would do or say.

Bart has become a real figure, yet he is the sum of hundreds of people who put words in his mouth and actions in his figure.

Are we nothing more than that?

I am not Phil Houseal. I am who people think Phil Houseal is.

Likewise, you, as you, do not exist. You are the sum of all photos of you, all conversations with you, what people say about you behind your back, all social posts about you, all interactions with you, all judgements about your work, your play, your intelligence, your looks.

Your very existence is simply a reflection of how people perceive you.

It begins as a baby. You are a lump of unformed dough. As you blather, drool, squint, and wiggle, you quickly learn that some of those random behaviors draw a pleasant response from your zookeepers. Hmmm… if I curl up the corners of my mouth and coo, this caregiver gives me more care.

It continues with talking. As a baby spews a random chain of grunts, cries, and whines, the combo that sounds like “da da” creates laughter and pleasure from someone it figures out is “da da.” Hence language acquisition quickly proceeds until the ungrateful child is saying, “I hate broccoli” and “I don’t want to take a nap.”

In school, you completely shed your “Me-ness” as you don the cloak of “They-ness.” Break into your high school guidance counselor’s office (you have no proof I did that), and you’ll find your files reveal you are a matrix of data: IQ tests, Iowa Tests of Basic Skills scores, behavior reports, extra-curricular activities, student offices held, and characterizations of your confidential visit with the counselor.

If you doubt the power of these perceptions, just consider what happens every trip back to your class reunion. Classmates line up to gleefully recount unflattering stories about how you dropped the winning touchdown pass, or that time you muffed your drum solo. You might have gone on to win the Super Bowl or play in the Tonight Show band, but to the bass drummer in 7th-grade, you’re always the guy who played a paradiddle instead of a flamadiddle (it’s a real thing–look it up).

Onward through marriage and careers, your avatar is crystallized.

At work, every parameter of your performance resides in your permanent record. Even if you are an exemplary employee, there is little more intimidating than sitting with your supervisor while you go over, point by painful point, your annual evaluation. It is made up, meaningless, and never again looked at, yet it is another pushpin on the bulletin board of life. Though I’ve been retired from that job for over a decade, I know that somewhere in some metal file cabinet in some school basement, my official employee DNA silently molds inside sheets of silverfish-infested manila.

Any casual observation you ever uttered to your spouse goes into the “He always…” or “She never…” files, which are never compromised and follow you to your Celebration of Life.

To sum up, you don’t really exist. You might as well be an avatar in a video game. Or, in old school terms, a plastic doll. Even Barbie and Ken would be surprised to learn they are just playthings for us to dress up.