Transcendence through Second Life

The interdependent self

But clearly this was not all. SL is not an uniform environment: there are thousands of separate communities. By observing their reactions to myself, I’ve noticed that they were ever-so-slightly different — and that I also behaved ever-so-slightly differently when on different communities. Again, when I talk about “differences” I’m not considering dramatic differences. They were so subtle and small as to be almost imperceptible. But remember that I was really paying attention this time! And sure, there they were, here and there, different reactions to myself — triggered by slightly different forms of behaviour.

Now anyone who loves role-playing is aware of all this; any resident with an alt does this all the time, and that’s their form of enjoying SL: pretending to be someone else. There is nothing to it. Actors do it for a living, amateurs do it for fun. However, I was not consciously doing any “pretending” at all. I was just, well, behaving naturally, or at least that’s what my intention was. The result, however, was not what I expected: when the environment changed, I would change a tiny bit as well, and people around me would perceive a slightly different Gwyn.

Thus my “theory” of the sharded self was definitely incorrect, or, at least, quite incomplete.

But the more intriguing discovery was that this didn’t happen just in SL. I had not been aware of how much differently I behave when at home, with friends, or at work. When I’m in court as a witness, for example, I behave in a completely different way than when among my friends dining out. So which of those behaviours are my true self? In fact, I started to agree that I was just wearing masks, one for each occasion, and that it was quite natural to do so — because everybody else does the same. My mother at church behaves differently when at home, or when at the hospital with my daddy. She’s not “pretending” to be a different person. She just wears the mask which is more appropriate to the occasion.

Well, then the question would be: among the different masks, which one is the “real me”?

And to that question I had no answer.

This was a most disturbing thought. One of my preliminary answers was, “the mask that I wear to myself”. But even that one was not a definitive answer. First, that mask changes over time: the pre-teen Gwyn had a quite different mask than the one I wear today — even to myself. But over the days, even to myself, I wear different masks. There is the “annoyed Gwyn”. The “angry Gwyn”. The “happy Gwyn”. The “sleepy Gwyn”, which is one of the most frequent ones, coming next to the “hungry Gwyn”… which one of those is the “real Gwyn”? I could only say “all and none”, but that wasn’t a very satisfying answer.

Instead, what I thought is that I couldn’t simply say, “there is this ‘me’, which is unchangeable, and there are ‘others’, who react to this ‘me’, and they’re unchangeable — we just employ different masks depending on the environment”. That’s just half the truth. In reality, however, it became quite apparent that this “self” — my own and the ones of all of the others — is totally dependent on the environment and the people in it. Specially the people. So when I was in a particular group, they would experience my self in a certain way, and create a mental image of the current “mask” I was wearing; if I moved to a different group, they would experience a different Gwyn (even if not too different). If the two groups shared their experiences about my own self, they would describe two ever-so-slightly different Gwyns. But there is just one Gwyn. So clearly none were experiencing the quite the same thing, although, from my perspective, I was the same person and behaved in the same way in the two groups. Or perhaps not.

Perhaps, even if I behaved in exactly the same way, people would still experience a slightly different Gwyn, just because their perceptions are different. If that was the case, how could I convince them to change their perceptions about myself? I’ve tried that hard and for a long time, and somehow, I became very frustrated when I figured out, no matter what I did, it would be impossible to force others to change their perception of myself.

In Portugal we have an old saying, “you can’t please Greeks and Trojans”. That’s one of my favourite mottos. It encompasses this notion of perception of one’s self very neatly: no matter what you do, no matter what your intentions are, people will still perceive you differently — and in most cases, they will perceive you differently than you perceive yourself! This was got me even more frustrated, specially with people that got angry at me for no logical, rational reason — but just because they projected an image of what they thought I was, and got angry at that projection. But they take that projection as being “real”. It’s very real for them. And that make them angry, or frustrated, because I’m not fulfilling their expectations — when those are really not even part of my agenda.

So, clearly, the way a “self” is perceived depends on others, and vice-versa: your own self changes depending on others, not only because of yourself. We’re all interdependent, even if we pretend not to be. We all wear masks depending on whom we’re with. We all lie to ourselves trying to believe there is a “fundamental self” somewhere — the “real mask” that only we can see — but we can’t pinpoint it.

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