I’m an advocate for self-invention, and I think everyone who’s 40 or older should maintain at least one, full-fledged alter ego. I’m not kidding- make up an identity and use it, play with it, see what happens. It’s one of the most valuable things you can do.
As a target, age 40 is only slightly arbitrary. It’s an age by which your average human being has had ample opportunities for both fuck ups and hard knocks. In four decades, most of us will have encountered one or more heart-incinerating, hope-shattering hairpin turns in our life path, and would have no trouble populating a decent do-over list with “if only” fantasies to fulfill if given the chance.
Fabricating an alter ego won’t get us exactly that, but it can deliver something that’s potentially even better: an instant adjustment to perspective that makes it almost impossible to take yourself too seriously, and it is this overplaying of life’s seriousness that causes us to look too far back with regret, or too far forward for escape. Every moment spent stuck in a distorted past or unrealistic future is one where we miss most of what’s actually going on around us, the way it actually is. If we don’t know the real features of the present we’re living in, how can we possibly expect to make adequate decisions, let alone effective ones?
Most people I mention this idea to think I’m joking- they don’t take it seriously, like it’s not allowed. They have a point where legalities are concerned, but that’s not what this is about. There’s a fundamental assumption that your default identity is psychologically “official”, as if it’s handed down by an authority greater than yourself. It’s not, you’re just used to it, and it operates largely invisibly with attention rarely turned to it, but fused to it instead. Fused attention is like a fountain of money you don’t know you have, already spent on stuff you’ll never see.
Genetics enter into identity of course, and they do endow (or saddle) us with predispositions to certain attitudes and behaviors, but we don’t have to endorse or act on those hard-wired impulses. To a large degree, we have choices, and we need to exercise the ones we can. But as long as attention is fused to identity, recognizing our choices becomes difficult if not impossible. Putting on the corrective lens of a constructed alter ego makes it easier to see how constructed our “real” identities actually are. Then we can start identifying and separating ideas, interpretations and attitudes from the impersonal facts and features of experience, and the world around us.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve recognized that at least for me, the first and most important goal beyond surviving is to determine the difference between what I think and feel, and what actually is, and a large part of that involves exposing assumptions and clarifying understanding. Assumptions can be useful, but only in a very limited and general way. It’s seriously unwise to take them on board wholesale because they’re always wrong to some variable degree, and the most fundamental assumption any of us make is about who or what we are! Our first and biggest mistakes in understanding are woven tightly around the core of our own identities, so what better place to begin unravelling ideas and attitudes? To do that, we need perspective- somewhere else to stand other than the center of our own personal storm so we can look at our ideas about ourselves and see them with some relative clarity. That’s what an alter-ego can be, that’s why it’s invaluable.
Life is an exercise in creativity whether you consider yourself to be creative or not, and that creativity doesn’t just extend to your identity. It starts there, and so should you.