We are all artists, with our masterpiece being ourselves. Every gesture, every word, is a work of performance, crafted through habit, from the day we are born. We shape ourselves based on audience polling: It’s not quite an applause meter, but we’re a social species and we tend to fairly quickly get a sense for how other people react to the things we say and do. We calibrate, adjust, we become, without ever explicitly thinking about it.
This might sound dismissive. Perhaps it sounds like I am accusing all humanity of being terribly superficial – but these performances go deeper than the skin. Who we believe ourselves to be is, in large part, who we are – or very soon becomes so. That’s one of the ways that brainwashing works: If you can convince someone to perform compliance, it’s often only a matter of time before they become compliant.
Our identities are malleable. This is a strength and a weakness. The art of self-improvement is thus the art of self-persuasion. They say that confidence is attractive – in much the same way that playing wrong notes on the piano confidently sounds more like music than playing correct notes hesitantly, physical beauty is just as much skill as it is shape. Sit just so, keep your chin at this angle, make sure the eye meets you in just such a way, smile just enough but not too much – each tiny aspect of posture and motion calibrated to present oneself in a particular way.
Of course performing physical attractiveness is just one option. We shut ourselves off, open ourselves up, play smart and play dumb, fill ourselves with passion or hold our hearts in reserve. We keep wardrobes of personae and choose whichever one suits the occasion. Masks crafted from habits and nervous tics, personality profiles written in muscle memory rather than words. We call it body language, and maybe there’s more to that phrase than we usually think about. Language isn’t just a means of communicating with others, but also shapes the way we see and engage with the world.
These identities sometimes become prisons. Our histories constrain us. Once you declare you love or hate something, you feel a pressure to live up to your love or hate, an obligation to feel the way you said you feel. How valuable it is, then, to have a way to become someone else, to take on the habits and beliefs of another, even for a short time. How precious it is, then, to have art, to have the simulation of the mile walked in another’s shoes: To feel, for a brief moment, what it is to be other than what you are, to believe in other than what you believe, to be unbound by your history, and to feel the gentle breeze of something unknown, and more deeply a part of you than the self you perceive, urging you towards a new way of being.