scene from Le Roi de Coeur
We all have multiple personas, and, except for those who have severe cognitive disabilities, we navigate between them rather effortlessly. The way we speak, carry ourselves and even think, when we’re in our ‘work persona’ can be very different, for example, from those behaviours when we’re in our ‘parenting persona’.
For many, work/life balance has always been a challenge, but CoVid-19 has made it harder, since there is often less time, or no time at all, to ‘switch’ between our personas. We have to be ‘on’ to deal with things in any of our persona roles, at any time, and that can be exhausting.
Seventeen years ago, when I first became a collapsnik, and began to believe that there is nothing we can do to prevent or mitigate civilization’s collapse in this century, I suddenly found myself acting in three different roles, each with a distinct persona.
At work, and as part of a large number of professional and online networks, I could not talk about collapse. Even though these networks were mostly preoccupied with short-term (the next year at most) thinking, I had to ‘shift’ out of collapse thinking mode to a mode that appreciated that my professional fields were important, and were likely to stay that way for a long time.
And at home, I couldn’t really talk about it either. When I spoke with my kids about my views on collapse (even after they’d moved away and started families), they were devastated. My son said “You may well be right, but I just can’t think about that right now.”
When I retired, things became easier because I was down to just two personas. At that point I really lost interest in everything related to work — it seemed ridiculous to be worrying about things like the pace of innovation or the problems of effective knowledge-sharing, when we were well into global economic and ecological collapse. Sadly, I fell out of touch will all but a handful of colleagues from those networks. I stopped writing about work-related subjects on my blog. Many of my readers unsubscribed. None of that “work stuff” mattered to me anymore. Although I continued to respond to speaking invitations and interviews on business topics, it got easier to just elide over the issue of collapse, to not mention it. There was some cognitive dissonance but it was manageable. And I stopped talking to the kids about it, except when they pointedly asked, and then regretted having done so.
There were more than enough progressives concerned about collapse, but still in denial about its inevitability, to keep me busy writing and thinking and interacting.
So there was Dave the idealist activist, working away as part of the Transition movement, writing about resilience and community and human nature. And there was Dave the ‘joyful pessimist’ collapsnik, writing about complexity and adaptability and a post-collapse future many millennia hence.
And then about six years ago I started to study the message of radical non-duality. This message said that there is no ‘we’, that time and space and self and separation are just mental constructs completely divorced from any ‘true’ reality, that everything is just an appearance, and that nothing really matters (not even collapse) because there is no one for it to matter to.
This seemingly-preposterous message resonated with me quite profoundly, both at an intuitive and at an intellectual level. Throughout my life there have been these strange “glimpses” during which “I” completely disappear and all that is seen, wondrously, is everything simply, perfectly, as it is, but as an appearance, without substance, trajectory or permanence. The terrible weight of the world that had always been seen through the eyes of the scared, bewildered, ‘responsible’ self is suddenly lifted, and everything seems light, effortless, completely OK as it is. During these glimpses, everything, for the first time, made absolute, unarguable sense. It was undeniable. “How could I not see this?”
When I started to write and talk about this, I now found I was back to three personas again: Dave the idealist activist, who nods and empathizes with my family and friends about the day-to-day issues we are facing, and affirms our mutual progressive beliefs, activities and concerns; Dave the ‘joyful pessimist’ collapsnik, who acknowledges that, because of collapse, in twenty years none of these current issues and beliefs will matter, because we’ll be facing unimaginable crises that will utterly change every aspect of how we live; and a new, third one, Dave the radical non-dualist, who asserts that even collapse is just an appearance, not real, not important, and that nothing needs to be, or can be, done. And that there is no “me”.
(Of course, the doubting Thomas in me still wonders if these glimpses were just wishful thinking, rationalizations of daydreams, and the result of seeking an easy way out of having to face and deal with the seemingly insoluble crises of our time. Perhaps because of this dubiousness, I may often seem unconvinced of what I am saying, in all three personas.)
So now, when I am speaking with people, or writing for a particular audience, I have to be clear in my own mind on which of these utterly different and irreconcilable personas I need to be inhabiting to convey my thoughts and beliefs in a way that works for them. The cognitive dissonance is massive and never-ending. The switch between them is flicked back and forth with dizzying regularity.
Dave the idealist activist would say: “Well of course we need to support the protestors, and counter the false propaganda of the BC government about how much old-growth forest is left and how much of that is slated for logging under their watch. But protests simply haven’t worked. We’re down to 0.08% of BC’s forests that are still-standing true old-growth, and they are disproportionately being logged even now because they’re the most profitable stands to log. So it’s kinda too late, but good on the protestors for trying to save the last dregs.”
Dave the joyful pessimist collapsnik would say: “In thirty years, between logging, wildfires, and new plant diseases, all of our forests, not just the tiny old-growth remnants, are almost sure to be gone. So staff the protest lines if that gives you a sense of purpose, of accomplishing something, but it’s futile. The whole world is on fire. I suspect the protesters will learn about grief from their work, from seeing what is happening, the inevitability of collapse, so it least it won’t be entirely for naught.”
Dave the radical non-dualist (or, rather, his illusory self) would say: “Of course the protesters, the government people, the cops and the loggers have no choice but to do what they’ve been conditioned to do. But there’s actually nothing happening, and no one anything is happening to. Only the afflicted human brain thinks there’s something happening, thinks there’s a right and wrong, thinks there’s time and space within which things are happening — bravery, atrocity, and everything in between. But it’s all just an appearance, nothing appearing as everything being played out, outside of space and time, for no reason, with no purpose. All this suffering over mere appearances, and it’s all for nothing. Still, I am cheering for the protesters. Can’t do anything else.”
(It actually hurts my brain to write these characterizations. It wants to reconcile the three, impossibly.)
When, in the middle of a discussion, or in the middle of a blog article, I meander into a different persona and start to respond from that worldview, I usually get puzzled and sometimes alarmed looks and comments from the audience, who can’t parse what I’m now saying or the mental leap I have made during the switch. This probably comes across as muddle-headed, inattentive, or mildly deranged. The three different perspectives of these three personas are irreconcilable. They can’t all be ‘right’.
I have friends who ‘know’ me and relate to me in one persona, but because of something I’ve said or written are curious to know more about where one of the other personas is coming from. This usually goes badly. Soon enough, a distressed glance usually tells me it’s time to flick the switch and go back to the understanding we share in common.
A great film on how easily we can be conditioned by others to take on false personas is Philippe de Broca’s Le Roi de Coeur (King of Hearts). It’s a brilliant send-up of how we profoundly influence each other to play roles and engender beliefs that, from the view of an outsider, make absolutely no sense.
Of course, all three of my bewilderingly incompatible personas have been biologically and culturally conditioned in me, given the circumstances of each moment that happens to give rise to their evolution and deployment. I am an actor playing three different roles in an imaginary repertory theatre, and I damned well better keep my lines straight and remember which role I’m playing at any given moment. I am the King of Hearts, but only in my own mind.
The three of us thank you for your attention, and hope you liked the show.