What if I’d Been Someone Else?

I think most people ask themselves this from time to time. What if I’d lived in the sixties? What if I’d grown up on the corners of West Baltimore circa 2002? Sometimes it’s not a question, but a wish or fear: wouldn’t want to be that guy. At its best, this kind of identity projection motivates gratitude (“thank God I wasn’t born in a refugee camp”) and empathy (“could’ve happened to me”).

As intuitive as it feels to ask these questions, upon some analysis, they don’t seem to be as meaningful as they initially appear.

I have to disambiguate here. I’m not talking about wondering what it might be like to be, say, Björk or Emma Goldman. There’s nothing particularly troubling about that. I assume there actually is some way that it is like to be Dan Harmond (at least for a given moment, or maybe for an average moment within some time range). There’s nothing odd about wondering what that’s like.

What’s odd is for me to wonder what it’d be like for me to be Larry David (my apologies, but I’m going to keep doing that). After all, when I say “me”, that’s supposed to refer to who I actually am. So, to ask what it’d be like for me to be Rasputin is to ask what it’d be like for William Nava (the person he, in fact, is) to be Rasputin (the person he, in fact, was). But isn’t that silly? Because if William Nava were, say, Ed Wood, he would, among other things, not be William Nava. He’d be Ed Wood.

Look at it this way: imagine I’m holding a stone in my hand and I ask, “what would it be like for this stone to be a feather?” Now imagine the same scenario, but this time I ask, “what would it be like for me to be holding a feather instead of this stone?” Are the two questions actually any different?

But why doesn’t it feel that way, then? Why does asking “what would it be like for William Nava to be Ghostface Killah?” seem like a silly, trivial question, but asking, “what would it be like for me to be Jackie O?” feels like a legitimate question? And, not just a legitimate question, but one that is distinct from the simple question “what is it like to be Jackie O”?

My working guess is that there are two meanings to the word “me”. One is its meaning as a straightforward pronoun, standing in for the proper name of the person speaking. According to that first meaning, “me” simply means “William Nava” when I use it. The second meaning is something like, “the home of the experience of being at the center of point of view”. The two meanings feel synonymous, and we use them interchangeably, because for me (William Nava) the two have always coincided (as, I imagine, they have for everyone).

Now that the two meanings of “me” are disambiguated, I may ask: what would it be like for second-meaning-me to be Evan Stone? Given how I’ve defined the “second meaning”, the answer should be obvious: it would be exactly like it actually is to be Evan Stone, because Evan Stone is “me” (second meaning).

In other words: I think what we’re looking for when we ask, “what would it be like for me to be Virginia Woolf?” is what the experience of being myself – the abstract sense of having my own identity – would be like if worn by Virginia Woolf’s circumstances instead of mine (first meaning). But that combo really did exist (presumably) – it was precisely what it was like for Virginia Woolf to be herself.

So the question is quite trivial. We miss out on this because we fail to disambiguate between the two meanings of “me”.

This, I suspect, is the beginning of what people point to when they say that “we’re all one” or “we’re all the same”. We all have the experience of being myself. And, decorations aside, that experience seems to be fundamentally the same for everyone. Seems, anyway. I can’t be sure, seeing as I’ve never been anyone other than me.

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