A former governor of New Jersey was in the news today, for donning a disguise and becoming a mentally-ill homeless man during a long night spent on the floor of a Newark shelter. They gave him burst blood vessels and tattooed skin covered with dirt. They stained his teeth a tobacco brown and glued on a ratty grey beard.
King Abdullah of Jordan was known to don different disguises and stand in line at the income tax office, or drive a taxi, this as a way of keeping his finger on the pulse of his people, avoiding the isolation inherent in his position.
Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” A mile in my shoes and all that..
These are noble motives, ways of exploring and developing empathy and sharing it with others. The Kony 2012 video and the way it affected so many of us shows the power of a medium which engages us, pulls us from self to other.
But along with such lofty reasons, going incognito has a long history, and as many motives as there are those who explore it. Zeus did it, so did the angels, and the devil. Count Leo Tolstoy dressed as a peasant and went on pilgrimage, Joan of Arc became a man so that she might fight the Brits and Isabelle Eberhardt did the same to live in the Sahara in peace.
There are cave paintings dating back to tens of thousands of years b.c. depicting masks and costumes, man as beast, man as demon or goddess. Shakespeare not only used disguise liberally in his plays but some say he too was in disguise, that he was actually a Jewish woman named Amelia.
I suppose we all like to dress up, pretend we are who we are not. Children love to don superhero capes, regal gowns and sparkly crowns, to do the same to their dolls and their drawings and to snap-snap toys which transform. The extroverts want to be noticed in their enhanced state, the introverts want to hide. (I admit to a fantasy of transforming into a fly on the wall from a very young age.)
When you are young life presents endless possibilities for this, a million new beginnings, new schools, new jobs, new cities, new roles as worker, lover, spouse, parent, although the divide between one role and the next is far less clear-cut in the age of social media with its timelines which chisel into virtual stone our every move, every thought.
Forgive my rambling. Not quite sure where I’m going with this. I saw the governor, remembered the king and the fly and a video I saw some time ago of the singer Jewel who sang at a karaoke bar with a huge nose and a dull cardigan yet still was embraced by the crowd, regardless, her voice shining through.
I thought then about actors and how they often speak of their love of becoming their characters, if only during production (and they often fall in love during this transformation with their leading ladies/men.. tsk tsk it rarely lasts).
And then, of course, I thought of writing, and why it is so compelling not only to me but to so many. When we read we sink into the nooks and crannies of our books, but when we write we not only become our characters, speaking in their voices, moving our bodies in the way they do, following the thoughts they would think, the emotions they would feel, but we create them.
It’s really so very magical, this undercover incognito transformation. Perhaps because it takes us from ourselves, again and again, and in the process makes the spaces in our minds, our hearts, our souls wider and more open, endless.