whose moccasins would you walk in?

rob asks:

i’ve been wondering about discontent lately and how it seems to be something fundamental in the human makeup, like lipstick or eyeshadow. so, to undermine the power of discontent i think we should be able to walk in someone elses shoes, though bring your odoureaters if you’re borrowing mine; hence , name five people you would swap your life with for a day.

Damn, a tough tough question, and of course the big problem for me with it is that I don’t know the metaphysics of it. If I die in the other person’s body, do I stay dead at the end of the day? To what degree do I have autonomous control over the person? Am I a mere observer, or do I get a say in what the person does during that day? (Which of course means, actually, I get the chance to hijack someone else’s life, rather than actually walk in his or her shoes.) Is the switch something that happens linearly, or do I step into some point in the past or future of the person’s life? If I do have autonomous control over the person, do my actions actually have any long-term effect on the world or does the day reset with the everyone in charge of his or her own body again? And is the switch traceable to me, or is it anonymous, with the freedom to act with impunity (should I have control of the body)?

All of these consinderations are crucial, of course. If I can sabotage the lives of some very very bad people, and do so with impunity, and while I’m at it even set things up so that they have a great deal of trouble sabotaging my own life, then this would be great. However, if the switch is going to be more like myself becoming a fly on the wall within someone else’s mind as he or she goes about daily routines, I think I would choose some very different people.

I frankly can’t see a way to answer this question just one way, so I’ll try both.

The Hijack Variant

So I lock myself into a room of some kind, tied up, with an appointment for someone to show up the next day and untie me. I hydrate myself well, and leave a cup of water with a straw, for the poor soon-to-be-inhabitant of my body. You see, my discontent is centered on the fact that very, very stupid and unsavoury people seem to have a lot of power to do bad things, and there’s nothing I personally can do about it. So I’d be engaging in a kind of paranormal vigilante justice.

What would happen over the next few days would be interesting. Bill Gates, in a shocking blunder, would “accidentally” upload the source code for Windows XP to the web, as well as posting a few rather damaging little secrets in such a way that they circulate like mad. Kim Jong Il would fly himself to Beijing and declare himself a born-again Christian, renouncing his empire and bequeathing it to the South, but only after publicly handing over his personal fortune to be used in reconstruction, as well as fingering the Party high-ups who have money to be wrung away from them, too. Osama bin Laden would turn himself in to the French… muhahaha. George Bush, Jr. would come out of the closet publicly on national TV, admitting that he himself is a homosexual in love with Colin Powell and heartbroken over their recent breakup; then he would apologize to the world for his sins, and vow to live in a monastery for the rest of his days. And Kenny G would cut off one of his hands in a freak bandsaw accident, all the more tragic since he’d just taken up woodworking that same day. Ah, the power of a nice big power tool at the right place and time. Whoops!

The Observer Variant
The temptation here is to slip unseen into the mind of someone you know, but I will take my hint from various literary pieces that explore this idea, and suggest it’d be fatal to a relationship (especially suggestive is Greg Egan’s excellent short story “Closer”, which is actually available online, here). The two criteria for the choices I make in this variant are that it’s not someone I know, and that the experience would prove either interesting or useful to my life post-switch, meaning after I returned to my own body. Here, my discontent isn’t so much on a material lack, but an experiential one. The hardest thing for me to accept is never seeing inside anyone else’s mind, unfiltered by their explanations, by language, by the two-ness of people that is further reinforced by any explanation of one’s thinking and being. The discontent I’d be overcoming wouldn’t be envy for anything specific, but something more nebulous, the envy of some very different eyes with which to see the world.

So I’d be body hopping for interest’s and enlightenment’s sake, I suppose.

Well, now, I think it would be fasciating to watch the interior of a really good jazz musician during a live show. It wouldn’t be as exhilarating as slipping into the mind of someone like Beck, of course, playing in front of huge audiences, and that would be fun, too, but I think my first choice among jazz musicians today would have to be Branford Marsalis or one of the guys from Medeski, Martin, and Wood. How fascinating to feel how it feels to be in the brain of someone who can make music the way those guys can. Next, I think, I’d hop into the skin of a very pretty girl, any one will do. Let alone the fascinating with being inside a female mind; I wonder sometimes how the treatment would make one feel, when it’s easy just being pretty and people don’t expect more than that from you. It’d probably be annoying, but at the same time, probably just as enlightening as it was for me when I first experienced what it was like to be a racial minority here in Korea. Next, I think I’d go into the mind of a really top-notch scientist, someone like Murray Gell-Mann was, or Feynman. I don’t know who would fit the bill these days, but I’d research it and choose someone who’d be sure to impress. I’d pick a regular, workaday type day for that switch, sometime when the person was teaching science and working on a pet problem.

Next would be a trip into the mind of someone whose consciousness is radically different from what we consider “normal”… maybe a mildly (or even heavily) autistic person, or a person with Williams Syndrome, or a synaesthete, or maybe even just a child. This would be perhaps the most interesting trip of all, though I imagine it’d be very alien to me and difficult to come to terms with once I got back to my own life.

Finally, I think, I would go into the mind of one my my students, preferably one of the less motivated and more antipathetic. It’d give me a better sense of why some people just sit there in class doing nothing, and if it gave me no insight as to how to get through to them, at the very least it’d help me to have a little compassion for these infuriating individuals.

If you’d like to see what other respondents had to say, check out the Friday Five linkroll in the sidebar.

2 thoughts on “whose moccasins would you walk in?

  1. I’ve had the same fantasy. Your take on it was fascinating. I would choose different subjects and would not be interested in sabotage as much as just having a great time. To each his own.

    I did think you did not think through the unintended consequences of the George Bush scenario. For would he do as you would have him, then Dick Cheney would be Prez. And if you hate W. as much as I suspect, you would loathe Cheney.

    Just sayin’.

  2. Good point. Maybe Bush first hintint that Cheney’s daughter wasn’t the only gay in the family, and then letting reporters ask a couple of questions, spurring on a coming-out confession in mid-press conference, would be the way to go. Hmmm.

    I figure, the sabotage would be more fun than just hijacking these people. I guess I just want to change the world.

    There could also be rather bad consequences if Kim Jong Il suddenly vacated North Korea, even worse if he left it to South Korea to deal with these problems. Maybe if he instead declared that the Six Parties would have to deal with the fallout, it might be less damaging all around? Who knows.

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