"Leonard Zelig's problem is that he has absolutely no identity he can call his own. He is a cipher, as close to the theoretical concept of zero as Bertrand Russell could define. He is so pathologically nil that, over the years, he has developed the unconscious ability to transform himself, physically and mentally, into the image of whatever strong personality he's with." VINCENT CANBY New York Times
I remember when I first saw Woody Allen's Zelig. It was 1984, on HBO. I fell in love with it from the first viewing. It's such an odd piece of cinema. Zelig is a mock documentary which focuses on Arthur Zelig, also know as "the human chameleon". Zelig, it was discovered, could seemingly change his physical appearance at will. As the film explains, Zelig would appear spontaneously around the globe, altered in height, gender, or color, having become a likeness of the people around him. Grainy news footage shows Zelig standing at the Vatican with Pope Pius XII, as a flapper in a Harlem nightclub, as a New York Yankee, a Chicago gangster, a black jazz musician. When he becomes the focus of a medical study, he adopts the appearance of his physicians.
And so it goes...
It is a funny and entertaining film, but it spins a dark and unsettling psychological tale. Zelig was a shape-shifter fully and wholly, but a shape-shifter without purpose. He possessed no true identity of his own.
I thought it was a film about me, a story about my own chameleon days;
- My Punk period
- My Cowboy period
- My Weightlifter period
- My Blue collar guy period
- My Flamboyant artist period
Its a strange feeling not knowing who you are. Its strange because you know that who you are is not who you are, but at the same time you can't define who you're supposed to be either. So you become who your friends are or who you think your boss wants you to be. And none of those people you become are never you. It took me until my early thirties to find a self that fit comfortably, and most of my forties to iron all the wrinkles out. And now, well into my fifties, i'm more my self, for good or ill, than I've ever been. I've even allowed some of my edges to fray a bit, you know, just for looks. After more than half a lifetime, when I look in the mirror, I finally see Me.
Freud says that during the first few years of our life we are a universe all unto ourself. Its the period of Id. We understand only need. Then comes the introduction of the world view with the development of the Ego, the conscience. By the time we're nine or ten years old we have begun to choose interests and plan futures. We join communities, and act accordingly within them. We grow further still, developing a Super-ego awareness of our world. We say please and thank you. We operate for the greater good when it is in our best interest to do so. And for the rest of our life we mostly exist in this paradigm. We define who we are through our interactions with each other, or interactions with the world. But none of this addresses the Self. It doesn't explain how I recognize when I am really, truly Me, or why it sometimes it all goes so badly off the boil. What I mean is- why do some of us get so lost? What happens that makes us see a stranger in the mirror? How can life not make sense, and leave us feeling that we possess no identity of our own? What makes us become chameleons, and what happens that snaps us back to center? Does this happen to everyone? Or was it just Leonard and me?
How it was...
I spent my twenties searching. I thought I was searching for love, for companionship, for a group who loved me for me. But I was really just trying to find out who the hell I was. My high school career preference test indicated I was Gumby-like; moldable into any form, but without form of my own. My SAT scores only confirmed this. No particular aptitude for math, english, or science, but no real deficiencies either. Right in the meaty part of the bell curve. So I went were I was told, and where I thought I might discover an answer to that question I hadn't yet learned to ask; "Who am I?" I tried junior college and engineering. Ha. It took me two days of study to figure out one my science teacher's jokes. Shortly after I was invited to not come back for a second semester. I moved on to work and punk. Work was easy. Punk on the other hand, was hard.
I was the stupidest looking punk you'd ever seen. I would have been a cool, nerdy kind of punk if I was really punk, but in actuality I was more like Richie Cunningham in Fonzie's jacket. (the pre-shark Fonzie) I looked like a poser, because I was a poser. An alter boy in a black Schott Perfecto. That lasted two years. In truth I was ready to quit earlier, but I stuck it out until the Roots Reggae Cafe closed and reopened as a coffee bar. It was time. Next was cowboy. Cowboy was for love. Like all things done for love, it was a mistake. Weightlifting was great, and twenty years later I still carry the lingering benefits of good muscle tone and physical fitness. But weightlifter guy was show a showoff- all bicepey and mal-proportioned.
And so it went...
Eventually I did 'find' myself when I became a teacher. It is who I am. Its how I define myself. The word makes me feel whole. Teacher...
But the fundamental question remains. Why does it take a decade to discover who you are? Why isn't it all more immediately self-evident? Is it because it takes life experience to know? If that's true, then why are some of us "called" and others not? Or are we all called and some of just don't hear? Teaching is my calling. I can't imagine my life without it. But I fell ass-backwards into teaching. Swear to God, it was an accident.
I wonder too if maybe, like Leonard Zelig, I'm confusing personality and persona? Im wondering now if the problem is that we all do? That we overlook our conscience will and desire, we pummel into submission the voice inside telling us what it knows to be true, and instead listen for a call we like the sound of, a tribe to we wish belong to. Rather we should be embracing our own call and letting the tribe find us. Because surely their call, and our call are the same.
In the end that was Leonard Zelig's salvation. He found within himself a voice that was his alone. A skin that fit. A Me. I found my Me as well, and when I look back on it now I think it happened when I finally stopped looking.
Could it possibly be that easy?