Eliezer Sobel

The 99th Monkey

Virtual Grief

Mourning the loss of an online identity.

Posted Jul 01, 2009


One of the vital steps in Gurdjieff's work, therefore, is to become aware of this stream of ever-shifting identities posing as us, trying to pass themselves off as a single unified being, when in fact our lives are being run by an embattled inner committee with no chairperson! Years ago I performed as an actor in Gabrielle Roth's Mirrors Theatre Troupe in New York, and she had us literally name all of these fickle inner characters. In my case, while Danny Depresso often took center stage, he was often overshadowed by Larry Look-at-me, who in turn could easily be supplanted by Wally Worthless. My friend Jay frequently embodied Captain Control, and attempted to order the rest of us about, while Judy Judge stood smugly off to one side of the stage making critical comments about the rest of the cast. Gladys Gorge devoured a box of cookies in under two minutes, and Connie Cling literally climbed up my body and held on for dear life. Through dramatizing all of these inner ego characters, the performers as well as the audience began to recognize and understand the mirage of a central, unchanging "I."

I used to lead a workshop in which I had participants tell their autobiographies in ninety seconds. I always took a turn as well, so over the years I did the exercise dozens of times, and I noticed that my autobiography was never even remotely the same. Of all the events that actually occur in a lifetime, there are those particular ones that, for whatever reason, we still remember. Of those, there is the relative accuracy of our memories, and from that pool there is the additional process of selecting what we actually choose to relate. So our autobiographies are only one version of partially accurate accounts of selective memories of actual events. In other words, a complete fiction!

Likewise, each of my virtual "I"s has a slightly different flavor. My Facebook page, for example, speaks to a wide range of "Friends," ranging from my wife, Shari, and some of my closest, actual friends, to people who I simply can't quite place or remember. Or in some cases, perhaps we met once, or they read one of my books  

In any event, I accidentally hit the Delete button on my laptop recently, and lost an entire email account, which included all the correspondence I had deemed important enough to save over the last several years, including extremely important notes to myself, reminding me of vital things that, no surprise, I can now no longer recall at all. In a similar vein, my friend Alisun wrote me about her husband last week: "I'm not sure if you know this, but Marty has taken to calling himself throughout the day. I'll be working at my desk, his phone will ring, the machine will pick up and I will hear Marty's voice saying things like, ‘Measure the tub' or ‘Check Brian Wilson album.' Sometimes when I'm feeling playful, I will call his machine after one of these messages and say, "Kiss your wife' or ‘Sweep the kitchen.' The real hoot is that sometimes he can't understand what he's saying and he'll call me in to listen to HIM on his machine and figure out if he's saying ‘Get coffee' or ‘Eat hot wings.' As a result of this he now speaks v*e*r*y clearly and enunciates all his syllables, as in, ‘G-e-t pa-per to-wel-s.'" (And my friend Eddie, who was living with his girlfriend at the time, once called in to hear his messages, and went into a jealous rage when he heard a man's voice speaking inappropriate intimacies to his partner, bordering on lewd. Yes, it was a message he himself had left a few days earlier.)

There is an old Hasidic tale which I will surely butcher, but you'll get the idea: A man feels crowded in his tiny home, and when he asks his Rebbe for advice, the Rebbe tells him to bring a donkey into the house.  

It is the same with our Virtual "I"s. On a recent vacation in Mexico, Shari and I opted to leave our cell phones and computers behind, and as we boarded the plane, in less than a millisecond, I felt a huge release and an exquisite sense of inner spaciousness, a nearly mystical experience of immense freedom in my mind and soul. I had thrown all the chickens and goats of my virtual "I"s out the door, and my spiritual house was, for the moment, blissfully empty. Even Gurdjieff would have been impressed.