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The container affects the content
On Friday the Thirteenth, my cousin married a man with a pumpkin on his head. As storms raged outside the unheated barn, I watched the newlywed couple emerge from the box truck they’ll soon call home, smash the pumpkins from their heads, and dance. Spooky season is here, and I couldn’t think of a better inauguration. Halloween occurs once a year, but it contains a lesson about identity that can serve us year-round.
The danger of a single costume
In George Saunders’s “My Chivalric Fiasco,” a janitor at a Medieval theme park witnesses his boss raping a coworker. Since the boss and the coworker want to avoid embarrassment, the boss promotes the janitor to a guard. To fulfill his new responsibilities, he must take a drug called “KnightLyfe,” which causes him to behave like a chivalrous knight. As the drug takes effect, Saunders gradually elevates the prose to match the man’s changing temperament—he begins pondering Grand and Noble matters to doth restore Honour upon thee Ill-Fated Maiden. As the thoughts become increasingly chivalrous, our hero’s thoughts become action, and he announces what happened. Unfortunately, his Spoketh Truth led to only disastrous outcomes: The woman is shamed, and the man is fired.
This story illustrates an unfortunate truth about moral quandaries and the dangers of archetype fulfillment. The janitor becomes a guard and then, via a mind-altering substance, is compelled to enact his role. Albeit less dark, we follow similar patterns in our relationships with others. People like to put us in a box, and we make that box our home. We might be the methodical, data-driven operator at work, not expected to “be creative” and shy away from open-ended discussions. In a family, we might be the funny, disorganized one who isn’t taken seriously, so we don’t step up when serious matters arise.
We conform to our prescribed archetypes for social cohesion. Many resort to code-switching since it’s difficult for people to perceive each other outside simple archetypes. In different contexts, we talk about different things in different ways to different people. I speak with my cousins differently than I do with my coworkers.
But some people dislike seeing us code-switch since it breaks their mental image of us. We may wear our costumes too well and forget that an archetype is only an artifice of a larger identity.
The practice of changing costumes
Imagine roles, personalities, and behaviors as costumes filling the shelves of a pop-up Halloween store. We could wander the aisles and sample them as we please—don an artist's beret to gain creative insights, wear nerd glasses to find math comforting rather than stressful, or slip into a naughty nurse skirt to feel sexy.
Srini Pillay recommends this exercise in Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try to break from cognitive ruts. While dressing like an artist to feel creative might seem corny, temporarily rewriting an identity is profound.
Stuart Turton’s inaugural mystery novel, The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, follows a detective with eight days to solve a murder. Each day repeats itself, but he awakes in the body of a different person each morning. His memory remains, even as he becomes new characters—some are physically strong but intellectual dullards, while others are clever but lack energy. As the detective changes bodies, he learns to leverage their distinct strengths to catch the murderer.
I love the novel’s originality, especially the protagonist’s grappling to exert his will over the host. This dualistic, “costuming” behavior is profound: You are still yourself but embody someone else's spirit. It’s still you with all your memories, experience, and personality, but it’s molding with something else, forming creative tension.
When we change costumes and mindfully embody the spirit of someone we wish to emulate, we can free ourselves from the shackles of our regular archetypes to unlock new insights.
The container affects the content
Underlying Halloweenacy is a belief that the container affects the content. Clean water poured into a rusty bucket can gain an iron taste, while contaminated pond water, sucked through a life straw, emerges drinkable. Put simply: When we don a costume, a part of us is changed. The costumes we wear are not merely surface-level aesthetics but active shapers of our character.
In The Happy Hypocrite (1897), Max Beerbohm tells the story of a conman who longs for a beautiful woman. The woman refuses the conman’s advances, saying she will only marry a man with “the face of a saint.” In his usual scheming fashion, the conman purchases the mask of a saint to deceive the woman into loving him. They get married and live happily until a visitor removes the mask. To the ex-conman’s surprise, his face has molded to the contours of the mask, and the woman falls even deeper in love with him.
We may not be the person we wish to be—we may be lazy, easily angered, unfit—but we are not doomed to our current state. The Happy Hypocrite portrays how behavior change can create character change. Wearing a saintly mask transformed the conman into a virtuous gentleman in both face and character.
This Halloween, we have the opportunity to don a costume. Do we want a short vacation from our daily roles? Or do we try on the identity of someone we aspire to become? If we wear the mask long enough, we might see a new face in the mirror, even after peeling it off.
Beware the dark patterns in your software.