American Specialness, Ideal Selves, and Fantasy Selves

I really like living in America, honestly. My parents came here to escape a culture in their home country that did not like people trying to be ‘special’. The intellectuals were persecuted, as were artists and musicians who were thought to be too Western. To ‘stand out’ was dangerous, and could get you killed. Your identity was the identity of your group. You were dissuaded from being an individual.

In contrast, American children are nurtured from an early age to think of themselves as special, unique, and irreplaceable. It’s a sweet thing to tell your kids, and if it helps them do better in elementary school or feel happier, then go for it. I don’t want to judge one way or another. After all, my parents came here — in a way — for the chance to raise a kid they could encourage to be special without worrying she might be imprisoned for ‘overly’ intellectual or artistic pursuits.

But at some point, we all grow up and have to deal with the rest of the world outside the cushion of parental supervision/reframing. And the more observant among us will eventually realize that no, we are not actually special. Or alternatively, we are special like everybody else. Then it potentially gets weird, because we’ve been groomed since childhood to value ourselves for being special/different/unique (if we were lucky enough to live in America), and now we find out that we are probably not as special as we thought we were.

To deal with this psychological tension, a lot of people develop an alternate imaginary self, who can go on being ‘special’, even if the person’s everyday persona and interactions with the world are not that special. For instance, you could have someone who works as a paralegal by day, living her ordinary life in parallel with an alternate daydream she has of becoming a world-famous chef. With time, this daydreamed alternative self may become so enticing to her that she will make real plans to re-direct the course of her life to approach becoming this alternative self: signing up for cooking classes, starting a cooking/recipe blog, starting a catering service, etc.

The world-famous chef scenario is an example of the alternate self being an ‘ideal’ self. I think of that as a self that is theoretically achievable in the real world if one works hard enough and has the right opportunities. The other kind of alternate self people typically develop to deal with ‘not being special’ in daily life, is the fantasy self. It’s a self that isn’t theoretically achievable in the real world if one works hard enough and has the right opportunities. For instance, becoming an immortal vampire elf, or having all of Superman’s powers. This doesn’t mean you can’t have outlets for enjoying these fantasy selves. There are plenty of video games and anime conventions and internet groups around for stuff like this. A twist on the fantasy self definition would be a self that is hypothetically achievable in the real world but for moral/logistic reasons not practically achievable. Examples fall in the realm of desires that are extremely illegal or have fatal side effects.

I think having these other selves can really enrich a person’s inner experience, and improve overall quality of life. And as long as the person isn’t committing actions that harm themselves or others, it should probably be their own business what they want to think about on their own time to satisfy their [culturally indoctrinated?] desire to be really really special.

I’ve thought about this stuff a lot lately in the context of how some songs can temporarily build/strengthen emotional connections between a listener and their ideal or fantasy selves, projected into the backdrop of the music. Motivational music, for instance, can help connect to the ideal self. Music connecting to fantasy selves is something particularly interesting to me right now, because in a way the fantasy self does not belong in the ‘real’ world, yet the powerful emotions one can have under the influence of music can make the fantasy self seem more real. Revenge fantasies are a big theme in a lot of country music (at least in my limited exposure to country music) and one has to hope that listeners will interpret that music as catharsis rather than motivational.

I think the space of fantasy provides a wider range of options to explore than the space of ‘ideals’. In my day-to-day life, I try to approach my ideals, but if I want to be entertained by something breathtakingly creative, I’ll spin out fantasy lives and worlds. If I’m going to bother to explore a new persona in the Otherworld at all, I’d like it to be appreciably different from who I am becoming in the real world. It’s more interesting that way.

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