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The secret to living more than one life

A reflection on how the limits of your existence can be blurred, based on a real story.

Photo by Sebastian Pena Lambarri on Unsplash

Let me settle the tricky question first, so that we can then sit down and enjoy the ride:

What does the word identity mean?

How does it work, the uniqueness that makes each of us be precisely ourselves and not somebody else?

Is it just DNA, a command hidden in a secure room inside our brains, or is it something different and separated — a soul, perhaps?

These questions point out at the age-old body VS mind problem, discussed to the point of extenuation, yet still unresolved. We could try to break down the highlights of what has been written about this, from Plato to Descartes, and we’d probably remain equally ignorant. Instead, I think it’s best if I start with some graphic examples of what identity isn’t to clear the path for our story.

For that purpose, let’s travel a little back in time, to the life of the Spanish Admiral Blas de Lezo (1689–1741).

Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta

He was best known for being one the most outstanding naval strategist of the Spanish Empire, but he also gave a lesson on identity endurance that history will not forget. Blas de Lezo commanded the victory of the Spanish army during the battle of Cartagena de Indias (1741), which is even more impressive if we consider that only half of him was fighting. During his military career, he lost his left eye, his left hand, the complete mobility of his right arm, and had his left leg amputated in situ after being hit by a cannon.

And yet, I bet his wife, Josefa Pacheco, still opened their house door for him every time he came back from war with less and less of himself. His identity wasn’t drawn in the Caribbean Sea with his limbs. She still saw Blas.

Miss Pacheco’s point of view is the same we apply in modern medicine nowadays. If you receive a kidney from a complete stranger, you don’t suddenly assume the identity of the donor. Same as if you have a bypass or a knee prosthesis implanted, you are not expected to behave like an inanimate titanium piece, although they become a part of you. We’d probably all agree that the only surgery that could modify your identity is the one that hasn’t been performed yet: a brain transplant. For now, let’s leave that exception to Mary Shelley and keep it out of our equation.

All the previous examples of body alterations can change our appearance, even radically (think of poor Blas’s family portraits). They can affect our health and the way we feel inside. But we are still perceived by our peers as “the same person”.

However, a significant change in our brain could have the following paradoxical effect: we would look exactly the same on the outside, we would walk and talk the same, but a new identity would have been created. Just like that.

Have you ever experienced the birth of a new human inside of your mind? It is possible.

This is the story of how that miracle was achieved without experimental surgery or witchcraft being involved.

The debut of a second life

It was the year 2013. A dear friend of mine, who was eighteen back then, left her small town and moved to Madrid to attend university, just like I did. For the purposes of fiction, let’s call her Emily.

During her first year of college, Emily lived in a very special student dorm full of creative geniuses. Soon after they met her, she was granted a powerful nickname. It was supposed to be just a rite of passage, reserved to the most promising newcomers, that would fade away after a year or so. But it didn’t.

This new name was as fresh and genuine as the friendship bonds that she built there. And so, as years went by, and long after they all left the hall of residence, nobody in Madrid ever called her Emily again.

The story could finish here and it wouldn’t be much of an anecdote. But there was an expected outcome. This new name changed my friend. It turned her into someone different. Over the night, she was fearless.

See, in September 2013, when a bunch of strangers re-baptised Emily, they were actually bringing into life a newborn under the nickname. Unlike Emily, the newborn didn’t carry eighteen years of past on her shoulders. She didn’t bear prejudices, or held fears or accumulated insecurities: she was full tabula rasa. And that is exactly how she was perceived by others. That’s how she achieved a power that Emily never had: the eternal saying yes.

During her first year, I saw the newborn say yes to as random plans as midnight free throw contests or hip hop dancing with the student arts club (in front of some 200 people), as well as taking out to dance the guys that she fancied without a blink. I saw her sneak in a car on a Sunday morning with a bunch of meat lovers for a three-hour drive to eat the best roasted pig in Segovia, and a number of other things Emily had never said yes to before.

The most interesting part of the story is that not only did she feel like a different person, she was also perceived as such by those who learned to call her by this nickname. And here’s the secret I wanted to share with this story:

Words have the magical power to re-write reality, that’s why every wizard from every fiction story has the capacity to change anything by pronouncing the right enchantment.

Real life just takes after fiction.

It is a well-known fact that we humans think in words rather than in images or sounds or smells, like other animals do. We are constantly inventing new terms, not only to describe new phenomena, but also to rescue from the dark those hidden realities that we wish to put under the spotlight.

When we give somebody a name, we’re casting the most powerful spell on them. Cause if we choose it right, we might as well awaken a latent identity that was waiting for its moment to arrive. That’s how powerful words are.

The newborn is now 7 years old, and my friend is facing a new challenge: she’s moving to London in September. For the first time since 2013, she’s going to be living away from the architects of her second life. From anyone initiated in her nickname.

The odds are uncertain.

Will 18-year-old Emily come back?

Will she be so fortunate as to be casted with a third name that could bring yet a new identity into life?

Is there a chance that these alternatives could co-exist in the same person and eventually make sense to each other?

The secret to living more than one life was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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