If I had to pick one and only one category to put myself in, a category with which I most distinctly identify, one that best defines me as a person, it would not refer to my gender, race, sexuality, religion, profession, or familial relations—no, it would be “insomniac.”
My mom says that even as a toddler, I didn’t nap.
I spent every slumber party of my youth either lying awake in bed long after everyone else went to sleep or long before everyone else woke up. I have stared at a lot of ceilings in my time, made patterns out of tiles and constellations out of textures. The creaking of old plumbing, ticking of clocks, humming of refrigerators, these sounds make up the soundtrack to much of my life.
When I was a kid, the only way I could ever get myself to fall asleep was to make up a story in my head. I would always take the viewpoint of one character in these tales. I’d be a gymnast or a ballet dancer or a paleontologist. I’d be older. People would like me. I’d be talented and successful. Essentially, I’d be anyone other than myself.
As I grew up, this tactic for falling asleep continued.
In my mind as I’ve drifted off to sleep, I’ve won Oscars, been a professional athlete, worked on a crab fishing boat, and taught a university course (where I most surely had tenure) on the philosophy of Bill Watterson. Karl Urban has met me and fallen disastrously in love with me.
But the consistent thing in all of my stories is that it’s never been me.
As I tell myself these tales, I take on the first person perspective of a different person. Maybe these characters I invent are people I want to be, people who can do things I could never do, people with very different relationships than I maintain, people who are a different age, a different gender, a different sexuality, or in a different body.
We all do this to some extent, don’t we? Surely we all give in to fantasy. We want to be the person we admire (or the person we desire). Hero worship and obsession and envy—all of these motivating forces I have folded into my dreams.
This is silly, I know. Nothing more than a tactic for getting my mind to step away from the present or from worrying about the future, giving myself a different world to drift off to.
The thing is, it’s not just fantasy, because in my waking life I do this too. Suddenly I find myself as the businessman on the Metro during my morning commute, the tired mother with her young son tucked to her side, the lost tourist struggling to read the map, the frazzled server getting berated, or the angry patron doing the berating.
Instead of fantasy as a way to escape, I use this strange faculty we all have–this imagination–to put myself in the perspective of people around me. A game I play to help me fall asleep at night has enabled me to extend myself out into the world and to try to understand all these other walking, talking, thinking, living, breathing humans around me.
Because I share energy and space and ideas with other people, they fascinate me. I like to imagine all the little human things that happen in the course of a person’s life–Saturday afternoons spent riding bikes, a first job bagging groceries, the death of a favorite aunt, church services attended, the first listen of a favorite album.
Some of the best experiences in life are the collective ones, like being at a really good concert where the band is on and the crowd is made up of fans (who have a concept of personal space), or being at a post-season sporting event, especially when an underdog is playing. I was at Raleigh, North Carolina, in March 2014, and I saw the Mercer Bears beat the number two seeded Duke University Blue Devils in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. The energy in that arena was indefinable and totally human-generated, and I will never have another experience like it.
Even though the set of life experiences that makes us who we are is particular to us, we’re all made up of some combination of human experiences–collective or personal–that overlap with everyone else’s. Even though I don’t know the strangers around me or the fictional ones in my mind, in some way I do, and that makes them seem less like strangers.
Somewhere there’s a line, maybe, between fiction and non-fiction, reality and fantasy, but there is this thread of humanity that connects the two until they blur into each other.
And it’s that blurring that makes life interesting–the infinite set of possibilities we get to live out in our imaginations and the finite set we live out in the “real” world. The mutually exclusive option is sometimes presented to live in the world or in your head, but aren’t they manifestations of the same thing?
Because life is in those moments where your imagination helps you understand people and social structures and the interconnectedness of all things, and you feel grounded in the world around you. That grounding makes you feel connected to humanity, whether they are doing things you admire or things that upset you. You feel human when you can imagine the collection of little things that make up the way another person sees their world.
The ultimate experience of this is probably some clichéd notion of love, but, for me, it’s when I feel thoroughly connected to a character in a movie or a book or a fantasy. Whether it be Sherlock Holmes, Hazel Lancaster, Kafka Tamura, or someone I’ve made up in my mind as I’ve drifted off to sleep.
However you get that feeling of connection and grounding, well, I don’t know about meaning, but that’s where life gets good.
By day, Heidi Samuelson is a science writer for a government agency. By night, she is a writer of fiction, pop culture analysis, and social commentary (sometimes posting on her blog). In the moments in between, she lovingly pets her sorely neglected Ph.D. in philosophy.
Tobu World Square photo by Fred Hsu (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATobu_World_Square_Sherlock_Holmes_1.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.
Basketball photo by Adam Glanzman (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A20131203_Nik_Stauskas_against_Marshall_Plumlee.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.
DC Metro photo by FEMA (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFEMA_-_39784_-_Metro_riders_on_Inauguration_Day.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.