We have been trying, my wife and I, to sell our house and buy another, which is, as anyone who has been through it knows, just about the most fun you can have without losing a limb. I suppose if one is stinking rich, it’s another easy thing floating by on a river of ease, but if you are stinking rich, you probably aren’t reading this. Actually, if you are not a bot tasked with dumping phishing links cleverly disguised as ads for fake Ray-Bans in the comment section of this site, you probably aren’t reading this, but in any case: we are trying to do the sell-buy two-step and it is not much like fun.
The selling part is probably worse, since it involves keeping our current home as much like a hotel as possible, except a hotel where the sparse furnishings are your own, except that the furnishings are not really yours, inasmuch as you cannot treat, say, your coffee table with anything like the casual abandon that you did before, putting things like coffee cups on it, lest they spill, or books, lest they remind potential buyers of your disgusting presence in their dream home. Buying a house is slightly less stressful because you get to look at other people’s meticulously arranged stuff, realize they are far more obsessively tidy than you, and feel sympathy for their condition, which surely must get in the way of leading a richer, fuller life.
There is other stress associated with buying a house, of course—bidding wars, house inspections, the sense that no one really has your best interest at heart—but what bothers me most is going to see houses that are rental properties, and where the tenants have chosen to stay as you walk through, apologizing for your role as a threat to their continued happiness. A few days ago, we went to see a home occupied by refugees from Burma, a fact I discerned by the large, prominent posters of activist Aung San Suu Kyi displayed throughout, along with an understanding that the city of Buffalo, where my wife and I plan to move, has seen a strong influx of refugees from Burma in the last decade. They were more welcoming than most tenants are when you walk through their home, but I still could not shake loose from the fact that if we bought this house, they would be displaced yet again.
We thanked them and went to look at the attic, then came down a set of front stairs that led out of the house. I was overwhelmed with a desire to go back and tell the folks living there that I knew who Aung San Suu Kyi was, and that I respected her work. I know many people would simply chalk this up to guilt, at having to interrupt (and potentially disrupt) their lives, at recognizing what a comparatively privileged life I was living, compared to theirs, but it wasn’t guilt at all, feeling bad for being a chaotic force in a stranger’s life is not the same as feeling one is to blame for the situation that brought us together. It is comparable to the argument that a person cannot do good for another without thinking of the good it will do themselves, that we are always selfishly motivated, even when being altruistic, which is something selfish people often bring up to justify their own selfishness. Both arguments rest on an idea of the self as the most dominant, active figure in an individual’s psychic and spiritual landscape, a figure that casts a shadow over everything else in the world. It is not easy to resist this notion of identity, especially within a culture like we have in the United States, which encourages it, even institutionalizes it, because it is this sense of self that makes us more desperate consumers. And, of course, resisting this idea of self does not mean giving up all material possessions and living as itinerant monks, but rather that the material conditions of one’s life are simply one aspect of the path to a meaningful existence, important but not nearly as important as the recognition of other lives, of social contact, of saying to another person, “I see what is important to you, and that your life is as valuable as mine.”
I say this social aspect is more important because identity is not fixed thing, but a shimmering nexus of events, influences, and attitudes constantly formed and re-formed by our interactions with other people. To say we are more other people than we are ourselves is not inaccurate, I think, much like our bodies are made up of “our” cells, but also of bacteria, fungi, viruses, archea, and everything that goes into making up the microbiome. We can thus think of the human body as being partially our own and partially something alien to that body, or we can recognize that our bodies are part of a fluid system of interactions with our environment. And so it is with the self, and so it is that I wanted to go back and tell the folks in the house we looked at that I recognized that face of a woman they held in great esteem, because I recognized both the gulf between our experiences and the commonality of our humanity and found it fascinating and worth sharing. Then a car drove by blasting music so loud it caused the windows of neighboring cars to vibrate, and I forgot all about my desire to communicate with the tenants, until I woke last night and remembered, and remembered why my plan had gotten derailed, and decided to write it all down instead.