Bright Breakage

"Do you know the pride of the beggar?," my friend asked me. "I don't know," I responded.

"He's not a thief."

Not sure how I found out, but my friend had recently been released from prison, and was living on the street in our small town. We agreed to meet in a small park in the town center. I brought some packaged food, a small amount of money, and a carton of cigarettes. Palliative care. A placebo? I couldn't see the possibility of changing his condition.

As poignant as this was, my friend wasn't taking on the invective directed his way, all day, in the public nature of his condition. He had a possession: an identity: he was not a thief.

He got here through another identity he possessed. He committed his crime, because he was doing a favor for someone he identified as a friend. It was an illegal favor, and, nonetheless, an act of loyalty. He was born into, and grew up in, desperate circumstances. His only physical possessions were ephemeral -- like the cigarettes. For those of you who have never been imprisoned or without means of support, you may not know cigarettes are currency. In these contexts, they're traded for favors.

His enduring possessions were symbolic ones -- his identities -- not a thief, loyal; these two together with an ancient quality known as longsuffering, which is what I would call the ability to endure what for me would be life-crushing hardship. These were what brought him down, and were consequently what allowed him to survive once there.

Daniel Kahneman, whose death I learned of today, was a person rich with identities and knew better than perhaps anyone how much an identity is a symbol, and not predictive of behavior. The symbol can take on a power that can overcome what we think is "real."

John Ciardi in his poem True or False gives us an example.

Real emeralds are worth more than syntheticsbut the only way to tell one from the otheris to heat them to a stated temperature,then tap. When it’s done properlythe real one shatters.

I have no emeralds.I was told this about them by a womanwho said someone had told her. True or false,I have held my own palmful of bright breakagefrom a truth too late. I know the principle.

Kahneman, born with Jewish identity in British-occupied Palestine almost 100 years ago, whose family moved to Paris only to fall under the Nazi occupation, had identity threat as a formative condition. While his life's work explored the risks and dark sides of identity-induced biases, he questioned whether we have any real power to resist them.

A psychoanalyst of my acquaintance once caught me saying to another, "You're right. I was wrong." He encouraged me to keep doing that. Doing so requires letting go of pride: sparkly, maybe unbreakable, and false.

As I am completing this post on a Good Friday morning, I'm calling to mind a thief. This thief in the agony of his torture, nonetheless turned to his companion in suffering to acknowledge in words to the effect of "I'm wrong; You're right."

Admitting this is an identity threat for me. I'm right a lot. I work hard at it. My lesson from the Nobel laureate, the psychoanalyst, and the thief is to be caught being wrong, and confessing it.

Warm regards,

Francis Sopper

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