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The Opportunity of Multiple (Aspects of Our) Personalities

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about our natural desire to want to “create” our identity. The idea is that we want to be the ones in control of how we see ourselves, and when we are denied that opportunity, we’re likely to push back.

In the last few days, there have been several new articles about how Americans don’t want to be boxed in when it comes to our sense of identity. Sunday’s New York Times had an article entitled “More Young Americans Identify as Mixed Race,” and author Susan Saluny notes that

[m]any young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity. Ask Michelle López-Mullins, a 20-year-old junior and the president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”

But while it’s not a surprise that young Americans want to choose how they present themselves in different situations, what is surprising is that when people do have a chance to embrace multiple aspects of their identity, they end up being significantly more creative. Author Jonah Lehrer explains:

According to a study led by Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, people who describe themselves as both Asian and American, or see themselves as a female engineer (and not just an engineer), consistently display higher levels of creativity.

In the first experiment, the researchers gathered together a large group of Asian Americans and asked them to design a dish containing both Asian and American ingredients. In the second study, they asked female engineers to design a new mobile communication device. In both cases, subjects who are better able to draw on their mixed backgrounds at the same time were more creative than those who could only draw on one of their backgrounds. They designed tastier dishes and came up with much better communication devices.

Because their different social identities were associated with different problem-solving approaches, their minds remained more flexible, better able to experiment with multiple creative strategies.In contrast, Asian Americans who felt that they had to “turn off” their Asian background in an American setting – this is an example of “low identity integration” – or female engineers who believed that they had to be less feminine to be effective at work, had a harder time drawing on their wealth of background knowledge. (Jonah Lehrer’s “Frontal Cortex” blog — “The Advantage of Dual Identities”)

I think there’s a clear reason why people with multiple senses of identity were more creative — they had started by needing to create their selves. If we have to think about who we are — a most basic and fundamental question — in new and inventive ways, then we’ll be that much more likely to start thinking of programs, products, and situations in new and inventive ways, as well.

And that provides a great opportunity to the American Jewish community, which by definition, involves at least two aspects of our identity — “American” and “Jewish.” As Rabbi Elie Kaunfer notes in his book Empowered Judaism:

That Jews are increasingly unwilling to settle for a broad definition is a positive. Why? Because someone can no longer get away with telling you “I am Orthodox” (ed. note: or equivalently, “I am Reform”) and assume that you understand what kind of Jew she is. Instead, people are forced to explain why they practice in a particular way or what, specifically, they believe in. A world without convenient categories is a world that calls on people to take more ownership of the type of Judaism they want to practice in the world…It is a major step forward because it leads to a rich discussion about what being Jewish means in our richly textured, highly individualized, twenty-first-century lives. (Kaunfer, Empowered Judaism, 147-148)

Quite simply, creativity leads to ownership. Indeed, at a recent session to learn about community organizing (a process Temple Beth El is going through now), there was a line that stuck with me: “People are not transformed by what they receive. They are transformed by what they create.”

For better or for worse in our society, we get to create our identity. So the question is whether or not that’s the end of the discussion. Do we simply say, “This is who I am,” or do we go further and say instead, “This is who I am…and this is what I want to create with it.”

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Why We Should be More Like Robin Hood

In an interview in 2010, Oscar winner Russell Crowe explained why he took on the role of Robin Hood in the movie of the same name. He felt like “there [wa]s something wonderful about a story that has lasted for so long. Its core thing, the thing that attract[ed] me, and has attracted me since I was a five-year-old kid…is that there is some guy out there who will go out and work on behalf of the people who can’t do something for themselves.”

So what is about the Robin Hood story that makes it so enduring?

Perhaps the Robin Hood still resonates for us because we have a natural aversion to too much income inequality. A recent study by economists Michael Norton and Dan Ariely found that

[w]hile liberals and the poor favored slightly more equal distributions than conservatives and the wealthy, a large majority of every group we surveyed – from the poorest to the richest, from the most conservative to the most liberal – agreed that the current level of wealth inequality was too high and wanted a more equitable distribution of wealth. In fact, Americans reported wanting to live in a country that looks more like Sweden than the United States. (“Inequality Aversion” in Jonah Lehrer’s blog “The Frontal Cortex”)

Certainly, if we are lucky enough to be comfortable, we probably feel like we have earned our success (and hopefully, we actually did earn it!). But many of us have also faced difficult and challenging times. If we live long enough, we begin to recognize that luck often plays a large part in how wealthy we are at any given moment. And when we become aware of the hand of fortune in the monetary realm, we also start to realize that there may be value in helping lessen the gap between “rich” and “poor.”

The Relationship Between Rich and Poor

The Rabbis believed that if we do happen to live comfortably, that’s wonderful – but it also entails certain responsibilities:

“In the day of prosperity, enjoy the prosperity” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Rabbi Tanchum bar Chiyya said, “In the day of your fellow man’s prosperity, rejoice with him. And in the day of adversity, reflect. If adversity confronts your fellow, consider how to do him a kindness and save him…But why does God create both poor people and rich people? In order for them to draw riches from each other, as it says, ‘God has made one for the other’ (Ecclesiastes 7:14).” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, 28 in Rabbi Jill Jacobs, There Shall Be No Needy, 55)

If we are prosperous, we are certainly allowed to enjoy it. But we also know that prosperity can become adversity all too easily. And if that is the case, then we can see that helping others is clearly a responsibility we have.

But what is truly fascinating is that giving money to help others actually makes us feel better than simply having money. Author Jonah Lehrer describes a Caltech study where people were randomly selected to be “rich” or “poor” and the “rich” people were immediately given $50. They were then placed in a brain scanner and given an opportunity to give some of that money to a stranger. Amazingly, the reward center in their brains lit up when the “rich” people were giving money to a “poor” stranger! As he notes:

The scientists speculate that people have a natural dislike of inequality. In fact, our desire for equal outcomes is often more powerful (at least in the brain) than our desire for a little extra cash. It’s not that money doesn’t make us feel good – it’s that sharing the wealth can make us feel even better. (“Inequality Aversion” in Jonah Lehrer’s blog “The Frontal Cortex”)

Perhaps the Robin Hood story endures even up to today because thinking about “giving to the poor” simply makes us feel good (although certainly just “taking from the rich” is not what we should do!). So maybe we should strive to become a bit more like Robin Hood on the “giving” part of that equation — not only would it make the world more fair, it would make us feel better, as well.

As we give to others, we can find simchat mitzvah, the joy in fulfilling a mitzvah, which not only makes our world a little more whole, it elevates our souls a little more, as well.

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