CS Help Shape Our Extended Selves

In 1964, close to a thousand young Americans from cushy middle- and upper-class homes put themselves in harm’s way to participate in Freedom Summer which many historians cite as the beginning of what we now think of as “the Sixties.”   To withstand the dangers and to hold on to a new vision of America, each volunteer had to summon his “extended self”–the part of our identity that is tied to another person or social group.  As I explain in “We Become Who We’re With” in Chapter 3:

Our extended selves are continually affected by consequential strangers.  In the course of any given day, each encounter leaves us with impressions–images and ideas that in turn color our perception and influence our behavior.  We then bring that newly informed self into our next encounter, where we exchange more impressions.

The volunteers’ sense of self was forever changed as a result of their participation in Freedom Summer, and many other paradigm shifts in history have been driven by the same dynamics.  As sociologist Doug McAdam told me, “a movement can’t spread without the influence of weak, bridging ties.”  Translation:  Consequential strangers can take us beyond our comfort zone.

For a more current example, consider the NFL players’ participation in Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which began on October 1.  The macho men of the gridiron deck themselves out in–what?  Hot pink.  Talk about a paradigm shift.  But there’s a reason they can go beyond their individual selves.  Read why in my Psychology Today blog, “Will Pink Cleats Help NFL Players Win the Game?

You, go, Gail!

I just spoke with Gail, one of the members of my “community” of CS, a woman whose story and spirit really touched me. Gail is a breast cancer survivor who is featured in the chapter on health. She lives in Vancouver, BC, where she and a group of other survivors –women literally in the same boat — take part in “dragon boating,” a sport borrowed from the Chinese. When I first interviewed Gail, her cancer had returned, and she talked about how much easier it was for her to share the news with her team, than her family. After I finished the manuscript, I contacted Gail again, who shared with me that the doctors had ordered a new round of chemo. Again, she mentioned that it was easier to talk to me about what was going on than the people closest to her. I was struck by her courage and honesty and made a point of staying in touch. I worried when she didn’t return my emails or calls. Finally, a few weeks ago, she sent me an email saying that the doctors could do no more for her. They gave her two weeks to live. That was two months ago. When I last spoke with her, she was on her way out to walk her dog. She’s back on the water with her team, too. I told her that she’s “pulling an Art Buchwald”! The book will be out in August, and I imagine that she’s just spunky enough to still be here. I plan to send her a copy.