Tonight I was rewatching last week's Dollhouse episode, "Instincts," on Fox.com, and I came across a profound realization. You see, thanks to my dear fiance, I am a devoted Joss Whedon fan (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and now Dollhouse - I love them all!), and Joss's shows are so well-constructed that you basically HAVE to watch them at least twice to really get what he's saying. And tonight's rewatching did not leave me disappointed.
I was watching the scene where Echo and Paul Ballard are at the deserted park, after Echo realizes that the baby she's been programmed to love as her own isn't truly hers. She tells him how she still feels everything, even in her "wiped" state - the love for her baby and the pain of losing him. She tells him how "they" make everything so real; she was not pretending to feel love or suffering, she truly felt them. When Ballard tries to reassure her that once she's wiped again she won't remember any of the pain, she responds that feeling pain is better than feeling nothing.
At some point while watching that exchange, something clicked with me: the situation the actives are in isn't unlike the situation that, according to Buddhist thought, we are all in. When an active is programmed with a certain personality and life history, he or she believes fully that that is his or her true identity. At the end of each engagement, the active's brain is wiped clean and all traces of that particular life and identity are removed. They remain in an in-between, bardo-like state until they are programmed with a completely new history and personality.
Like these actives, with each life we're "programmed" with a certain identity, which is constructed by the world around us, our life experiences, and our own ideas about who we should be. We go through our lives fully believing that the identity we know is our true, real identity. We love, we hurt - we experience genuine feelings. At the end of our life, we're - theoretically - wiped clean and ready to begin a new life, with a new identity that we fully believe is ours.
But, like the actives, we never really lose the identities we've been programmed with; we just forget about them. They get buried somewhere beneath the layers of each new life. The tabula rasa idea doesn't really work because, as Caroline (soon to be Echo) says, if you try to clean an actual slate, you can still see what was on it before.
The show "Dollhouse" is centered on Echo's awakening to her true identity. As Echo becomes aware of the different people she has been, she is at a loss to tell which one is truly her. Ballard, in this respect, serves as her spiritual guide: he encourages her on her path of self-discovery and reminds her of her true identity as Caroline. He is concerned with helping her break down the barriers of illusions that obscure her true self.
Like Echo, we've had many identities placed upon us, all of which we fully believed were true, though none of them were. And though all of these identities are a part of us, our own true identity is something quite different. And like Echo, our task is to awaken to our true self.