is figuring out who you are a waste of time?
There’s this great quote by Zadie Smith: “He was bookish, she was not; he was theoretical, she political. She called a rose a rose. He called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice.”
These two people perfectly encapsulate the primary voices in constant conflict within my head. The fight’s rigged from the get-go: my brain works at warpspeed, spinning intellectual justifications out of thin air a million miles a minute while my heart sits there watching, not saying a word. I used to be more patient — I’d sit around staring at the wall as I tried to decipher my heart’s cryptic nonverbal communication. But this past year I somewhat gave up, letting the theoretical side of me take the reigns. It made quick work too: folding up and compartmentalizing many inefficient practices in my life that had historically, well, made me feel like myself. From hiking to photography, I left most of the practices I’d previously found joy in behind because they were no longer occuring naturally in my new environment. It wasn’t entirely intentional but it also wasn’t done obliviously — I think my brain took it as a bit of a challenge to see how much power it could hold.
The one practice I kept was writing. It made the cut because I can’t deny how many good things in my life have come as a result of my putting words out into the world. It also felt like a respite: one area where I wasn’t skeptical of my identity. I’m at my most courageous on the page because interrogating my feelings with words feels justified and purposeful in the case that it helps someone else understand the mess of the human condition. John Baldessari puts this best: “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” I have plenty of the latter.
The process of stripping all superfluous comforts from my life revealed just how much of my stability was rooted in my environment. Being surrounded by reminders of your patterns and past means you never have to define it. Without this luxury, alienation ensues. Which sucks, for a lot of reasons. One reason being that addressing this alienation requires tackling the daunting task of defining and defending your sense of self — a task I’ve always been resistant to and skeptical of, to say the least.
On one hand, I know the self is a made-up concept of the mind, that identity should be kept small, and that trying to pin myself down usually does more harm than good. On the other hand, when I sit down to write, I feel like every sentence disproves this. I feel the same way when I’m in Northern California, taking photos, or at a piano bench. These things make me feel like myself — there’s no better way of putting it. I know this can be intellectually explained by my pattern matching present experience with past memories in a way that feels comforting, but after experimenting with experiencing none of these comforts for a sizable period of time, I can definitively tell you that this explanation strikes me as wholly deficient in magnitude.
So how should I make sense of this? Here’s an intellectual explanation supplied by a very smart friend: the brain is constantly iterating on a mental model of our environment using sensory data (see: the free energy principle and predictive coding). While you’re not going to be able to pin your mental model down as a particular structure that persists, you can hold a predictive model of your own behavior based on pattern-matching from the past. And perhaps more crucially in understanding who you are: within the ever-changing dynamic system that we think of as the self, each of us seems to possess some minimal set of traits coupled with a distance function that defines them.
These minimal set of traits usually lead you to a pool of interests, beliefs, and desires. These are the types of things that have been both constants throughout your life and for which there is no more recursion left to do — you simply can’t break them down further or deny their prevailing prevalence in your experience of the world. These constants are what form the core of a person. For me: words, nature, art. Things that make me feel big things. People that seem particularly solid in their sense of self have usually elevated these persistent patterns to become non-negotiable cornerstones of their life.
Which is exactly what I didn’t do and paid the price for this past year. Listening to my heart would have told me this: I think the point of life is to feel deeply — mostly good stuff like love and pride, but also some bad stuff that broadens your spectrum of experience and allows you to better appreciate the good. For instance, I like sprinting through the city streets at midnight while listening to sad music because it makes my heart feel like it’s being put through the washing machine. I like Barry’s because they scream at me and blast the music so loud my thoughts get drowned out. Victoria Erickson has a good line on this: “When you’re deeply sensitive, love is ecstasy. Music is godlike. Heartache is a wide, somatic wound. Visual natural beauty is jewel-drenched, wild bliss. Tension and conflict are muscle tightening and toxic, straight down to the cells.” While I know that the sensitivity she describes is actually just an uninhibited thalamocortical loop (most commonly that way due to youth), I still think that for those of us who see it as our duty to document the human condition, feeling everything life has to offer is kinda the whole point of being here.
So here’s what I got: asking identity-related questions such as “who am I?” creates a layer of abstraction between emotion and perception that is largely just a distraction from action. Instead, it works better to just do. As Giannis Antetokounmpo once said, “When I focus on the past, that's my ego. When I focus on the future, it's my pride. I try to focus on the moment… in the present. That's humility.” Or as many have framed it to me: “Molly, maybe you should just chill the fuck out.”
What a beautiful read. And I love that Giannis quote.