Tracing the development of insights (teleology/ontology/epistemology)

This is a really, really long post. I won’t be hurt if you skip it. But for my own records, it’s important, and so I’m writing it down.

Teleology/ontology/epistemology* (see endnote!)

When I reread old blog posts, I’m often amazed at how clearly certain lines of thought trace back through the years. In the present moment it’s so easy to think of myself as essentially unchanged from my previous selves, but reading my journal tells me that’s not so. Yes, there are fundamental and recurring character traits (compassion, breadth of interests), but they haven’t always manifested themselves the same way from year to year. Likewise, aspects of myself that I now think of as integral, weren’t always: for example, when I skim through a period from about 2003-06, I am always shocked at the absence of anything visual-creative in my life. My current self is always a product of gradual evolution as well as more jarring ruptures… and it’s also not a product, but is only one more step toward a future self who is yet still in the evolution process!

Er, back to my first sentence, I’m often amazed at the way I can trace lines of thought back through old journal entries, from inception to the present moment. For example, there’s my relationship with meat, which I can trace from my first posts about factory farming in 2001 to my return to meat-eating around 2010 to “Chickens.”

It’s easy to trace this evolution, because it’s so concrete: meat, or no meat; all paths lead to one or the other. But abstractions are more difficult. When a homeless man on the subway brings me to tears, where does that line of thought lead — on which personal-insight trajectory is that episode but a single point? (Or, more likely, on which several trajectories is that episode a notable point?) I don’t always know — in fact I almost never know — but I’ll write about it anyway, exploring the uncomfortable emotions and processing the new thoughts, until I come to some kind of insight that serves me for a while. Later I’ll do the same with something else, and then something else, until finally — months or years later — a clear thread has formed and I can look it over and say, “Ah, that’s where this all started.” I don’t always understand what the thread has become, but I can see how it’s developed, and recognize that the “random” thing I felt compelled to write about is actually part of a larger series of questions that shape who I am and what I do. (I think of them as problems, because they come to me that way: the problem of being an outsider, the problem of feeling not good enough, and so on.)

The problems of interacting with other people

I’ve been thinking about this because this morning I sat down to write about Kuukua’s lovely party I went to last night, and the UCB history alumni event I went to last week, and somehow the entry I wrote ended up not being about those events, but about the problem of how I think of myself in relation to other people. Then I realized that this is a problem I’ve been turning over for a very long time, and in the past few years very actively. Of course, all these “problems” are essential to who I am, so they trace back to childhood, but I think the reason this particular problem has been so active lately has to do with the new friends I made at VONA and IWL.

At VONA in 2010, I found myself for the first time ever in a large, committed community of writers, thinkers, and activists. (God, that makes my academic colleagues sound like clueless denizens of the ivory tower. They weren’t. Well, not all of them. But let’s save that discussion, shall we?) Last summer’s IWL got me even deeper into this community, which meant more socializing, which got me thinking about my “problem.” There is a huge disparity between my old friends and my new ones (allowing, of course, for some people who can fit into both camps); I alluded to this a little here, when I mentioned that I have friends among whom I am the most radical and other friends among whom I’m the most conservative. For the past couple of years I have done a lot of thinking and writing on how confusing it can be to live in this in-between (go-between?) space.

At the same time — weaving a parallel thread into this one — I have, much more recently (as in the past few months), been coming to terms with myself as a highly social being. Around New Year’s my youngest sister discovered the Myers-Briggs test (which I love), and so everyone in my family took the questionnaire, with some interesting results. Relevant here is the finding that Erik is, according to the test, 98% introvert, whereas I am almost exactly on the midline, with a slight preference for extraversion. In MBTI terms, someone may attend parties every week but still qualify as an introvert; the terms don’t describe habits, but motivation. An introvert recharges during alone time; an extravert feeds off of social activity. We see this clearly in the after-midnight aftermath of a party: I’m bouncing off the walls, and Erik is collapsed on the bed swearing off all events for the next month. In the past I’ve acquiesced to Erik’s homebody preferences because, hey, as someone who’s in the middle, I don’t mind and I need my quiet time too. But I’m starting to think that we are going to need to adopt slightly different social habits…

When I look over the past half-year or so, there has been a marked decline in the amount of socializing we’ve been doing. Our once monthly parties dropped to one every three months or so, and several good friends moved away. I thought I was okay with this — and maybe I was for a time — but if you read my posts from December, it’s easy enough to see that I wasn’t (and was starting to realize it, in the last few paragraphs of this post). Luckily, I had my birthday party, and in the past few weeks I have been seeing as many people as possible, in preparation for moving abroad where we know very few people. Erik hasn’t liked this active new social schedule, but I love it. (Fortunately for our marriage, compromise is possible; the past two events I went to alone, and I think that worked out okay.)

No more acting

So — if anyone is still reading this novella of a post — how do these two threads come together? Well, I’ve discovered that I’m starting to put into practice what I decided to do at the beginning of this year: cultivate a feeling of ease in different social situations. As I wrote then, I’m so sick of meeting new people in a mindset of insecurity and anxiety; I’m over thinking I have to present myself in a certain way in order to gain approval. When I sat down to write about the two most recent parties, it dawned on me that the way I used to feel was that I was playing a role. When I was around strangers, I felt like I’d better act really confident, or learned, or even just plain cute, because if I didn’t, someone might find out that I wasn’t really all that cool or interesting. I had a fear of exposure.

The funny thing about this was, if I was in a situation where I’d been clearly designated as an authority or a guest of honor, I felt like I was already accepted, and that let me drop my fear. Without my usual neurotic self-consciousness, I could step more easily into my naturally extraverted self, and engage with people in a state I think of as “on.” I have been told that when I am “on” I have a presence, a charismatic attractiveness, and a very engaging sense of humor. Opinions differ of course, but in “on” state I felt better about myself: better looking, more witty, better liked. (Hmm, so: I don’t need alcohol, I just need flattery as my social lubrication?) It was a role I was happy to play, but it still felt like a role (“today I’m going to be the cool young literacy instructor!” “today I’m going to be the earnest PhD student!” “today I’m the up-and-coming writer-artist!”), which is why I still got awkward and uncomfortable at parties where there wasn’t anyone to introduce me, or where my “credentials” wouldn’t matter.

The role-playing got especially awful when I began moving constantly between two disparate groups — as in my old friends and the new artist-activist ones — because I was always afraid that someone from one of the groups was going to find me out. I think it was this fear, as much as anything, that kept me from socializing very much last year. But now that I’ve decided to just be myself, and realized that I’m happiest when I get to see a lot of people, I feel well equipped to move out into the world and be “on” as much as I please. And that’s what started this whole post: looking at this insight into myself and seeing that I can trace it all the way back to being at VONA and feeling kind of funny about where I fit into that group, but loving it all the same. Maybe from here on out I will be socializing much more and more happily. Maybe I won’t, but I’ll know how I feel about it. Either way, I am feeling comfortable about my social life and my place among others in a way that I haven’t for a long long time.

*EndnoteWhat the heck?!

I was trying to come up with a way to describe this insight-tracing that I’m doing, but I couldn’t think of the word. I could only come up with these three terms, all of which are somewhat relevant and not quite adequate.

As I understand them:

(1) Teleology means that things unfold toward a certain endpoint. In history, a teleological account might be one that describes all of American politics post-1776 as a precursor to our current political environment. IMO teleology is an important component of storytelling, but inaccurate for real life. Everything is an endpoint, a midpoint, and a starting point of everything else.

(2) Ontology deals with the nature of being or existence. You could see my blog and my private journals as ontological efforts, in that they are attempts to understand, define, and map the nature of my individual existence.

(3) Epistemology concerns knowledge and the history of knowledge: what we know and how we know it. Insofar as this post is about tracing the development of important insights in my life, it’s maybe epistemological. I don’t know. My eyes used to glaze over whenever I encountered this word in grad school.

It’s my belief that all these -ologies and other such theory terms are great tools that are dreadfully abused, maybe because they’re so damn hard to grasp, much less explain. I never thought I would use any of these words for any reason, but in writing this post I really found myself wanting a term for what I was doing with my old journal entries. If anyone knows of such a term, I’d be glad to hear it.