on trusting yourself
I‘m drunk on the particular crispness in the air that emerges late in September. Fall: yellow aspen leaves, clean blue sky, goosebumps on my thighs as I walk naked from the shower to the bedroom for a change of clothes. Friends are visiting and it's nice being around people after months of aloneness marinating in my own thoughts. I've noticed that writing requires an incredible amount of certainty: faith in your own observations, in the quality of your thoughts, in the narrative you're putting down on paper. I often say that I write to think but it might be more accurate to say that I write to know: to establish my reality and understand how I operate within it, to examine what I feel and decide how I respond.
How you feel determines what you believe, and what you believe determines everything: how you treat yourself, how you treat other people, what you do when no one's looking. I naturally think of belief as a deeply aesthetic thing: what you find beautiful and ugly in political and epistemic and domestic domains. Our aesthetic opinions dominate the world: the cities we live in, the laws we use to shape our society, the way we take of our vulnerable. What people call morality seems often merely aesthetic to me these days. That feels criminal since I have spent many years reading and loving Parfit, but there's something about even his approach that feels deeply aesthetic to me: he thinks that utility is beautiful. Parfit loved Kant, who believed that taste (or aesthetic judgement) shared characteristics engaged in a moral judgement: both are disinterested, and we hold them to be universal.
I notice that many people I know need constant validation of their beliefs. It's important to them that people think their startup is successful, that their job is prestigious, that their friends are cool. They lean towards praise the same way sunflowers learn towards light: they bloom in its glow, and wither as soon as it's retracted. I was very much the same way growing up: Chinese culture pushes children aggressively towards the most socially-validated paths of achievement. If your son goes to Harvard and becomes a doctor then you can brag about him to all your friends. But these days reactive ways of living make me sad. If your judgement is always derivative, ripped from your community or your friends, how can you ever trust yourself? How can you ever sit in a dark room and know what you want when all sources of validation are stripped away? Writing has taught me how to be alone: how to pay attention when no one is paying attention to me. As I observe and describe I start to learn what I find beautiful.
If you don't delineate reality for yourself, other people will rush in to do it for you. Even when I first started tweeting there were immediately a million dudes telling me I was funny or not funny or too pessimistic or too flowery or whatever. I either matched their aesthetic or clashed with it, and they wanted me to know. To this day I hate that kind of comment, the implied arrogance: as if their opinion on what I do with my life is some final referendum. I guess it's my own fault that I've always liked dominant people, people who think they can redefine reality on their own terms and that your resistance to their opinion is futile. But I'm no different: I believe in my own taste and judgment. That's what allows me to be creative, to tell you what I like and what I don't like, to decide how I want someone to treat me. It forces me to take responsibility for my own actions and beliefs: to say, I chose this for myself, and I'll live with the consequences. I can't bear people who aren't direct, who are evasive about what they want and what they've done: as Ben told me once, there are people who refuse to do something they think is morally questionable, and then there are all the people who'll do it but pretend they haven‘t. I don’t want to hide from myself just to please other people.
So I continue to read books and watch people and make friends and write it all down, iterating upon reality, learning what I like. I'll admit it to you: I'm wrong all the time. But choice by choice, thought by thought, I'm teaching myself who I am and how I act. Joan Didion: “To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent." Trust in yourself allows you to continue existing in a dark room when no one is watching: it gives you courage to break out of the box and take the faster route to truth: it opens you up to beauty and honesty and character, all the good things in this world.
Sounds a bit like a polarity: two virtues in tension with each other. Here: The freedoms of individual self-determination vs the benefits of adopting the embedded competence of a culture?
If you haven't come across these yet, have you read Kegan's developmental stages (socialized mind, etc.). W/ caveat that this is often used as a totem for folks to posture with. The original work is good, though! A bit like Mazlow's hierarchy: the pop culture version is so watered down it may as well be homeopathy.