How We Become What We Are
By Adam Simonini
People Are Space-Time Worms
When I see you, what I get is you, in the now, as you are. I get your running shoes, your dress shoes, or your rain boots; I get your goofy grin, your confident smile, or your smug smirk; I get your timid voice, your roaring laugh, or your innocent chuckle. What I do not get is why those things are you. I don’t get how those things became you, and you them. I don’t get that time you went camping with your uncle. I don’t get when you tried your hardest to please your parents but couldn’t. I don’t get the time you performed magnificently at your high school production of Romeo and Juliet. I don’t get that time you scored the winning goal during little league soccer, and how although no one — not even you — cares about it today, it meant the world to you at the time.
I don’t get your past when I get you. At best, I get reflections of it in who you are. I get the faint, lingering fragrance of your past when you are with me. It’s as if your past was in the room in which we now sit, but departed before either of us entered. I speak to you. Your present form consumes my vision, and has my attention. And yet… and yet there is a detectible fragrance in the room with us. It’s almost you, but not quite. Remnants of your past lightly linger, and when I take the time to really get a good whiff it betrays you to me.
We, all of us, are tunnels in time. The entrance to the tunnel is all I get upon the superficial glance. The sunlight only illuminates the entrance. The tunnel extends multitudes beyond what I see. However, if I am not careful I won’t even notice. I’ll take you to be just that flat, two-dimensional entrance way. I’ll assume that you are just what is revealed to me from this limited perspective, constrained by time and space. This section of the article borrows ideas from an ontological theory on time called “four-dimensionalism”. Direct links to more about this philosophical theory of time are as follows: Wikipedia and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Our Natural Disposition Is Present-Orientated
Imagine the newest iteration of the Android OS at the time of writing: 6.0.1. It is an upgrade to 6.0.0. While not incorrect, that is of course not the end of the story. The in-depth story — the real story — is that each version built upon the last, and that 6.0.1 exists only because 5.0 existed, and 4.0 before that, and so on. To treat 6.0.1 as a standalone piece of software, one that spontaneously came into existence by forces beyond us is our default cognitive disposition. Thankfully I don’t have to think about all the previous versions in order to understand and navigate the OS. To believe, however, that our natural and limited perspective on 6.0.1 constitutes the full reality of 6.0.1 is fallacious. Although we don’t actively make such an assumption about people, we do so unthinkingly. We act as if they spontaneously appeared just to be in our personal movie for a moment or two.
Developing The Worm You Are
When we meet someone in the here and now, what we get is a preassembled man or woman. He or she has certain traits that have calcified through experiences over long periods of time. As the man develops he either becomes more lively, passionate, and confident, or less so. Each stage of his development into what he is features several key moments, and each of these moments is like a fork in the road for some trait (or sets of traits).
Take confidence, for example. At a certain point in our youth our experiences started to leave imprints on us, and to mould us. At 8 we could have developed more confidence or more shyness. There were, and are, several forks in the road. No one experience definitively establishes us as one thing over another. Instead, each experience makes it more likely for us to become more of whatever path it leads down. Like a rolling stone, we begin to pick up momentum. Our inertia means that once we have momentum in one direction, deviation will require extra effort.
Trait development is comparable to driving on one of two roads heading in the same direction. The roads lead to one of two outcomes: outspoken or timid. The length of either road represents time. At the start the roads are adjacent to each other. Making a change from one lane to the other requires very little effort; the smallest of hand movements will do. Driving along, the roads incrementally diverge from one another. One lane slants left while the other slants right. For the first few kilometers, changing roads is definitely not impossible. It’ll take a little time and effort, but it can be done. As time marches forward still, the separation between the roads becomes increasingly vast. Notice how the road, due to its very structure, makes it more likely that one will stay on it the longer he or she drives it. We lose sight of the other road. Obstacles such as rives and mountains separate the roads from each other. The distance becomes extreme. Changing roads becomes a massive endeavour. At the beginning there was a choice that could be made and instantiated in the moment: road A or road B. As the years pass that choice evaporates. The choice now becomes between driving 3 days off the path, up a mountain, and across a rickety bridge, or keeping the status quo.
Often, You Aren’t Blameworthy
Self-blame and feeling guilty are often the result of a breakdown in understanding. If I place expectations on myself right now for my performance in the near future, then those expectations had better take into account who I am. I will have failed to consider who I am if I expect to sprout wings and fly in 5 minutes. I will have also failed if I expect to perform an intricate piano piece next week. I will have also failed to consider who I am if I expect to be the life of the party at my first party in 5 years. The aforementioned expectations are unfair. The guilt felt by not achieving them is uncalled for.
I am a fatalist about this point, and I believe that fatalism here promotes staying present. In other words, if you fail to save money for your retirement, you ought not to blame yourself because you did exactly what you were going to do with your money: everything but save it. If you fail to ask Suzie to the dance, don’t beat yourself up about it — it was never going to happen anyway. Let me put it this way: autonomy is a necessary condition for blame, but autonomy we have not. A fatalistic perspective allows one to let go of the past as “that which was and had to have been”. Analyzing the past can be fruitful. However, I am proposing that not only is accepting guilt or regret from the past fruitless, it is also literally incorrect.
The Obligations Of Past Rumination
Draw A Better Map And Build A Better Ship.
You have little to no obligation to yourself, nor to others, to continually feel guilty for your past actions. There is a saying in English that reads “Actions speak louder than words!” Don’t speak of guilt. Rather, show your commitment to never making the same mistake again. Adjust your map. Discover new values. Find new paths. Adopt different and often conflicting views. Present your mind with paradoxes and work through them as opposed to disengaging with them. From there, build a new ship. Create a vessel able to explore new paths, surf new currents, and survive life’s tempestuous paradoxes. Accept where you have come from, that given who you were and the circumstances you were under things could not have been different, and then move forward. Maximize and let it go. Like steeping a strong, earthy tea; extract all the value and goodness you can from your lifeless past; drink it; tolerate its bitter bite; place the cup back down; and put it out of mind until next tea time.
Originally published at adamsimonini.com on January 8, 2016.