Some interesting tensions

This is a grab bag of tensions I wrestle with. They’re starting to take up too much space in my head, so I’m writing them down.

Agency vs determinism

If you zoom out, a lot of arguments around questions of redistribution and fairness often boil down to a debate around how much an individual’s actions are their own vs determined by circumstances outside of their control. On a smaller scale, I find myself often struggling to find the right balance between believing in my ability to enact change and cutting myself some slack.

When I was younger, I was all-in on individual agency, which I think I picked up from reading too many young adult novels. Through them, I came to believe that anything could happen if you only wanted it enough. Though naive, my belief in self-determination made me almost totally unflappable. I came to construe most events in my life as a result of effort. Everything had meaning. Every effect had a cause within my control.

Then as I got older, I’ve come to understand that causation for most things is murky at best. Looking back at my now much longer record of decisions, I can see that many forks that could have gone either way are now major determinants of my life. In others, I’ve come to see how early circumstances can ripple through one’s life in great and terrible ways. I mean, how can you believe in self-determination when simply drinking too much water from lead pipes can change a child’s personality? So here’s where I am on this today: on an individual level, I think of it a little like diving. When you’re in it, you hold your breath and act with full agency, but when you come up for air, you accept that life does not bend to your will.

Small vs strong self

One tenet of modern therapy is the concept of a small self, which is when you try to minimize what you consider, well, “you”. Your thoughts are not you. Your job is not you. Your passions are not you. You are the thing experiencing all these things.

The smaller your self is, the more resilient you are. It’s easier to differentiate having negative thoughts from believing and being those thoughts, easier to shed bad habits when they do not define you, easier to change course when a temporary injury becomes permanent, easier to reinvent yourself over and over again. But in my experience, it is also helpful to have a strong sense of self. When you know what you want, life sort of just lines up: you experience less FOMO, have more time to do what you want, and are more present when doing them.

So how do you both have a small and strong self? For me, it goes back to that old cliché of “strong beliefs, loosely held”. Applied to selfhood, this means being able to simultaneously strongly express and quickly shed identities. It’s hard when you have to constantly explain the change to your friends, and especially hard when you discover self-perceptions that you didn’t even know you had until you tried to shed them.

Yitong Zhang
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15 Apr 21
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Oakland, CA