Yesterday, I took a fun dose of a psychedelic drug. Last week, I wrote an essay called Your Identity Makes the World a Worse Place. Now, I’m going to write about what connects these seemingly disparate events — thoughts about nuance, and about being strong, and about being compassionate, and about doing the right thing.
To better understand this, it might be worth reading last week’s piece first, but I’ll summarize the gist of my argument with the following distinctions that I made between a sense of self and an identity and why it’s generally bad to put an identity before your individuality.
“The self is the emotional relationship you have with your physical body, as defined by the linguistic concepts you use to make sense of reality. It is purely individual, and it is a personal experience. Identity is the projection of some part of this self into a larger, collective story shared with other people [that creates an Us vs. Them narrative]…
Naturally, it’s worth noting that many groups engaged in Us vs. Them battles aim for constructive resolution through healthy debate and criticism, but generally when identity is involved at scale, rather than resolution, the goal of the group slowly morphs away from doing what is seemingly right into whatever it takes to destroy Them because this collective identity has become more important than the agency and the autonomy of the self…
Now, the reason that the self gives up its agency and autonomy for an identity is simple: When there is unresolved pain that hasn’t been observed and reconciled internally to a satisfactory degree, the self looks for another outlet of expression, finding the perfect vehicle in an identity that can blame someone else for that pain — that can hate someone else for that pain. In this sense, groups of collectives that fight each other are really projections of internal, individual traumas on scale. Hate is a second-order effect of repressed pain, and identity is the second-order effect of an unhealed self…
People who are exceptionally tribal in their social views and in their politics project their pain into an identity, valuing the supremacy of their subjectivity and its experience. But in the process of doing so, they negate the pain and the subjectivity of people on the other side who are essentially doing the same thing. They want to be seen, but in the process of absorbing themselves in their own self-centeredness of what is good and what is bad, they deny that same possibility to those on the opposite end, because hating both yourself and other people is far easier than dealing with your own pain and compassionately acknowledging the pain of someone who is completely different from you.”
It’s the old cliche that before you set out to change the world, you should have the courage to change yourself. You need to love yourself, fix yourself, before you earn the right to challenge what’s out there, because otherwise, your intentions are born out of misplaced hate rather than rational criticism, no matter how much you temporarily delude yourself. Of course, none of us are perfect and simply waiting for that day to come before looking to inspire change is its own form of naivete, but the core idea that the self should come before identity is what’s important here, and I still stand by it. But there is also another side to this coin that I hadn’t fully hashed out then.
There were two forms of useful feedback that I got from that piece. First, the objection was that it’s fine and well to say you are going to put your own sense of self before a collective label, but what about the judgment and the labels that other people place on you in big and small ways every single day. What about the unconscious attitudes of sexism or racism you put up with at work? What about the stereotypes that someone else enforces on your disability? How can you not become that identity when that’s all someone sees you as, no matter where you go, no matter what you say? And the second feedback was essentially: “Everything you say is right, but if the perils of identity are worth talking about because they are getting worse today, perhaps it’s just as important to realize that there are certain forces at work that are creating more and more fear in the world to drive this.”
I’ve thought about the first of these things in the past myself. I’m a person of color, and I grew up poor enough to know about the disadvantages that puts on you. I’ve also got a past filled with other damaging experiences that would give any therapist a full calendar to work with. I tend to not talk about these things, just like I don’t talk about every way in which I am unbelievably lucky to be where I am. But my answer to people who worry about other people placing judgment or forcing an identity on them has generally always been the same — be tougher: be more aware: be internally powerful. Other people’s judgments are an opportunity to generate intrigue and mystery and to become more interesting yourself.
If someone judges you negatively for your gender, or your skin color, or your disability, what does that matter? Are you scared that they are right in their judgment? Is that why it evokes anger? How is that anything other than an opportunity to prove them wrong? Is it fair that you have to do so and that it makes things harder for you than they are for others? Of course not. But nothing is fair. In fact, if anything, this is a gift. You were dealt a complex hand, a hand that gives you something to overcome to become more of who you are and that pays dividends for the rest of your days because life is long and the ability to fight and to let go and to persist is what matters most. You don’t change things by submitting to other people’s judgments; you change things by re-framing their model of reality by proving them wrong.
Except, when I thought about the second objection to my first piece — that there is something that is driving more and more fear in people today — I realized that this alone isn’t it. Toughness and overcoming are one part of it, but humans are mortal, and there are only so many odds you can fight without getting some sort of a helping hand.
I mentioned doing some psychedelic drugs yesterday. I don’t know what the general cultural opinion on them is right now, but it seems that more people understand their benefits and that the stigma of fear around them is fading. I’ve personally never used them for any therapeutic reasons. I just find them interesting and fun, and I think that they can make things beautiful and chaotic and orderly all at the same time. And perhaps once or twice a year, it’s nice to be reminded of the fact that our perceptions, our certainties, stand on a lot shallower of a ground than most of us realize.
Either way, at around a low to medium dose, one thing I find these drugs do is that they essentially remove most of the rational, linguistic scaffolding that we use to hold both our inner self and the outer world together. Reality, in a sense, then, becomes waves of moods and emotions. Details take on a life of their own. Things are no longer static.
Yesterday, I spent a fair amount of time walking. I’m in what I consider one of the most beautiful cities in the world right now, and I wanted to experience its history, its modernity, and its nature in a different way. As I walked, the mood in the park was different from the mood in the city center which was different from the mood in the surrounding areas. Now, if you’re not familiar with these kinds of experiences, you may be inclined to shake your head a little at my temporary, self-imposed delusion, but when I talk about these moods, I’m not talking about something mystical or imagined. I’m talking about the culture that is in the air in any given place, and this general culture is shaped by who is walking around in that space, how it looks, the way it is built, the level of trust within the interactions that occur there and so on.
In many cases, psychedelics simply fine-tune your senses to pick up on subtler things that your unconscious also notices but chooses to ignore because all the extra information isn’t useful for daily life. But yesterday this information was useful. And it was particularly useful to contrast the mood moving from an affluent part of the city to a less affluent one. There was no feeling of threat or fear or suspicion in the former. Mostly beauty, mostly color. Not so in the latter, though. People moved differently there. People talked differently there. People lived differently there. There was nothing wrong with the people themselves there, of course, and I’m familiar enough with neighborhoods of varying degrees of affluence that it’s not a shock personally, but the interesting thing was to notice the silent current of expectation and status-identity and meaning that existed there about what humanness is and how that limits people. And these are things that we are visibly blind to because the day to day consciousness of our brain can’t pick up on it.
We know from an abundance of scientific research that poor people, for example, suffer more health risks for no other reason than the fact that society and their neighborhood and their surrounding culture reinforces the fact that they are poor and that creates silent, background levels of stress in their life. We also know that success and winning tend to provide leverage and that they compound towards more growth, whereas feelings of lacking control and losing tend to move in the opposite direction.
The differences of mood that I sensed between different parts of the city are the same unconscious moods that we are all born into, things that we have no say in, things that either stack the odds in our favor or against us — and in the case of the more unfortunate among us — things that are so deeply ingrained in our unconscious habits and behaviors from birth that no matter how tough we are or how much internal power we muster up, we can’t change unless something larger than our sense of self is used to lift us up to change the system that stifles our individual agency — something like identity.
You don’t have to look far to see that there are increasingly more subcultures in the world dictated by moods of fear. We live in a strange time where technology is rapidly eroding away the power of the institutions that we have built over the course of hundreds and thousands of years. For the majority of people, this has increased their self’s potential for agency because the internet allows a kind of meritocratic opportunity never seen before. At the same time, however, the confusion and the fears of millions of people are now being voiced, and these voices are carrying a signal that demands a response.
Before you go out to change the world, you should still change yourself, and your healed sense of self and its agency should always come before any ideological identity that merely provides comfort because otherwise the hate and the resentment at the core of your frustrations will only lead you to cause more harm than good over the long-term. But if a larger system is set up to limit your individual agency, then the only thing that is going to change the system is collective action against it, and an identity is an incredibly powerful tool to help people get there.
But there is a subtle difference between the hate spiral of tribalism and the change spiral that can be inspired by a group of passionate people binding together for a greater cause that will unleash their individuality, and that something is simply compassion — towards self and towards other. At the end of the day, the fears different people feel all stem from the same thing, regardless of politics, regardless of social position — and that’s generally the worry that they themselves won’t be able to survive or thrive, or perhaps even more terrifyingly, that their loved ones won’t be able to.
We all can and should do our part in both the individual and the collective stories that make up who we are, but in doing so, we can’t lose our humanity. Because, ultimately, it’s the only thing that is going to positively help us negotiate our differences.
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