we tend to notice presence and not absence.
i thought about that as i went through my twitter follows on friday night. so many people who had been a daily part of my online life had quietly dropped off twitter a year or so ago, and i never noticed. i noticed in a vague way that spending time on twitter had ceased to be a pleasant way to pass time with friends; that it had become more of a chore; that it increasingly felt like participating in a performance with too many actors vying for time on stage. but in going through the list, i realized that the problem wasn't just my perception. the composition of my twitter feed had quite rapidly changed—through the presence of a few new accounts, yes, but much more through the absence of many others.
which is to say, what i had assumed existed entirely internally to my mind was, in part, a material change in external circumstances. so often, the sands shift underneath us, and we only realize long after it's happened. that was why. that the dissatisfaction wasn't just manufactured inside you.
granted, that realization is validating, and at the same time it's disheartening. believing that your perception is at fault, rather than your situation, is a comfort. it says, you just need to change the way that you're thinking about it. you have control over that, surely.
anyone who's dealt with mental health issues knows, of course, that even that isn't true by any stretch. but it's certainly easier to imagine that changing your outlook and taking responsibility of your life is what will get you out of crushing debt, rather than beating a system designed to keep millions impoverished, and ashamed of it. or it's easier to imagine that choosing to be undeniably excellent is what will combat racism, rather than deconstructing the social, political, and economic structures that reinforce racial hierarchies. these examples are more obvious and widespread ones, but i think this attitude permeates all of us in big and small ways every single day. our society diagnoses many (if not most) problems that exist in material reality as primarily mental and individual.
that doesn't mean that it's impossible to change your outlook, take responsibility of your life, choose to be undeniably excellent. i think there can be an enormous amount of value in pushing toward growth as long as we acknowledge how power operates. how it redraws the contours of what we can control and what we can't in ways that aren't readily apparent, to ourselves and to others.
but we view these imperatives as acts, rather than vectors. we talk about them like they can simply be done. i don't think they can be. i think a lot about the tweet format: "...but y'all aren't ready for that conversation." it's spun from a strand of a thought that offers advice on giving advice: people can only really hear what you're saying when they're ready. the conditions and circumstances align just so, and it's then that the same words that were just words every time you'd heard them before snap into focus. the truth, in technicolor, is suddenly impossible to ignore.
in the same way, i don't believe we can just tell ourselves what to believe and how to feel, on a deep level. we can nudge ourselves in certain directions by cultivating the influences that surround us. that's it! but that's also quite a lot.
for a while now, i've felt directionless. i don't expect anyone to have noticed (like i said, presence is a lot more prominent than absence!), but i wrote and tweeted and socialized much, much less, for nearly a year. there's a much longer jumble of thoughts on why, and i won't go into that right now, but specifically what interests me now is that i don't think i would have described it that way.
i would have said that i felt frustration, loneliness, boredom. disillusionment, absolutely. i would have said that i was worried about sliding back into a depressive state for the first time in several years.
in short, i would have described specific emotions, because i recognized their presence. i did not, until recently, recognize the absences. absence of purpose, absence of momentum. i remember a kind of bewilderment at myself. i pathologized my mental state in all kinds of ways because i couldn't perceive the presence of anything wrong in my life. nothing warranting the change in me had happened.
i've talked about consciously changing who you are in the pursuit of growth, and that's important, but really we talk about that all the time. it's embedded into the way we think about problems and progress. what's discussed far less is subconsciously or even unconsciously changing who you are in response to struggle. the line between the two is blurred; sometimes what we call the former is really the latter, and vice versa.
i use "struggle" as an all-encompassing term. sometimes we struggle to recover from trauma. other times we might be struggling to succeed within a system that demands conformity, a certain sets of behaviors and beliefs. struggle can shape us in all kinds of ways, positive and negative. our reactions to these forces redraw the vectors of our personal change. sometimes that's just by a matter of degrees, and then once in a while it's a full 180º.
this thread by one of the people from whom i've learned the most on twitter, @pangmeli, is about allyship, but i think it has interesting implications applied to this mental framework:
we change all the time in response to struggles that usually lie, at a deep level, in some conflict around our sense of self. approval, attention, authority, and so on. sometimes that can be good, but quite often it can be bad. what does it look like to be grounded, or steady?
i think it starts with learning more about who you are and understanding which parts of yourself are immovable, as well as which parts are nonnegotiable. what do you want in life, what do you need? what tempts you? what scares you? what deeply satisfies you? what's present, and what's absent?
i'm realizing that the malaise i felt came out of not fully understanding the parts of myself that are immovable and nonnegotiable. my life changed, both intentionally and reactively, and what i've felt was the aftershocks of plates rubbing against each other at the stress fractures in my mind. you might call it cognitive dissonance.
i've been reading a lot about ideas for the future (and my future!) the past few days. it feels like i'm finally entering that liminal space where the words hold significance; sentences are reanimated as ideas with weight and substance; the energy toward growth and change feels palpable and alive. parts of myself that i thought had been discarded have reawakened.
i don't expect this momentum to propel me indefinitely; really, i don't know if it'll last through the next few days. but i think that's why it's so important to be grounded. knowing my values, my drives, my weaknesses. and letting the vectors of my growth shift when necessary, and holding them steady when it matters.
these words might not resonate with you right now, because that's the way it goes, but they did for me, so here's an excerpt from yalda mousavinia on deciding to work on building a decentralized space agency:
If you think you want to do something in life and you keep coming back to it—if it’s a recurring idea or thought that keeps coming up—then just change your life and do it. I think back to that a lot. I’m so glad that I listened to myself, and actually made the decision to change my life around and do this. I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I get afraid about what I’d do if this ever came to an end, because it feels like this is my dream work right now.
If you really want to start something, you need to have that drive. So listen to yourself. I’m glad that I listened to myself because to me, doing this feels right. Even if it feels hard sometimes, you have to know that going after your dreams is not really something that’s supposed to be easy.
hello! i’m giving substack a shot, but it’s the same newsletter to which you subscribed on tinyletter: the dream machine.
it's been quite a while, hasn't it? i know, i say that every time. i love writing so much, and it's the best way to sort out my messy thoughts, and i so rarely get around to it because of the activation energy it requires. i think my standard is too high for a little personal newsletter to a few hundred people… just write something and press send, for the love of god.
anyway, responses are my single favorite part about sharing to this newsletter, so if anything sparks a thought for you, i would love to hear it.