About a month and a half ago, I pulled off the most successful hack of my own mind, ever. You could call it a personality transplant, or maybe an identity theft. It was so successful that it almost seems wrong to say that I was the one who did it, because the “I” who actually performed the hack isn’t there any more, and this “I” is someone different.
Yeah, right, that sounds pretty crazy, like I’m a multiple personality or something. I suppose a better spin to put on it is that I’ve changed my self-story or self-concept, so that I now identify with different parts of my life experience than I did previously. Which is perfectly true, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels like I just started living about six weeks ago, but with memories and an existing life.
I’m thus reminded of something in one of Hugh Prather’s books, where he speculated on what it would be like to hang a sign around his neck saying “Under New Management”. He wondered what it would be like to take all of the things in his life as just things the old management did, and to which he had no personal attachment, so he could either take them or leave them as made sense. The feelings I’ve been having are exactly like that.
With every passing day, it seems there’s less and less I have in common with my “old management”. I have his skills and memories, sure. My first reactions to things are often what his reactions were, but my second reactions now question the first. “Why would I do that? “, I ask myself, and more often than not the reason was something that I used to be afraid of, but am not any more. I find also that my ability to enjoy even the simplest things is beyond anything he dared to dream of.
Yes, I refer to my old self as “he”, or “him” – that’s how distant we are. Also, it’s easier to dis-identify from those characteristics that way, and it’s easier to talk about him, too. At first I was reluctant to discuss these things with my wife, but as it happens she really likes the upgrade and wouldn’t trade me for version 1.0, even though there might be a few individual features that might be missed by one or both of us. I was dragging down her spirit in ways that I never realized when I was him.
I was also dragging myself down, but I never noticed that because it had been a constant since the age of six or so. Well, it’s not true that I never noticed it, and it’s not true that now I’m completely different, either. All of these things are about the stories we tell, and the way we summarize our experiences, and how that affects our current perception. Our lives are rich and full of many experiences, but the stories that we tell ourselves about them reflect what we identify with, not what we actually experience.
All along, the person I am now lived side by side with the person I was then. But “I” was never that person then, because the story I was living didn’t have room for this side of my character, and anything I did in that character was therefore “not me”. Now, I know the story I was living was false, and it’s as though the coin was flipped: the things that were “not me” before are now at least potentially me, and the things that were “me” before are now quite clearly not.
What do “You” do, if “You” are no longer “Yourself”?
But just as you can never cut a slice of bread so thin that it only has one side, so too can no act be free of both good and bad consequences. An awful lot of things that mattered very much to “him” are of no especial interest to “me”. Many causes he took up with great zeal were intimately connected with his then-current self-story, and I’m mostly a person without a story now. Really, the only story I have now is the story of how he died so that I could live, only it’s more that he never really wanted to live in the first place, because the story he believed in was a tragedy. So he got what he wanted in the end – a hero’s exit – and now I’m trying to figure out what to do with the legacy he left me.
As a new self-story, that one really sucks, though. And talking about the self I used to be as if he were somebody who lived and died and left me with his body, well, it’s pretty damn creepy, even to me. But I’m at somewhat of a loss as to how else to think of it. Every morning I wake up and I feel quite different than I used to. An immense weight is gone, that I used to carry without noticing. I used to think life was this huge burden of meaning and mission and sacrifice and pointlessness and duty and despair. But now it’s just… life. He always longed for that kind of peace, even though he never believed he would find it. In fact, he always believed that in order to find it, he would have to give up his identity and become someone else. That if he gave up fighting for things, that life would cease to have meaning. That if he actually became really successful at anything, he’d lose his soul.
The sad thing is that now he’s lost his soul, but I’m not nearly as interested in being “successful” as he was! His desire for success was driven by a need to deny his self-story of failure, but I don’t believe I’m a failure and don’t feel any particular need to prove anything to anybody. In fact, I seem rather spectacularly void of any purpose whatsoever, and on top of that I don’t really care. I just worry a little that I don’t care.
I’m not quite sure what to make of my contentment, as I’m singularly unaccustomed to it. I have the lingering feeling that I ought to be “doing something with my life”, even as the greater part of me notes that for the first time I am doing something with it. I’m enjoying it, which is more than he ever did with it.
Every Statement is a Lie – Even This One
Yeah, that’s storytelling, summarization, exaggeration, spin. That’s being human. There’s only so much you can squeeze through the consciousness filter. All stories are lies, even the true stories. I used to be afraid to let up, to relax and be “normal” (i.e. not involved in some kind of crusade all the time), because I thought I would disappear. I was also afraid to actually succeed at anything, because I thought it would keep me from being cared about or cared for.
So now I’m trying to discover what it means to actually live, and finding that I miss some of my drives and desires. My tastes in many things have become much broader, but I keenly feel the loss of some subtler pleasures, even as I know I would never give up what I’ve gained in order to get them back. The person I was, was someone who aspired to greatness while always believing himself lucky to get through the day without some terrible failure, let alone making any forward progress. Just being able to relax now, is an incredible gift.
Indeed, it seems I’m in no hurry at all. I look at everything in my life and it seems like, yes, I could do this or that, but whenever I get to it is fine. He was always in a rush to get things done and yet somehow never managed to spend much time working on them. I’m actually capable of finishing his work and achieving his goals, but don’t really give a hoot, except insofar as the sense of loss of interest disturbs me. But – and this is the really big difference, maybe the only real difference between him and me – I would never distort my life like that to avoid having a bad feeling about something. He conceived many projects from the joy and love of a particular vision, but in general he only actually carried them out because of fear.
Indeed, he generally acted only from negative motivations, and I’m generally motivated now by positive ones. I’m moving towards things, not away from them, and I don’t have any big things I want to move towards so much as to pour my life into them. The ideal of financial independence that he was struggling towards was just a fantasy that he’d then be able to relax and learn to be content with life, when in truth he had no idea how to relax or be content with anything.
To some extent, his voice is still with me. He whispers in my ear, urging me to act. He tells me what he could be doing with my life if he was like me, even though it’s obvious as the nose on our face that if he was like me, he wouldn’t care about doing those things any more. Nonetheless, he makes me uneasy. What did he struggle for all these years, so that I could take a vacation?
No Reason is the Best Reason
But now I understand something that I didn’t yet understand when I first sat down to write this. If I take up his causes for these spurious reasons, I will fail because I will be him again, acting out of a desire to avoid, rather than a desire to build, to have, to enjoy. If he really wants me to carry on his life’s passionate works, he needs to give me real reasons – positive reasons – why they will improve the quality of my life. And yes, that quality can include a sense of contribution or challenge or other more abstract qualities. But the reasons need to be my reasons, not his.
Moving away from pain and problems can’t build anything that lasts, because as soon as you make progress, you lose your motivation. I’ve known this for a long time, but trying to change it by saying “I should be motivated by positive things, because it’s bad to be motivated by bad things” is inherently self-contradictory. I’ve been struggling with that one for years!
What finally worked is that I changed the meaning of the event in my childhood that led me to conclude that I was doomed – or whatever it is that I actually concluded from that particular little trauma. I’m not entirely sure any more what it was, as the memory has now faded somewhat. It’s hard to “remember” things that contradict your self-story, so when you change your stories, the memories change with them. I’m beginning to view that event, not as a personal tragedy, but as a fond memory of an early triumph.
My 6 or 7-year-old self had arrived at a tragic misunderstanding that shaped my life for decades to come, but when I ran that event through my brain’s “debugger” I realized for the first time that it was all just a misunderstanding. I had interpreted my success in that circumstance as failure, and as such came to conclude that any personal success or competence would result in painful separation, and that I would not be loved.
But that’s not an issue any more. Now the issue is, “what the heck am I gonna do with my life?”
I actually wrote most of the above back in early September, then set it aside for a while to try and let things gel. I made an early decision not to abandon the commitments of my prior self, just because “I” didn’t make them, since it would be foolish for a manager just walking into a new organization to turn everything upside down overnight. I also hoped that I might discover a new perspective on the things my old self was trying to do, and find new passion for them as a result.
Unfortunately, my new perspective on those things has mostly been a downer. Even some of the really great things my old self accomplished, were done for shallow and sometimes even ludicrous reasons. Sometimes, too, I held on to things long past their time. Letting go was never my strong suit, and grieving was something I didn’t really do.
So it seems right now I’m stuck processing the remnants of my old life, and trying to find something in those remnants that appeals to me. So far, the best bit has been my new relationship with my wife, who more recently seems to be upgrading her own identity, and finding new things to enjoy in life since I stopped being “myself”. New things like painting – and me.
Mostly though, I find I haven’t nearly the drive of my old self. I suspect, however, that I only think that’s the case because I’m accustomed to being driven. If my old self was a Gates or Stallman, powerfully motivated by their personal dystopian visions and utopian counter-visions, my new self isn’t even a Steve Ballmer or Eric Raymond, faking it in the shadows of their role models while insisting everything’s just fine.
Between Two Worlds
So at this point, my motivational profile seems a bit lopsided. I no longer believe in the dragons that chased the old me, but I don’t have much in the way of compelling forward visions either. It’s all kind of “meh” to me. I’m not in love with programming, if ever I was. I do still feel some love of teaching, consulting, and organizational systems design, but I find myself strangely caring little about software architecture per se, and somewhat disillusioned about Python’s future, despite being excited about PyPy.
(This is probably because I’ve finally seen clearly what the true flaws of object orientation are, and I know what needs to replace/complete it. Within a system where those flaws are remedied, there isn’t much need to have anything you would call an “architecture”, so it now seems to me that software architecture as we know it is mostly the study of workarounds for our crippled tools and ways of thinking.)
Of course, I do realize that, if history repeats itself, it’ll likely be a decade or two before the cure for software architecture becomes “mainstream”, if indeed it ever does. My old self would’ve promptly begun a quixotic crusade to popularize it anyway, whereas I so far haven’t found time to even write a blog entry about it. (I’m tempted to design a Python-like language based on it, though.)
But when I think about something like that, my old self chimes in with, “What good is that? Nobody’s going to use your language!”, as if that had anything to do with anything. You see, he had to have a reason for everything. And my problem has been that all his reasons are no longer meaningful, but I’ve still been acting like I need reasons. And not just any reasons, but Meaningful Reasons with a capital M and R.
So I guess one more mind hack is called for, to remove that inhibition. Because even the old me wrote extensively here about the need to remove reasons from one’s fundamental decision-making. Indeed, I pointed out that a decision made for a reason isn’t a fundamental decision at all. In his books, Robert Fritz defines a “primary choice” as one made solely to obtain the thing chosen, not in order to get something else. If what you want is a car, choosing to have a car is a primary choice. If you want the car in order to impress the ladies, then it’s a secondary choice because the car isn’t really what you want, just a way of getting it.
Most of my old self’s projects, then, are secondary choices based on primary desires I no longer have. And it seems I never really learned to operate out of primary choice as a way of being to start with. Instead, my operational strategy had been to turn my fears into idealistic counter-visions, and set dilemmas for myself that forced me to take the necessary actions to prevent failure. This may have been a rational strategy for who I was – especially as a child – but it’s entirely unworkable for who I am now.
In short, the issue is that my former self was an idealist. But idealism is about things that exist only in thought, and as I’ve written here before, thinking and doing are different worlds. Thought can never be satisfied by deed, nor the reverse. Trying to turn ideals into rules for living is like trying to eat a menu: it’s confusing a guide to the thing, with the thing itself.
Having an ideal of how you should live your life is not the same as living. Having an ideal that you should be doing something meaningful, is not the same as doing something and finding meaning in it. And to have an ideal of how perfect you should be, is to ignore whoever it is you happen to already be. I’m reminded of these lines by Sting:
To search for perfection, is all very well… But to look for heaven, is to live here in hell.
After today… Yeah, after today… consider me gone.