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insanity by Vincent H. '23

tldr some of my habits make no sense

a few weeks ago i asked my friend what kinds of people i should date and they replied “probably non-stem people”. and the moment they said that a glass wall in my head shattered, because up until then i hadn’t even noticed that i’d been enforcing the implicit constraint of only meeting stem people. i don’t have an opinion on how correct my friend’s advice is, but regardless, it begs the question – how many other glass walls have i been trapped in without ever realizing it? 

there are rules like i will take exactly 5 classes every semester or i will journal every day that i’m aware of and enjoy adhering to, and i think those are generally harmless. the glass walls are the more treacherous rules that i either never actively chose to follow or chose and then forgot the choice was ever mine. for example, a rather common one is i will only say intelligent things in conversations, which tends to begin as a deliberate choice or a consequence of peer pressure and then gradually fades into a persistent internal censor that people forget they ever created

you probably wouldn’t be able to tell from this blog given that i tend to complain about being sad and busy and the like, but sometimes i’m actually extremely happy

there are moments where i force myself to stop caring about everything – uncertainty about the future, issues my friends and i are having, climate change and covid and so on- and all i do is focus on my breathing or the person i’m hanging out with or how pretty all the trees are, and i feel great when i do this. so recently i’ve been wondering what it would be like to live your entire life in that state of forced indifference. would there be anything fundamentally wrong with doing so, if it were feasible? 

there are other moments where i lose myself in work. lately i’ve noticed almost any kind of work will do – coding, writing, exercising, arranging music, and so on. those moments are also extremely fulfilling, and this state of being is actually fairly similar to the previous one, except instead of emptying my head i’m immersing it in a specific task

i always assumed happiness rooted in productivity was superior to happiness rooted in indifference, probably because i’ve been raised to value productivity. and this assumption was consistent with many of my values – for instance, i think i care about the world, which is heavily aligned with caring about personal impact and output, and so chasing the highs that came with being productive was a way to simultaneously be happy and satisfy those values

and now i’m realizing there are other versions of me who would be equally self-consistent. for instance, another vincent that doesn’t care about the world and therefore doesn’t feel the need to be productive and is able to be happy solely through a conscious effort to live in the moment and not care about other things. for the longest time i thought people like alternate-vincent were repulsive, selfish, morally bankrupt, and a lot of other unpleasant adjectives that i won’t list

anyway, in my experience achieving fulfillment through productivity is a lot harder than achieving fulfillment through indifference. so when i struggled to enter work-induced flow states i would wonder why i kept pursuing them when i could instead be more like alternate-vincent. surely there must be some ideological justification for why i am myself, some way of arguing that alternate-vincent was less legitimate than me, some proof that the extra work i was doing was worthwhile?

i invented a lot of answers to these questions. most of them were related to ethics or effective altruism, and occasionally there’d be weirder ideas involved like proof-of-work. it took a while to come up with all these reasons for making my life harder than it needed to be, and even longer to realize all the reasons were nonsense

in the same way that you can’t supply utilitarian arguments to a non-utilitarian, i don’t think there is any argument i could present to alternate-vincent that would make them feel invalidated. there is no superior way to achieve fulfillment, no version of me that is more legitimate than the other. the only reason i am myself instead of alternate-me is that i choose to be; the only reason i feel the urge to focus on fulfillment through work is because i choose to; i can stop choosing these things if i ever feel like stopping, but until then i should just accept the responsibility for having chosen an option which is harder than my other options instead of complaining about it. and if all these choices are equally valid then it no longer makes sense for me to judge people for being like alternate-vincent – i might still decide they don’t interest me or are a bad influence on me, but there’s no sense in holding the choice itself against them

in a previous post i wrote about feeling pressure to amass a lot of knowledge and competence to be self-sufficient in case there was ever a time when i had no friends. and in response to that, one of my friends suggested only learning things when i was actually curious and passionate about them, rather than learning things out of insecurity or fear about the future. i think i’d been mixing the two for so long that i’d forgotten there was a way to separate them

another friend told me this was the best semester of college they’ve had so far, and the reason was simple – they just figured out what kinds of activities made them happy, and then they did those activities more often

i don’t really like the concept of just stop doing things that you don’t like and which aren’t mandatory because it feels dangerous and potentially very irresponsible. but i also agree that giving yourself a lot of anxiety in the name of self-care, like what i was doing in my earlier post, doesn’t feel particularly honest. so as a compromise, i think maybe the right thing for me to do is to uncover the joy and self-love behind every task i give myself, and if i can’t find any of that then i’ll discard the task

“insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, or so goes the sentence frequently (and incorrectly) attributed to einstein. but i think what people tend to overlook about this quote is the way it suggests every one of us is absolutely insane. for instance: 

in the past when i was feeling sad and had nothing to do i would open facebook messenger and look for people who were online and start conversations with them, expecting that to improve my mood. we would talk a bit, and then they would leave to do something else and i would find someone else to talk to, and this process would continue until i decided it was time to sleep. i rarely felt better after these conversations, but i’d tell myself the next conversation would be more helpful, and i’d keep trying over and over for most of high school and my first year of college

or consider everything else i’ve written in this post. how i thought the way to resolve the guilt and jealousy from not being like alternate-vincent was to keep finding ways to prove they were wrong even as the feelings kept piling on, or how i thought giving myself large lists of things to learn would eventually make my life easier while in reality it kept making life more stressful, or how even as i tried to discover new kinds of people and social interactions in college i still only looked for new stem people to meet. these are undeniably the patterns of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. and i can’t speak for others but i’m pretty sure this structure is prevalent in almost every person’s life, because it is much easier to follow routines that promise they’ll solve problems than to create procedures that actually solve them

for most of the past few years i’ve felt a consistent pull towards existential dread and mental unwellness. it never really went away regardless of what i tried, so i wondered if it was just an inevitable result of my upbringing or the school i attend or the pandemic or a number of other things i didn’t have control over

but what if the primary contributor this entire time was my own cyclical behavior? what if – and this is shocking, i know – the pattern of me complaining about being sad and a friend suggesting to see a therapist and me ignoring the suggestion actually had a tangible impact on my mental health? what would i find if i could see all my glass walls and insane habits for what they really are, and then step beyond them – freedom? peace? or maybe nothing would change at all? i don’t know, but i’m excited to find out