When a new subject catches my fancy, (I’ve recently realized) I pursue learning about it in a way that follows specific steps. First, I hurl myself headlong into it. I immerse myself in everything I can find out about it. I read books and stuff online, I talk to people. I may write down my preliminary thoughts. I brainstorm where I can find new information to fill in the blanks of my understanding. I talk to more people, and read more books.
As this part of the process unfolds, I’m finding and making all sorts of connections between things I already understand and these new things. The cross-connections themselves gradually form a thicket, which acts as scaffolding.
Usually I run across information that relates to the new subject when I was actually looking for something else, but now that I have scaffolding, I have someplace to put the new knowledge.
The more I think I understand, the more salient the entire topic seems. So the second step is that I incorporate the new subject into my sense of who I am, my identity. Sometimes that starts slowly, but not always. As time passes, I gradually tell people this new topic is part of me. I do a lot more writing about it. I search for deeper connections with my own past. I’m often surprised to find that there were resonances long ago that I did not recognize as being significant. But now that this new topic is an acknowledged part of me, I can see that I also found it appealing many years ago. I’m often soothed by the presence of a thread connecting many of my past selves with my current self.
Third, I settle in, getting comfortable with my new expanded sense of self. My boundaries have had to open wider to accommodate these new ideas, so during this period my boundaries remain somewhat permeable, as I figure out how this is going to work for me.
Fourth, a very specific state of mind arises. I suddenly feel compelled to announce my new identity or status to everyone I meet. I want to broadcast it on the radio; I want to wear a sign on my clothes; I want to write it in on official forms. I struggle with finding ways that are public enough to make it known. No matter how over-the-top my pronouncements get, during this phase, they never seem to be sufficient for what is driving me. So I get more and more flamboyant.
Right after I’ve taken out a full-page ad in a national newspaper (not really), the final step arrives.
Fifth, I realize my boundaries have hardened, but they are not where they were in step four. Nor are they my original boundaries (that is, the ones I had before the process started). During the entire process, I did indeed learn valuable things that changed me. My comfort zone was stretched, and reconfigured in a new shape.
But whatever I said/wrote/broadcast/etc. in step four is decidedly no longer accurate.
I found myself in step four last week. And suddenly realized not only that I had felt this compulsion before, but that while in it, I had previously done and said things that were very difficult to take back when step five inevitably rolled around. So this time, I did not do any of those things.
It was unsettling to realize that the compulsion to share (that seemingly-new part of my identity) might actually be a sign that the process did not fully take hold. But when I look back on my past, the times that I made a fool of myself declaring undying allegiance to New Thing X are indeed the times that I almost immediately afterward realized that I would have to repudiate New Thing X instead. That was awkward! Actually it was kind of horrible.
Because of things like that, I’ve gained a reputation in my family of origin as being flaky, and a flip flopper.
I’ve often wondered if the process unfolds this way because I’m a (Myers-Briggs) P, and most of them are Js, but now I think it is also related to intensity.
When I discover a topic that appeals to me enough that I want to immerse myself in it, I dive in head first. (I don’t dip a toe in, get acclimated gradually, etc.) I commit 100%. It’s my new best friend. It means the world to me. I give it everything I’ve got.
And when I talk about it to other people, whatever I say is something I’m feeling fully. (I’m not hedging my bets, I’m not trying to impress anybody.) Whatever I say or express is utterly true in that moment.
But everything does not persist. There have been moments in my life where I felt utterly committed to a person and/or a relationship, only to realize the next day, or two weeks later, that being around that person is actually toxic for me, and therefore not sustainable. But if I have made a public declaration of affection, it’s quite difficult to get people to understand that I changed my mind, and they need to respect that. And that changing my mind is a prerogative people always have! Changing my mind, in and of itself, does not make me a bad person, or flaky, or irresponsible, or untrustworthy.
In fact, if I had been better practiced at not only listening to my bodymind, but actually understanding what it was telling me, I likely would not have experienced those moments of utter commitment in the same fashion at all. That is, I might have felt affection for that person or relationship, but I also would’ve realized that there were unsurmountable problems. So I probably would’ve recognized I was also feeling grief and loss, instead of only being aware of transient pleasure and an inexplicable discomfort.
But in my family of origin, no one else ever tries to talk about their feelings with me, nor do they listen to me talking about my own feelings. So when I’ve tried to straighten things out afterward with a letter, it usually makes things worse. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.
I’ve come to think of these projects/topics of interest as analogous to an actor’s roles. When an actor is playing their part, if they’re good at what they do, they are believable because what they’re doing is emotionally real. But then the role ends. They go back to being themselves, although enriched by the role. No one expects them to stay ‘in character’ in their ordinary life. Although if they wish to incorporate aspects of their characters into their life, they are free to do that.
I have done that all my life. But I have rarely been an actor, in a formal sense. Maybe I could say a lot of my life has been performance art?
My meta-goal has always been to have as many varied experiences as possible. How better to fully experience a variety of situations than to modify one’s own identity? Because then whenever I experience something again, who I am is different, so the experience itself is not the same as it was before. The new identity does not have to persist indefinitely for me to benefit from embodying it for a time.
And if everything I incorporated into my identity persisted for ever after, I would quickly run out of wiggle room to keep trying new things. Otherwise too many things would contradict each other; plus, maintaining them would take all my energy. So I winnow away what no longer ‘fits’ with its ‘nearest neighbors’, which are my other aspects. I add, first, but then I subtract. No matter how attached I am to any aspect, I recognize it may change, or disappear, possibly without any warning. The kaleidoscope turns, thus the pattern changes.
Sometimes politeness or civility or other social obligations necessitate my feigning interest in certain people, but I can’t fake delight, joy, love, surprise, or any other positive emotion. So while I can’t promise you a commitment for all time, I can promise you that if I’m expressing delight at being with you, that is truly what I’m feeling in that moment. If I express love, affection, and/or joy, they are real.
Even when I’m in the grip of the fourth step, and I’ve declared feelings that changed right after, I don’t regret saying what I said. It was true, and I honored it by expressing it. If I held back until I was sure the feelings were going to last a long time, I would express only a fraction of the feelings I’ve had. Which would diminish the range of experiences I could have over my lifetime.
I don’t pass up opportunities to tell people how much they’ve meant to me because I never know if I’ll get another chance to tell them. Not just because one of us might die, but our relationship might end, my feelings (or theirs) might change, who knows what else might happen. When my heart is full, I act upon it.
This does mean I’ve frequently caught people off-guard, and their reactions are usually disappointing, or worse. Sometimes people don’t respond at all, but I still feel good about doing what I did. And now I’m much more confident that I can handle pretty much any reaction because I’ve had far more practice than people normally get.
It would be lovely if someone was actually surprised in a good way, and responded similarly. That hasn’t happened in 30 years, but I keep hoping. Without hope, life is too hard. I wouldn’t trade my intensity, but it complexifies my life. My life seems so much richer, with colors and sounds and textures l can’t describe, and of course, myriad experiences other people don’t seem to have had. I do think it’s worth the cost.
ETA: I’m a Fire sign, and my friend Literata just wrote an excellent post about Litha (the summer solstice) and The Element of Fire, over at The Slacktiverse. Seems like it fits here somehow.