The Constellation of the Self
Talking about the self is tricky because people tend to either super not care or collapse into an existential crisis. Neither is much fun, so why write about it? I don’t know… my blog my rules? Whatever the reason, I find it interesting, so today I’ll make my argument for why a conversation around it matters. In short, any desire for meaningful change starts at one place: know thy self.
As Alan Watts said, “Most western people locate their ego inside their heads. You are somewhere between your eyes and between your ears, and the rest of you dangles.” Like a wee wizard behind a curtain pulling levers to control the forklift full of shame that is your body. This feeling of self, this feeling like there’s a “you” in there, is, in the end, just another feeling. You feel the breeze across your face, the chair against your back, and you feel that there’s a “you” in there. These are all pretty much the same things. Most wouldn’t argue the first two, but many would take issue with that third one.
It’s challenging to get around the intense feeling that all of “you” is up there. Even people who agree in principle can have difficulty shaking the default feeling that we’re in there somewhere.
Take this argument worldwide, though, and you might be met with some resistance. In certain cultures, they’ll tell you the self exists in the heart. While it feels like a universal truth, it would appear where you feel “you” exist has much to do with where you were born.
So what is it that we feel?
While we may not be able to locate a singular area of the brain, we can call “the self,” we can locate what we could call the narrator. There’s a storyteller up there, weaving every interaction and event together into a quilt you might call “me.”
This narrator is typically far more easily recognizable in other people. You see it when they behave irrationally based on some event in their life, and their ability to connect the dots is lacking. They’ll tell you all dogs are quite scary (when a dog attacked them as a child) or that all left/right-wing politicians are soulless vampires out for their own good (when the person’s parents were impacted by whatever political practice of the day occurred).
In our frantic need to make sense of the billions of unrelated events blowing past us each day, the human mind must create a story that can act as a manual for life so we can make sense of all the madness. The great thing about this manual is it gives us a path to follow. The downside, meanwhile, is it can create a rigid way of being, which becomes an issue when we want to change.
Constellations: not what they seem
There’s another example of a scattering of madness that humans have reflexively tried to make meaning of. In fact, before written communication and without coordination, humans all around the planet felt the need to make meaning of the chaos in the sky.
If you were to step out on a clear evening and you’re not a total astronomy dork, the scattering of light would appear (to you) random. That is, of course, until you happened upon a particular grouping that creates a recognizable shape. For me, it’s always one of the dippers. Big or little (don’t ask me which–I can never tell, and I remain unconvinced they’re even separate), I can always find a ladle in the sky. Stick me anywhere in the world with a view of stars, and I’ll find you a dipper.
And it is a dipper, right? It dips things, and you’ll never make me believe otherwise. But imagine we could travel instantly to any of these stars. No more a two-dimensional canvas above our horizon; we can zip to any of them. Let’s visit the Big Dipper. We’ll start with the very tip of the handle.
The first star of the handle is called Alkaid. You travelled 104 light years to get here, which, if you could get going at a clip of 62,000 km/h, would take you about 1.7 million years. As your frozen, mummified corpse arrives at Alkaid, you’ll find yourself in the presence of a star 6x the mass of our sun, radiating 594 times the energy (I hope you brought a hat).
Looking over the crest of Alkaid though, what would you see? Would it be the gentle curve of the handle of our ladle, travelling down towards the spoon of the dipper? Of course not, because the next star in the sequence of the handle is Mizar, located 26 light years back towards Earth. And then Alioth is next… a mere hop, skip, and a jump 3 light-years further away.
The big dipper is not a sequence of stars arranged like a giant spoon. It’s a sequence of stars arranged in the shape of a giant spoon from here. They have absolutely nothing to do with each other aside from all being esteemed members of the cosmic burning furnace club. The big dipper merely looks like a thing to us because we gave it meaning.
We can’t even agree on what it is across the planet. Depending on where you call home, the Big Dipper can be a bear, a plough, or a butcher’s clever. I’ll give you the latter 2, but if you think that thing is a bear, you’re clearly from a culture that blissfully never had to deal with bears. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who knows what a bear is and who is a weirdo; what matters is this: we made it all up.
And why did we make it all up? To find our way. Whether it was to travel over land, through time, or alongside cultural beliefs, we mapped the stars to navigate the unknown.
Ursa Major, You Major
The creation of a constellation is not entirely unlike the creation of a “you.” Instead of stars, though, it’s a collection of experiences. Be it successes, traumas, promotions, meals, or broken hearts, together they form a series of events that you’ve grouped together and called “me.” This collection becomes your roadmap for getting through the unknown.
Much like the stars that make up the shapes in the sky, these events are far less related than we might realize. They occurred in different places, on different timelines, and to different versions of ourselves. We might use them to guide us through life like some modern-day navigator, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they belong together, and it certainly doesn’t mean that if we follow these stars, we’ll end up where we need to be.
Why might people hate this?
This line of thinking can be–for some–profoundly uncomfortable. Who feels that way and who doesn’t tends to be a complicated matter that several factors could influence.
The manual of life creates a stability that many people find comforting. Built into our operating system is a discomfort with the unknown (and we should be damn appreciative of that). Because we create our self as a Wayfinder, suggesting that it might not be real is not popular. Being confronted with the idea that your map isn’t as precise as you assumed is destabilizing.
For a fun example, consider that our beliefs around politics and social order are often tightly wound up in our idea of self. We’re liberals, conservatives, democrats, republicans, fighters for trans rights, fighters for the enduring word of God, etc. Bringing these issues up during a holiday dinner with family we don’t often choose to be around is a spectacular way to see how we behave when our sense of self is questioned. When the things we know to be true are challenged, it can be physically revolting.
It robs us of wins
If you’ve ever challenged somebody that their success is more due to chance and fortune than brilliance or hard work, then you know how quickly things can get hostile. This can feel fantastic when we’re trying to take somebody down a peg, but it can also feel a little gutting when somebody turns the target onto you.
Our wins are quickly adopted as one of our stars; they become a critical part of “us.” Our wins imply that we’re strong, capable, and adaptable to any challenge. To have somebody come along and suggest that our wins were little more than the tides of fortune rolling in when we needed them feels shitty. When we win, it’s supposed to be because we’re awesome. When we lose, it’s supposed to be because life is complicated.
God and stuff
Many religions have an idea about the existence of a soul, and that soul can be a bit of a big player on the cosmic stage. It’s what happens after we die, so to imply that it may not be a thing is to poke at one of the biggest fears living creatures have: not living.
To shake the existence of a soul is to shake the entire tree of somebody’s religion. History will tell us that fighting people on their religions typically only ends one way.
Nihilism: what’s the goddamn point then?
For many, the existence of a self is sorta the entire point. It ties closely with meaning and why we’re here in the first place. Some people think we’re just apes that got too clever, while others believe we’re here for a cosmic purpose. Removing the self can leave the latter group feeling like there isn’t a grand reason for it all.
Some may find this realization freeing… it can really take the pressure off. There’s no test! You can toss your notes in the air and run free into the wilderness. Others, however, can find what’s left is bleak and purposeless. The test mattered to them.
A loss of control
Agency feels fantastic. When we have it in our work, we fire on all cylinders. When we lack it, our jobs become a draining weight that sits atop us for 1/3 of our lives.
So, if suggesting a lack of self robs you of agency, it’s not beyond reason that you’ll fight back against this. We want to let in the good and push back the bad. A loss of control is like a roller coaster: some people can let go and enjoy the drop, while others cry briefly before passing out.
So why do it?
There exists a great desire for change. Be it an entire society or an individual, many want to see improvement (however they define that). Despite the drive to do things differently, very little is possible with a rigid understanding of things. Change becomes much easier once you entertain the idea that boundaries are fluid. It’s tough to make a change when the walls are solid stone. But if they’re sand…
There is a narrator within that has woven all your experiences together into the story of you, but we don’t often consider that it may have been woven incorrectly. It’s not exactly great that for many of us, our stories were woven by either stressed-out parents doing their best or ourselves as inexperienced, ignorant children. Anybody with small children will tell you those things shouldn’t be weaving shit.
How many of our thoughts and judgements about ourselves are the thoughts and judgements of our parents? It takes very little for a child to begin seeing themselves through their parent’s frustrated lens. How many people self-identify as a “terrible kid” or say, “My parents spanked me, but I deserved it.” How many of us carry around irrefutable facts about ourselves that could be little more than our parents trying to navigate impossible circumstances?
These impossible circumstances lead to actions that may not have anything to do with the child, but to a kid, everything is about them. Their world is 3 feet tall and never expands beyond their wingspan. The events of our youths likely had less to do with us than we realize. These events were just random stars grouped to make a picture.
Not too high, not too low
Contrary to our efforts, this life has no finish line (unless you count the one just outside your grave). We never really “make it” to a place where everything is peachy and problems cease.
For this reason, our minds try to keep us in the pocket. Get too high, and we might stop pushing towards that next goal. Get too low, and we’ll end it. Ideally, we want to live where the losses don’t blow our limbs off, and our wins don’t leave us dusting our hands, saying, “That’ll do.”
What we want to avoid here is attachment. Attach to your wins and you feel bulletproof (leaving you unprepared for the inevitable crash). Attach to your losses and you’re… well… a loser. We need to not allow ourselves to be defined by wins or losses. There are wins and losses, but they are not us. They can be a part of our story, but they don’t need to dictate the next chapter. This perspective allows for pride in accomplishment, but also the humility to recognize that we are constantly growing, changing, and becoming.
The exploration of the self, both philosophically and existentially, can be a daunting task. As constellations, we can argue the self isn’t so much a definite shape as it is an interpretation meant to act as a helpful guide. The happenings of our life may be not unlike stars, isolated events separated by vast distances and unrelated in physical space that we have given meaning to.
Understanding the self as a fluid interpretation allows change, growth, and self-reinvention. It allows us to recognize that our failures, successes, traumas, and triumphs do not entirely define us but form parts of a complex and ever-changing narrative. This perspective can keep us both humble and hopeful. We can recognize that we are ever-evolving, and should we choose it–be another way.
Except of course anyone who thinks the dipper looks like a bear. Those people are lost forever.