September 3, 2013
In Alaska, I had some good and thoughtful discussions with Riana and reached some new conclusions. It's a tangle of old and new thoughts, and unclear setups of cause and effect, but: for me, somehow implanted at a deep and defining level, Verbs trump Nouns. What you do, how you interact, is the critical defining factor, and pushes what one might "really be" to near irrelevance.

There's a downside to this concept: nobody -- myself included-- has intrinsic value. (Note, I'm not really defending this value, but talking about my recent discovery as it as a foundation to a lot of my moral and psychological landscape.) In this view, if you do nothing, you're worth nothing.

There are consequences to this view: I think it means I don't have a solid core of real self-worth, and so a rection formation grew up around it: as a kid, I was precocious, and I think that got parlayed into a need to be the bestest, smartest kid in the world, because that was the only game in town. Early on this led to ugly consequences: my young rage at losing a board game, say. Looking back, maybe that's because that was upsetting the natural order of the world with me at its pinnacle... but even more scarily, if I wasn't the bestest, what was I? Maybe nothing! So of course I fought against it.

(There's a seeming contradiction here -- 6 years ago I was looking at a Scientific American article about kids who get the idea that intelligence is innate and fixed, and so the important thing is to always look smart. ( ) You might think that would lead them to self-confidence, an unassailable bit of ego core, but instead it brings on fear and strategies to avoid looking like anything less, like a mere mortal. And I think that's because if they (and me) aren't the greatest then they are worth nothing.)

The other side effect of not having a sense of self-worth is I tend to be a goodie-goodie rule follower, but I think that's less of a moral sense than a fear that if I don't follow the rules, I'll be rejected and maybe thrown out, because there's nothing fundamentally worth saving.

Often getting over-intellectual about something is helpful for me, because I can purposefully use my intellect to overcome my gut feelings. This one is tougher though because, intellectually, I don't what the answer that tells me "everyone has intrinsic worth" is. Existentially speaking, the idea that people's value comes from interactions with Everything Else has a lot of appeal.

One possible intellectual out came to me in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a great bit of fanfic speculating what would have happened if young Harry Potter had been raised not by the Dursleys but by an Oxford Professor and his supportive and loving and intelligent wife... at one point, in explaining that there was no simple way of conclusively demonstrating that he (Harry Potter) wasn't the next Dark Lord, Professor Quirrell explains
"The import of an act lies not in what that act resembles on the surface, Mr. Potter, but in the states of mind which make that act more or less probable."

Harry blinked. He'd just had the dichotomy between the representativeness heuristic and the Bayesian definition of evidence explained to him by a wizard.
So there might where the answer is: yes, what's important is what we do, not what we are, but what we are goes a long, long way to determining what we do-- and from there, intrinsic value can be potentially found.

Still, it's a long way from a weak intellectual defense to really "getting it" and living it, and nearing some kind of midway point in my life, I have to acknowledge that a lot of my grooves are kind of set, and it may always take a big dose of mindfulness to see that I'm worthwhile and can and should take on even challenges that may leave me frustrated and looking less than stellar. Man -- if this article is onbase, footbinding might not have just been torturous for women, but something that (in an oddly meta kind of way) reshaped Chinese infrastructure and zeal to explore as well.
oh, and RIP Seamus Heaney.
This is beautiful. Make this jellybean count, people.