Blog Post: About everything and nothing, all at once.
I participated something earlier today that was a meme of what four words would you give to your younger self.
I’ve got four words of advice I’d like to give to everybody younger than me… well, everyone who hasn’t already figured it out. That advice is:
Nothing will be everything.
No philosophy will give you all the answers. No theory will account for everything. No relationship will fulfill all your needs. No job or career will give you everything that you’re looking for. No plan will cover all contingencies.
No amount of preparation will leave you ready for going to college, or having a baby, or getting married, or writing a book, or starting a new career.
Everybody knows that the little ad in the corner of the screen that tells you ONE SIMPLE TRICK will whiten your belly, flatten your car insurance, and lower your teeth, but we keep looking for that one thing that will make everything click into context.
You start with one idea.
When I was in my early teens and learning (mostly surreptitiously, and without anything like the modern internet), I came across the idea of BORN THAT WAY. And I clung to it like a liferaft, because I needed it. Because the half-formed, unexamined, but deeply rooted ideas it replaced were killing me, and this was a model I could cling to.
When I was a few years older and had the internet, I met a radical queer man from New York who used the slogan “QUEER BY CHOICE”. This was at odds with everything I knew and everything I was, but he made his case and I realized that there were things my theory couldn’t account for.
So I became radical, and started using the same slogan.
After that it was “SEXUALITY IS FLUID”.
And now I’m in my thirties and I’ve encountered people who have reasoned objections to that. So do I swing back to “BORN THAT WAY”?
No, no I do not.
My new stance is: life is complicated. People are complex. Sexuality is not one thing, and even most multidimensional models of sexuality are still gross simplifications. Here’s how you can tell: we can make sense of them.
"BORN THAT WAY", "QUEER BY CHOICE", and "SEXUALITY IS FLUID" are all simplifications. They’re also political stances as much as they are attempted descriptions of reality. The proponents of each stance, whatever supporting evidence they might put forward, tend to include the implications of not accepting the stance among the reasons it should be held.
But they’re all ultimately flawed, insofar as none of them can account for everyone and everything.
I’m using this example as part of my own personal journey, but we all go through our own pendulum swings: feminist to anti-feminist, liberal feminist to radical feminist, democrat to republican, conservative to liberal, theist to atheist, pagan to Christian…
And I’m not saying that no one ever has a truly heartfelt spiritual/political/philosophical 180, but a lot of times the reason that the pendulum swings so far in the opposite direction is that you’ve convinced yourself that what you believe in now is Everything, that it explains Everything, that it accounts for Everything…
But it doesn’t. It can’t. And the evidence mounts up and the cracks in your faith appear…
And suddenly, what you thought was Everything… isn’t.
And if it’s not everything, it might as well be nothing.
It’s like flipping a switch. You abandon your old beliefs. You throw yourself as far as you can in the other direction. There’s no preacher like a reformed sinner, as the saying goes. And as hard as you tried not to think about the gaps in your previous model, you’re trying harder not to think about the flaws in your current one.
Because that would mean you’d been fooled twice.
The key here is to remember: nothing will be everything. Nothing needs to be everything.
Consider: a map will always be smaller than the place it shows you, and will only include select features. A picture is always a lower resolution than reality. Words used to describe a thing will always lack most of the details of the actual thing.
So how could a theory account for everything?
How could a model of reality describe all of reality?
Theory can’t account for or replace lived experience. Models are no substitute for reality. These things, they help us to make sense of experience and grapple with reality. But they aren’t experience and they aren’t reality.
Some of the people reading this post—even some people who struggle to the end—will feel like I’m calling on them to give up their theories and beliefs, or will think that if I’m right then the takeaway is that everything is pointless, but this isn’t the case.
The lesson here isn’t, “Nothing will be everything, so there’s no point to anything.”
It’s that a thing doesn’t have to be everything to have a point.
Find the use in a model. A railway map is good if you’re trying to figure out rail lines. An area code map is good if you’re trying to figure out area codes. Neither one is the same as the actual region they’re depicting and neither one can tell you everything there is to know about that region. But they both have their uses.