The Magic of Impermanence
Is our desire to label and diagnose ourselves hindering our ability to evolve?
(4 minute read)
We are taught that permanence is good. It is something to strive for in relationships, in business, in architecture. We humans are builders and perhaps the ultimate indicator of one’s influence is an ability to ‘build things that last’. Still, despite all the energy we pour into creating structures intended to stand the test of time, we rarely acknowledge that none of them will.
Most things we create won’t even last the duration of our own lifetime, which is but a blip within the abstract idea known as ‘time’.
The universe is inherently impermanent. As far as we know, true permanence isn’t possible. So, maybe we should stop trying to achieve it.
What if power lies in embracing the transience of everything around us?
We spend so much of our lives fearing that which we could or will lose; loved ones, money, health. We lament the things that have ended or someday will end; our childhood, relationships, careers, our own existence. We brace ourselves for the ‘trauma’ that will arrive once that which we hoped would last forever is gone.
Additionally, our affection for permanence has extended to how we define ourselves. Everything from our food preferences to our sexual orientation to our political beliefs. Vegan. Pansexual. Liberal ‘AF’. Anti-racist. Depressed. Alcoholic. We’ve come to love labeling ourselves and the labels we identify with have a way of becoming immovable; unshakeable facets of our identities that sometimes we would be best served by leaving behind.
The coming of age process has always included some version of self-identification as a way to signal the transition to becoming one’s own person, but of course, we’ve developed the habit of etching these labels into digital stone via social media. And once something has been proclaimed on the Internet, good luck escaping it. Have fun trying to ‘not be’ that thing anymore.
Were we always so absolutist?
A case for nervous breakdowns:
Sometime last week, I came across an article that ran in the March issue of The Atlantic, titled “Bring Back the Nervous Breakdown” by contributing writer, Jerry Useem. In one of my favorite parts of the piece, Useem points out how the vagueness of what constituted a ‘nervous breakdown’ was one of the best things about it:
“‘The very general and ill-defined characteristics of the nervous breakdown were its benefits,’ Peter Stearns, a social and cultural historian of the nervous breakdown at George Mason University, told me. “It played a function we’ve at least partially lost. You didn’t have to visit a psychiatrist or a psychologist to qualify for a nervous breakdown. You didn’t need a specific cause. You were allowed to step away from normalcy. The breakdown also signaled a temporary loss of functioning, like a car breaking down. It may be in the shop, sometimes recurrently, but it didn’t signal an inherited or permanent state such as terms like bipolar or ADHD might signal today.”
The nervous breakdown was not a medical condition, but a sociological one. It implicated a physical problem—your “nerves”—not a mental one. And it was a onetime event, not a permanent condition. It provided sanction for a pause and reset that could put you back on track. But as psychology eclipsed sociology in the late 20th century, it turned us inward to our personal moods and thoughts—and away from the shared economic and social circumstances that produced them.”
The catchall ‘nervous breakdown’ got me thinking about our relatively recent tendency to want to diagnose ourselves (with acute accuracy and specificity) as soon as something feels wrong. What used to be a nervous breakdown now is a case of OCD, ADHD, severe anxiety, manic depression, etc. Of course, for a lot of people, there are very meaningful benefits to being properly diagnosed and treated for a slew of conditions. But, what happens when a lot of us are self-diagnosing ourselves into a never-ending self-fulfilling prophecy, unable to break free of our prognosis?
What medical diagnoses often don’t give us, especially when it comes to psychological matters, is a way out - impermanence.
Knowing there is much to be said about the value of a proper medical diagnosis, I think what I like most about the concept of an all-encompassing mental break is that there’s no pressure to explain yourself or self-identify, no need to validate your condition or justify its ‘seriousness’.
Back in March, I liked this article in The New Yorker: “The Rise of Therapy Speak: How a language got off the couch and into the world.” by Katy Waldman, which opens:
First, let’s survey the situation. It’s as though the haze of our inner lives were being filtered through a screen of therapy work sheets. If we are especially online, or roaming the worlds of friendship, wellness, activism, or romance, we must consider when we are centering ourselves or setting boundaries, sitting with our discomfort or being present. We “just want to name” a dynamic. We joke about our coping mechanisms, codependent relationships, and avoidant attachment styles. We practice self-care and shun “toxic” acquaintances. We project and decathect; we are triggered, we say wryly, adding that we dislike the word; we catastrophize, ruminate, press on the wound, process. We feel seen and we feel heard, or we feel unseen and we feel unheard, or we feel heard but not listened to, not actively. We diagnose and receive diagnoses: O.C.D., A.D.H.D., generalized anxiety disorder, depression. We’re enmeshed, fragile. Our emotional labor is grinding us down. We’re doing the work. We need to do the work.
Waldman sharply points out that ‘perhaps the language of mental health is burgeoning because actual mental health is declining’. There’s also the tendency for ‘therapy speak’ to act as a signal of certain level of sophistication, of education, of virtue. It can feel unavoidable on Instagram, where expressive, confessional language has generated social media stars lauded for their ‘realness’.
This may explain some of the irritation that therapy-speak occasionally provokes: the words suggest a sort of woke posturing, a theatrical deference to norms of kindness, and they also show how the language of suffering often finds its way into the mouths of those who suffer least.
— Katie Waldman, The New Yorker
We are living in an era of ‘peak-unique’; the Internet and social networks have contributed to - if not created - a climate of intense individualism that most of us are susceptible to, at least to some extent. Arguably, the common desire to self-select into ever more specific groups might have the bizarre side effect of breeding self-righteousness. It becomes too easy to focus on that which separates us, too easy to get caught up in defining and defending one’s own identity.
Further, our fixation with categorizing ourselves might hinder us from changing, from shedding certain labels when we should.
Embrace Your Inner Shape-Shifter?
Back to Marcus Aurelius, who wrote: “The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.” — it’s often easier to think about external change than internal change. We act as though we are ‘fixed’ and it is the ‘crazy world’ that changes around us. For all of our tropes about embracing change, how many people actually do?
Rather than get caught up in a cycle of labeling ourselves and allowing for those labels to shape our worldview, what if we continually viewed everything and ourselves as shifting? What if we really gave ourselves permission to evolve, or more simply, to change our minds? What if we did the same for others?
Time is only one way to measure. Something that doesn’t last or doesn’t stick isn’t inherently worth less or less meaningful, whether it’s a relationship, a business, a building, or a state of mind.
The ability to be one thing one day and something else the next might be as close to magic as anything humans can do, and why would anyone want to give that up?
A bit all over the place today… Have a great week!
While I generally agree with a lot of what you are presenting here, it also assumes a general functionality that many with conditions like ADHD simply do not have. The unfortunate thing is that ADHD is assigned to the realm of psychology when in fact it is a neurological issue—one that people are born with, cannot be 'changed' and causes quite a bit of difficulty, challenge, and suffering. In much the same way that someone with Aspergers or high blood pressure can have their lives negatively impacted by the condition, there are also treatments that help them manage better in their lives. For example, if you watched the documentary on Greta Thunberg or read any of the articles by her parents it was clear that she was suffering greatly and her health quite compromised both prior to the start of her protest against climate change but also during. I have a good friend who has suffered from crushing depression his entire life and often struggles with managing everyday life and suicidal ideation despite treatment—but he is also a brilliant and generous person who is beloved by many. Of course, all humans suffer their own challenges navigating the world for a host of reasons so in that regard none of us is really 'all that special.' While it can be negative for people to be defined stereotypically or in a judgmental manner by any label, it also is not helpful to disregard or misunderstand who they are, including what could be perceived as a label. I suggest that it is society's prejudice and reaction to those 'labels' that is the problem. We would all do much better to not only embrace that life is change and that we are free to explore, transition, and transcend all aspects of ourselves—but to be more open, kind, and accepting that there are many ways to be vs. rigid constructs and expectations about what is acceptable.
It makes sense to me that tribalism comes from the need to survive and is a "natural" thing to do. I think you're on to something with regard to tribes getting more and more specific and thus further and further apart. I wonder if it's in part b/c we've outlived the usefulness of more traditional "big" groups, like national, geographic, gender, language. That's not a bad thing at all, as it allows human diversity to flourish and define itself, but perhaps some of these smaller groups imprison us in their specificity. Maybe the digital society is so stressful ppl feel a greater need to stand out or digital culture drives a kind of terminal unique...tough say. But to your point, we are constantly evolving, and since change doesn't ever stop, we will forcibly be different than we are today. Figuring out how to do that gracefully and positively is hard.