Once again, I’m about to do a lot of talking out my ass on subjects I’m not certified to comment on. But what I’m about to say feels true to me, so good enough for now. Just don’t cite me in your term paper.
The struggle of all thinking animals is to make sense of the world, and all social animals are also compelled to make sense of their relation to conspecifics. Both problems (which I’ll return to later) involve an assumption of a self – that there exists at the core of one’s impulses, thoughts, and perceptions a singular entity that owns its being. “I think therefore I am” is often misinterpreted by people unfamiliar with philosophy* as meaning one must think to exist legitimately – “I’m clever therefore I am cool” – but it simply means that if there is an “I” to be capable of thinking, then the “I” must be real.
This “I” has not, since about age fifteen, felt quite like it is real. I’m not qualified to debate this formally, but if anyone has the high-blown formal jargon and practice to take that up in the comments, go for it. I’m simply saying I don’t feel like the self is as coherent a thing in reality as we normally assume it to be.
The pretentious teenage Satan of yore was introduced to Descartes and began to question their previous assumptions that reason+observation were sufficient to know reality, and this feeling followed from that. The failure of his ontological argument (which aimed not just to prove the existence of god, but to establish that one could trust the reality of the world) stranded me partway through his line of reasoning, in a state of endless doubt.**
What are we if not beings, individually existing selves?*** Biology can provide an idea of what I mean. We are colonies of differentiated cells, working together, but without any central governing body. The brain is an organ of those cells, but it doesn’t directly control all of the others, doesn’t even have a singular controller of the cells within itself. Likewise, the “software” of a human consciousness seems to be made of disparate impulses, senses, and thought processes that – while they add up to something that seems like a whole – remain distinct.
And if we try to isolate the center by feeling our way through to the dark pit of our minds, to some of us, it will feel like there isn’t anything there. My guess is that there really isn’t anything there, for any of us, but that people with a strong sense of their self are more able to construct a functional illusion. That isn’t always a good thing, because a social animal’s sense of self can be fundamentally horrible.
Which takes me back to the first paragraph. Assuming a self that needs to eat and dodge bears to continue experiencing life – this is useful and great. Determining the value of that self, the relative worth that entitles us to experience life, is a kind of hell that no animal should have to deal with. If it works out for you, it doesn’t even feel like you did anything at all. If it doesn’t work, everything you do can be ruined, all the way down to simply breathing.
This is where I was before I truly started to understand what self esteem means to people that don’t have it. I couldn’t imagine there even being a question of whether I’m entitled to happiness. If someone outside tries to bring me down, it is obviously because they are wrong. I didn’t know the reason I felt OK was because my mind was actively doing something. Feeling OK doesn’t feel like anything.
But as a social animal, being worthy of life is a decision I am making, an act I am undertaking. Or more accurately, something that was decided for me by luck and circumstance practically before I could speak, and that has since been an assumption I can take for granted, that my healthy mind reinforces every day. If, at the age of two, I had been ignored, dismissed, abused, I could feel very differently. I could feel like the only metric of my worth is the approval of others, that without an overwhelming amount of positive reinforcement from people around me, I should just shuffle off and die.
I could, when I look in a mirror, see every insult or dismissal or cutting remark made about every aspect of my appearance, or of the appearance of people who look like myself. And then what? I’d think of myself as gross, disgusting, unlovable, worthless. I could earnestly believe all of those things as if they were my own thoughts, rather than the programming of a society that exists in a twisted and cruel scramble of social sorting.
There isn’t any cure for it. That’s our minds doing what they’re built for: forming a socially stable population with maximum potential to carry the genes forward. As animals, we’ve gotten beyond the need for this kind of built-in social valuation, the same way we’ve gotten beyond the need for whatever the appendix was. We have an ethical system that builds on what’s best in us – humanism – and other ways of helping the whole population get by. Bad self esteem is a holdover from a time when our species was less fancy.
In our society as it exists now, bad self-esteem is a maladaption that has to be worked past, like natural childbirth. Bring on the pod-grown babies. And bring on a cure for bad self esteem, whatever that may be, because living in a world this full of sadness bums my neurotypical shit out. No one should have to feel like they are unworthy of life and happiness.
Seems like my topic did a 180 there and maybe it did, but I feel like these things are related. Maybe something that insulated my brain from bad self-evaluation is that I’ve never had a fully developed sense of self in the non-social sense in the first place? Or maybe it was having a peer group in the form of siblings near my own age, so that being ignored by parents didn’t harm me. I dunno. I just wish I could donate all this extra self-esteem to those in need. It is extra – I feel like I have more esteem than self.
*I have literally 101 level familiarity with philosophy. It’s enough to mess with childish teenage me of long ago, not enough to go into any substance with trained professionals.
**This doubt isn’t very significant. It’s there, but it doesn’t affect a life that has thus far been safely lived as if apparent reality can be trusted. It just felt disturbing at the time, having previously always felt much more confident in my sense and senses.
***This whole essay has likely suffered from a lack of vocabulary to address the issue. I hope that it still makes sense.