Summary of Previous Chapters
In Part 1 of this series, I outlined my personal journey with mental health and organizing, concluding that using organizing to build my ego was an endlessly futile struggle, and that ultimately — if I continued on the path I was on — I was going to continue to feel more and more empty on the inside. Instead, I concluded that I needed to “try to derive happiness, self-worth, meaning, and social fullness totally from the inside.” In other words: I needed to stop basing my self-worth on organizing, and instead, learn to just damn love myself just because.
In Part 2 of this series, I followed up a month later to provide some practical proof of that concept and to sketch out a theoretical, emotional/philosophical basis for why deriving self-worth from within actually makes one’s organizing *more* effective and more powerful. I take apart emotional/social concepts like “soul,” “carefree,” “fun,” and “authenticity” as they relate to self-love and organizing, and conclude that “inner ‘soul’ work is just as important, if not more important than, the techniques of organizing.” Importantly, I mention the paradox that, “I’m not trying to derive self-worth from within *in order to* be a better organizer. That would still be deriving self-worth externally. Rather, I’m attempting to derive self-worth from within. Period. Also, then, my organizing is getting better.”
In this next chapter, I’m going to delve back into my story, highlight some more paradoxes I’ve encountered throughout my journey these last four months, and then conclude with the nuance that deriving self-worth from the inside doesn’t actually solve any paradoxes at all, as it is itself a paradox. I will then begin to sketch out a suggestion for what to do.
…now back to your regularly scheduled programming.
Part 3: On Self-Worth, Authenticity, Organizing, and Existential Paradoxes
When I wrote Part 1 of this series, I was going through a transition between what I felt was one of the highest moments of my life to what I felt was one of the lowest moments of my life. You see, six months before I wrote that post, everything that I possibly could have wanted from the world, I had. I was working my dream organizing job, I was making a middle-class salary that was greater than what 96% of people my age were making, I was dating a girl I was overwhelmingly in love with, I was discovering new and exciting things about my sexuality, I was going out and making new friends, I was feeling super close to my old friends, I was losing weight, and I even felt creatively fulfilled because my newly formed band was writing new songs every week and playing shows. Literally. I had. It. All. I was going to bed every night buzzed with what I thought was pure joy. I was so full of myself, some nights I even half-seriously wondered if I was related to divinity. (I wish that were a joke.)
I was desperately chasing external validation, and the ridiculous thing is that I had it — way more external validation than anyone my age should ever have. The ‘high’s of external validation felt ephemeral, for sure — and I was consistently worried and protective of that validation — but nonetheless, at the time the stream of Joy seemed endless.
Then, Trump got elected. That meant the very likely scenario that, through Trump’s ability to nominate Supreme Court justices, the United States would become Right-to-Work, making it much more difficult for labor unions to employ organizers like myself — I came to the realization that there was a high likelihood of me losing both my source of most joy and validation (my career as a union organizer) and my source of middle-class income. Then (independent of that), my girlfriend and I broke up. Then, I became depressed and stopped going out and making new friends. Then, I had gotten into serious conflict with many of my closest friends, leading one of them to stop speaking with me. Then I started gaining back the weight I had lost. And — funny enough — even my band stopped playing shows and writing songs because one of my bandmates had gotten super busy. All this happened within a period of about 4 months.
I had lost all that external validation, and I was so mad at the world, and I was so sad. I didn’t know how to handle it. The external validation that I’d become so addicted to had disappeared (what felt like) overnight, and I was going cold-turkey.
I distinctly remember a week — I was working in San Jose — where it felt so completely unbearable. My head was spinning, and I was forcing myself to meditate every few hours just to try to keep my head straight. I was over-eating all the time, and I was sleeping excessively so that I didn’t have to deal with the real world. I had no choice, and then, suddenly: I let go. I was forced to realize that true liberation comes from the inside. And after a week of this weird, sudden inner peace, I wrote Part 1. I was forced to realize that I had to derive my sense of self-worth not from organizing, but from the inside — forced to realize it before it was too late and I’d be completely destroyed.
To this day, I am so thankful that life knocked the total wind out of me. Otherwise, I’d still be constantly chasing external validation and feeling empty on the inside. And as I began to rediscover the ‘authentic’ parts of who I was, I wrote Part 2 — about the joys and benefits of loving yourself and expressing your authentic self, how that was infinitely more powerful, effective, and rewarding than chasing external validation.
Yet: getting close to a year since my life started to rise and then collapse in front of me — a year since I started this journey — I’m reflecting on this last year and what it has meant. Like I said, I’m grateful, but I also find myself confronted with a multitude of unsolvable paradoxes — paradoxes which have been bringing me down.
Paradox 1: It’s true that you don’t need external validation to feel self-worth. True self-worth comes from within. Yet it is through my self-development journey that I reached this conclusion in the first place. So if — all along — I didn’t need to do anything extra to be ‘full,’ and if I’ve always just been ‘enough,’ and if it is in that realization that *is* how I am ‘full’ and ‘enough,’ how can it be that improving oneself is so central to the human condition? In other words, doesn’t the very nature of finding self-worth from within reinforce the notion that one can even find self-worth from within, which is the only way to find self-worth from within, yet they are doing an act which is improving themselves into who they both are and are not in the first place? The search for self-worth from within is thus both absolutely futile and absolutely necessary.
Paradox 2: One can answer that the solution to Paradox 1 is to come to the realization that the journey isn’t “improving oneself from a low point to a higher point” but that the journey is instead to “get rid of all the blockages that exist in the way of expressing one’s authentic self.” But this only bounces the paradox one step up an infinite ladder — I’ve put a lot of thought into being ‘authentic’ in order to become who I am today, and also the human condition experiences and recognizes ‘authenticity.’ Yet part of the human condition — too — is self-reflection. Even: you have to self-reflect to be authentic. How can we both be ‘authentic’ and ‘self-reflective’? And etc.
Paradox 3: If you truly understand the magnitude of suffering and substance that social justice talks about, you should be mad at everyone all the time, and as a result you become an organizer. Racism, sexism, and capitalism, etc., murders, deprives, and spiritually destroys billions of people. Yet being mad at everyone, while righteous, is completely ineffective when organizing in the real world. The only way to move others is through connection and compassion. Thus, to even be an organizer — in the first place — is to revolt against everyone, and also it is to love everyone. Yet to truly love everyone makes you not a ‘true organizer,’ and to hate everyone makes you an organizer but also not one at all. (More on this: On the Importance of Having Thoughts & a Life Outside the Left.)
Paradox 4: We’re monkeys on a spinning f*cking rock. It’s not clear why we are here. We will be dead soon enough. This is all meaningless. Yet we experience meaning all the time. The human condition cannot escape meaning. We are so passionate about advancing art, science, communication, organizing, etc. How can there both be meaning — how can this very FB post have any meaning — yet also have no meaning at all?
Philosopher Albert Camus’ answer to this last one is to say “I don’t know.” He doesn’t think we will know, and he also doesn’t think we won’t know. Rather, it is in accepting the absurdity of the world and in an act of revolt — searching for meaning anyway — that one can find happiness. In the “Myth of Sisyphus” (Sisyphus being the Greek figure who is condemned by the gods to roll a heavy boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down, endlessly), Camus writes, “The struggle itself… is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I’d been bogged down by these paradoxes as I’ve reflected on the last year, feeling that the Answers are unanswerable and feeling bad again and wondering if there was an end to this journey. Especially since it feels like I’ve worked so, so, so, so, so, so hard — now I realize — only to define my self-worth based on defining my self-worth from within, which is a paradox that seems unsolvable. Maybe there are answers, maybe they aren’t answers. And so I think — despite the fact that I may never know — I will continue on in my journey, and find meaning in the journey itself. That’s calming.
I’m beginning to find that this is good in life too. People are so focused on outcomes. Focus on the process instead. Not in “I will find happiness and self-worth from external sources,” and not even that “I will find happiness and self-worth from within,” but for now: “I will find happiness in this maybe hopeless and maybe hopeful struggle, but for right now I am finding self-worth from within, and it is not a perfect solution, but it is the process of figuring out the potentially unanswerable that I can hope to find meaning itself.”
Embracing the paradoxes — and revolting against the potentially unanswerable by continuing on anyway — is the only way forward.