Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Introspection Engine

Over the weekend I did two things: 1) finish my eleventh journal 2) have an introspective conversation with someone important about how much band has contributed to my character development. And I realized that these two things are related.

If I were turned into a program, somewhere in the source code one would find this loop:

while True:
    introspect()

Assuming, of course, that my source code is written in Python. If one looked closer, somewhere above one would find:

def introspect():
    #lots of code, don't really want to break my metaphor so I won't show it all
    journal.writeEntry()

I have long known that when I write about my stories in my journal, the actual writing goes better. Correlation does not equal causation; it could also be that when the writing is going well, that's when I'm most engaged with the story, when it becomes a part of my life that I want to record for myself. That glorious summer four years ago when I finished The Utopia Project, I often started entries talking about what had happened in the story that day, before ever mentioning anything I had done in the real world.

But more important, perhaps, than the words I log on UM are the words I log on myself. Every day at the end of the day I sit down with my journal and I write about what I did, offering more or fewer details as time allows, thinking through whatever issues of the moment bother or worry me. Events and my feelings about them. Action and reaction. Introspection.

Our memories are malleable, unreliable, and the way we interpret events often has more impact on our future state than the events themselves. We cannot change the facts of the case, but we can change what they mean--and we only get to change what they mean if we think about them. If we look at our past (retrospect) and then interpret it (introspect).

Ryan Holiday has written about the narrative fallacy, about how making your life into a story is harmful because it ignores everything that doesn't go into the story. And while it is true that my band bildungsroman leaves out the days I was happy as a freshman and miserable as a junior, I will disagree with Holiday's statement that "stories are worthless because they’re mental creations – they are not reality." Because wow, just because a statement is strong doesn't mean it is right. Saying that stories are worthless is conceptually the same thing as saying that Newtonian mechanics are worthless.

Why? Because both are theories that imprecisely model reality, compressing the huge amount of data that exists in the world into usable forms. And that is the value of stories: helping us make sense of our lives, helping form a roadmap showing us where we've been and where we're going.
"Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful." -- George E. P. Box
Of course Holiday has a point that you shouldn't believe your own hype, that you have to remain aware that "it's just a story." And I cannot say that my constant introspection loop has not had negative effects--sometimes I do see myself as a protagonist, a larger-than-life Hero of my Story, and it's embarrassing when I have to remember that I'm human. Infusing a rather ordinary life with melodrama and import has its dangers.

On the other hand, constantly introspecting keeps me aware of my weaknesses, of my mistakes, and of how I might fix them. It keeps me sane when there is no one to whom I can complain. (I cannot honestly speak to any benefits beyond these direct ones, because I've kept a journal consistently since middle school. Thus, growing up and my natural personality are confounding variables.)

The introspection engine will run. It will take in the raw data of a life and it will churn, it will call for journal entry upon journal entry for thousands of days, it will produce a narrative. An imprecise story, perhaps, embellished by imagination when the stuff of everyday life is not enough. But a story that benefits the weaver, whether from the work of creation or from seeing the story itself, pointing a trajectory to better things.

The introspection engine will run.

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