Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

31 Aug 2009, 0:29 a.m.

Nostalgia And Consistent Pleasures

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

In my Epistemology and impostor syndrome post at Geek Feminism, I spoke a little about systematically dissecting praise to check for sincerity. There's a mess of connections here among my memories, hopes, and worldview; lemme do some exploring.

Mary Anne, Ben, and Jed gave me the four-question Myers-Briggs quiz at WisCon (the way I write that makes it sound like the Are You A Libertarian (Yes) Quiz) and reminded me that I like to make sense of the world. I like to create hypotheses to explain behavior I observe, and I like to fit my behavior to consistent principles. (Incidentally, reading this profile of Atul Gawande caused me to remember how frightening I found the TV show ER as a teen -- the hospital seemed chaotic, without discernable systems keeping track of people -- and wonder whether that perception helped stop me from going into medicine.)

My Grand Unified Theory of Everything impulse applies not only to observations but predictions and hopes. Trying to systematically understand reality, discarding the impossible or unproven, means valuing the statistically improbable, making it hard to disprove the null hypothesis, and paying far more attention to expensive & hard-to-fake signals. But it also means that the scientific mind won't let its owner fantasize about scenarios contrary to character, ethics, and the other constraints she knows intimately. The virtual machine that runs my hypotheses is science fictional, not fantastic.

Unfulfilled wishes can't reach forward into fantasy, so I reach backwards into history. But the memories of having a desire fulfilled -- desire for approval, or sex, or technical competence -- they lose their savor.

I do have memories, though, that give me abundant pleasure. A sprint near a lake in Russia, as a storm started. A conversation with two children while waiting for takeout. A moment, walking downhill from Soda Hall for the first time and seeing the Campanile and Doe Library in shining summer light.

These don't slip away.

My systematic side asks: why? And how can I get more?

They are memories of wonder, not desire. They aren't attached to maws of need that suck all the pleasure into the endless abyss. They float, free from hope and desire and expectation, moments of unearned, unexpected grace.

Garrison Keillor (although it isn't complete without his half-incredulous delivery):

Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.