Individuals as fractals

Monday, September 17, 2018

4:30 a.m. Read a lot of Morris on [Theodore] Roosevelt in quiet accustomed discouragement at the waste of my own life by comparison. I have to wonder, given that I don’t profit from the examples, and given that these famous lives only dishearten me by the contrast, why is it that biography, and history, has so dominated my reading, for most of my life? It is as if I have been driven to immerse myself in the subject, but for what constructive reason?

[TGU, presumably:] Have you ever heard of specialization of function?

Sure, but is there a need for people who spend their lives doing nothing but looking on at the records others have set?

Apparently there is, or you wouldn’t be filling it, if that is what you are doing. But with everything being part of one thing (or perhaps a better way to put it would be, with everybody being part of one person), surely individuality is precious. You can see that.

We can’t all be King, I realize, nor Queen. So everybody who isn’t born into the royal family can either spend their life resenting the fact, or looking on in awe, or any other possible attitude. And the same with any other eminence, whether of talent or skill or luck or birthright or fortunate disposition. But the question of watching others isn’t quite the thing here; it’s closer to envying not the circumstances but the character traits.

And this demonstrates why envy is one of the seven deadly sins –if sin is defined, as we do, as “missing the mark,” as an unhelpful attitude. To envy another is to not see the justice in the universe. Of course, here we need to untangle the various meanings of the word “envy.”

We say “a decent envy” when we mean something closer to admiration.

Yes, and that one has little or no charge to it. But there is a corrosive envy that is entirely destructive.

And – you’re going to say – every degree between the two extremes.

Well, it’s true. It is always true. Life is a bell curve, not a binary switch.

My friend Dirk points out that with the discovery of fractals, it becomes clear that, just as you say, there is no such thing as a clear boundary, only approximate boundaries that look different at different (equally valid) scales.

It’s all part of the same undivided whole. We keep telling you, the universe does not have fracture lines.

So, in the matter of envy and comparisons and discouragements, a seemingly irrelevant and frivolous comparison, or rather an alternate way of judging things, would be to ask, How well could Theodore Roosevelt lead your life?

Before you answer that – and of course in this as usual we are speaking to anyone reading this, not only to the one writing it – consider all the ramifications of personality, environment, limitation of viewpoint. (You can’t, of course, not literally. But – make the attempt.) To make the attempt as challenging as possible, take a Teddy Roosevelt or an Ernest Hemingway or anyone whose life you are familiar with whose interests were broad, and whose energy was high. In other words, compare yourself to someone you would rate high on the achievement scale and on the personal-energy scale. How well could someone with those characteristics live your life?

But isn’t that the point? That someone with those characteristics would live our lives entirely differently, and would make them come to more?

Not so fast. They would live them differently, but that’s a lot of implied assumptions unnoticed. Recalibrate.

For the first time, I realize that when you say that, you mean it not only for me.

Not only for you, though not necessarily for all. Take it as a reminder that slower is sometimes deeper.

All right, let me take a breath, here.

What looks to you (any of you) like a life is always more complex and more enmeshed in circumstances inner and outer than can be known. To a small degree this may be obvious, but it repays more careful consideration.

I’m getting the feel of a great mass of information to be downloaded, needing some organizing principle if it is to come out coherently.

And you, choosing, are that organizing principle. That is what editing is; it is what you do whenever you pull out the meaning implicit but not yet explicit in anything you deal with. This is true not merely of texts, you understand, and not merely of you as an individual.

I swear, your sidelights [I should have said, “asides”] are as interesting to me sometimes as your main trail.

You may find it easier than we do, to find the differences between the two. To us, it is all side-trails, all main trail.

So, a life –

Take John F. Kennedy. With a different father, different brothers, a different body (that is, more reliable health), different opportunities and restrictions – would he have been the same man?

You are implying “which you” about him as well.

That’s inherent in the question, yes. If his elder brother had lived, would JFK ever have developed the unsuspected talents that circumstances brought out? But if his external life had been entirely or largely different, and his decisions therefore different or in many cases nonexistent, would he have been the same person.

As I am writing that, I get, “people as fractals.”

Exactly. Expand upon that.

That’s why we can ask “Which you?” Looking at the same person at a different magnification, we see differences unsuspected at other settings.

You may want to make it a little less abstract than that.

Yes, all right. John F. Kennedy as we know him is the individual produced by – and producing by his on-going choices – a web of relationships. His heredity, his father’s achievements, his illnesses, his bookishness, his social and intellectual opportunities, his career trajectory – all of this is Kennedy seen at a certain magnification. But change the scale and we would see (except, of course, we never can see this in anyone else) the essence behind the personality, the spark behind the glow. If all the external circumstances had been different, the spark would have been the same even if circumstances had constrained it to a dull glow, or had rendered it entirely invisible.

That’s more or less what we’re getting at. And the same for anybody else, of course. Even things that appear to be the result of free will applied over time in given circumstances – habits, in other words – are perhaps more the result of circumstance than of innate character. Someone in a receptive environment may prosper, where in a dampening one, they would not have. The spark is the same; the glow is not and never could be, nor is it desirable that different situations produce like results.

The actor is not the role.


And thus if we are cast as Othello we shouldn’t envy the role of Iago, or if an unnamed courtier, Hamlet.

Yes but.

That ought to be the title of my intellectual autobiography, Yes But.

There are worse titles. The “yes but” means, that isn’t the same as saying “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” At one level of magnification, yes, all is well and injustice does not exist. At other levels, obviously, you have to measure by different scales. Viewing yourselves as 3D roles, there is room for all the seven sins, all the virtues. From the deeper level of yourself as part of the intricate fabric of reality, maybe not.

Are we finished for the moment? Sometimes I can tell, sometimes not.

That’s because sometimes you are well aware of continuities and other times, more aware of boundaries. But this is as good a place as any to pause.

Okay, just as well. Whenever I start to find it hard to control the pen, I figure it’s time to give it a rest. Till next time, then.


2 thoughts on “Individuals as fractals

  1. Very helpful. Been judging myself as less than desirable in more ways than one. Struggling to change beliefs, values, habits with more awareness. Not ten minutes ago I asked myself if I shouldn’t be doing something besides what appears to me to be the bare minimum…something that “matters” (in whose eyes?).

    I really just want to play here forever. 🙂

  2. Your skills, work, and life in this area are of more value to many than those of a famous person caught up in the political arena. Would like to write more but too tired. You give me hope for greater play days. Vbg.

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