Particularity

A while back, I wrote some things about reality, about the idea that, you know, the world really is here and I really am part of it, objectively and substantively. On the surface, an idea so simple and obvious that it hardly seems worthy of mention, and yet it’s an idea that doesn’t occur to me on a regular basis — I don’t somehow notice that the world is real and I am real, and that therefore the world matters and I matter in it. In the day to day doing of day to day things, I overlook that. And I think it causes life to lose some of its meaning and joy.

This morning I was struck by a further thought — not only am I real, but I have particularity, an individual and unique existence. Again, not really earth-shattering stuff, here. But then again it is, and I felt the force of the realization in ways that I never have before. I am real and individual and unique and part of the world: I take up space, I displace a volume of air, I gather in and expend energy, I weigh upon the ground. I have ideas that no one else has and say words that no one else says (they have their own ideas and words). The world is a different place, not only because I am in it, but because of what I do in it. These words are coming to life because I am thinking and typing them on a keyboard, the words I wrote in my notebook earlier mean that there are black marks now on a once-clear sheet of paper, the program I am writing this afternoon is making a spreadsheet capable of doing things it otherwise couldn’t do, the leftover stew I had for lunch wouldn’t have existed if I didn’t make it, wouldn’t have been consumed if I didn’t eat it. And on and on.

Once again, some of my kind readers may be thinking “… and this is newsworthy, how?” It’s not, on the surface — I know that it’s not. But once again, how often do any of us think in those terms? I certainly don’t. And the effects of that go much deeper than whether or not someone scribbles on paper or eats a bowl of stew.

Along with particularity, I’m also talking about the concept of agency — the ability of a person (an “agent”) to make decisions and enact them upon the world, so that the world becomes a different place. This is where these ideas gain urgency for me, because I am realizing that I have never fully understood my own agency, never felt it as a strong force in my decisions and actions, and so in a lot of ways I just drift through life on default settings. Many people do, and some are content, but I am not — I want more out of life than that, I want to live more fully, I want to feel that I have more choice in the way things go. I know that not everything is controllable, that sometimes stuff just happens, but I want to have a greater sense of my own ability to make the best possible choices in response to stuff that happens.

Further, I know that the world is in many ways a broken-down place, and people live here limping and hurt, and I want to be able to help — I would like for there to be people who live better lives because I have been on the earth. Maybe that sounds grandiose, but so be it. I want for it to be true, and so these concepts of particularity and agency are important, maybe paramount. My ability to change the world into a better place, in whatever capacity, lies with them — with making decisions and acting out of my own uniqueness, my own particular abilities and gifts, in the real places where I live and work and meet with my friends.

Last night in my taiji classes we discussed the familiar idea of “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In that context, the lesson was that improvement at taiji means improving something, a little bit, every day. It’s true in taiji, of course, because it’s true in life as a whole. Lives are built out of day-by-day choices and actions, most of which are very small. But each of those small actions is an expression of our agency, or an abdication of its responsibility.

I really do realize that I’m not writing anything new and groundbreaking here. Many other and much better writers have said the same things in their own words. The only difference is that these are my words, and they come up out of a place that is beginning to realize these ideas apply to me as well as everyone else. That I really do have the capacity to build my own life, and the desire to do so — that is maybe the most surprising, compelling thing, feeling the intensity of desire that follows realizing the possibility. I don’t want a default life. I want my own.

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