#66: What if I told you I have a theory

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Good morning!

In several conversations over the last several months, I’ve found myself returning to a theory about life. I realize that makes me sound 22, but I’m not sure how else to put it. I’m also certain this theory has been understood and explored by others in various writings, but I’ve never known of or read any of them, and thus it feels original to me, which is beautiful. The point of the theory is to understand our behaviors over time, especially when they confound us. Through that process we may even come to embrace our various conflicting qualities, like the part of us that loves to cook and the part that can’t stand the thought of it. It’s a theory of inconsistency as a rule—even a goal. A theory of instability as the ultimate equilibrium.

Here is the foundation of the theory: We are all, at all times, operating on a series of dials that have “too little” on one end and “too much” on the other. See above. Said dials can be applied to anything we are (funny, insightful, motivated); do (clean, shop, binge eat sour gummy worms); feel (hot, sad, tired); or want (success, contentment, novelty). We might imagine our lives like a flight deck—one dial says we’re overdoing it on the partying, another says we’re doing a good job keeping in touch with friends, somewhere in the corner there’s a red light flashing that we ignore, etc. Our positions on the dials are not consistent; they are moving left to right all the time, finding stillness only the moment before they shift again. This motility is key, as most of us spend our lives combating it: trying to steady all our little dials until each one is perfectly balanced. Like this:

When we’re young, I think most of us assume getting older means achieving that kind of stillness across the board. Never overdoing it or overthinking it. Learning to hit the ball right down the centerline (assuming that’s good?), all of life’s lessons stuck to our bats like gold stars. There’s plenty of reasons we think this way—first because we believe our parents know everything, then because our teachers seem like they do, and finally because we read self-help articles and sappy birthday captions and interviews with older people who say 70 is the new 40. These project a sense of earned calmness, which we interpret almost like a metaphysical prophecy: We will not only appear but feel calm in our eventual wisdom, like a warm wave lapping gently against the storm-torn shore of our youth. Maybe it really is like that—I am but a spry 32, as of yesterday—but my theory says otherwise.

So here’s the next part: We are designed to move around the dials. We’re less like waves, more like sharks, wiggling to stay alive. It was my friend and writer Connie Wang who crystalized this so well on my podcast a few months ago: “That’s what life’s about, you know? Going past the line, then finding where you’re comfortable and pushing things a little further, then bringing it back. If you’re not negotiating, what are you actually doing? You’re not growing.” A state of forever-negotiation might sound like a nightmare, but we’re already doing it all the time—deciding to work out more, or care less, or think differently about Jennifer. Oftentimes we metabolize these changes as growth, but just as often we go back and change our minds again. This movement keeps us engaged, and I’ve given it a name: frisson.

Frisson technically refers to the chills we get when we hear unexpected harmonies or sudden changes in volume while listening to music. Frisson also might refer simply to a thrill. But what’s key to experiencing it is having your expectations violated. You must shift away from stability to feel the magic. We talk often about the importance of novelty (especially after lockdown took all of it away), but it’s easy to forget this requires a violation. We must expect one thing, get another. But existential frisson is different from merely seeking out obviously thrilling or novel experiences. It’s about embracing your own mercurial spirit as a kind of life force. Understanding that your waxing and waning desires, qualities, and behaviors are not an accident of flimsy character but proof you’re not dead.

Five years ago, my parents moved out of my childhood home into a smaller place, 500 miles away, that was already furnished. Suddenly our colorful, tchotchke-filled house with the notches in the doorway marking our respective heights was replaced with a sparse, vaguely nautical model condo. My mom told us she’d never felt so free, no longer surrounded by all that stuff, with no pressure to decorate a new place as someone likely named Todd had already done it for her. My siblings and I found this baffling and hilarious. And for a long time, she held the line. But recently she told me that one day she woke up and no longer liked what Todd had done with the place, and slowly started replacing his decorations with her own. The theory occurred to me as she spoke. Because it wasn’t that she didn’t need or want the model condo. She did. And then she didn’t. Frisson is not being merely fickle or unreliable, which is annoying. It’s about taking things too far in order to turn back around in the other direction, ad infinitum. It’s about growing in every direction through your own centripetal force. 

The phrase “be careful what you wish for” reminds me of this vacillation: wanting a thing, realizing that’s not quite right, wanting the thing you used to have. We tend to think of this as a sweeping morality tale: the popstar who doesn’t want their fame, the lonely boss. But I think we’re cycling through this process all the time, and are better for it. I cherish summer after winter, winter after summer. Want short hair, long hair, short hair. I want to get out, stay in; loosen up, get serious; do less, do more. These desires are not isolated. They are not correct or incorrect; they are responsive to and ignited by their opposites. “Be careful what you wish for” is meant to preach caution and gratitude, but too much of those and we’ll be bored, too. What we’re actually seeking is not everything dialed in just so, but the change in volume and resulting chills, on a loop forever. 

My friend once told me he’s intrigued by and attracted to people who sometimes look beautiful and sometimes don’t. I never forgot that, because it genuinely surprised and also comforted me. Now I think I understand what he was getting at, and I agree: It’s frisson. The intrigue of learning about something over and over, never quite pinning it down. Life feels like that, too. And per the theory, that’s exactly what keeps us going.

  1. “How the Pandemic Now Ends,” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic, a comprehensive and myth-conscious write-up that covers 1. now, 2. next, and 3. eventually. I found it super useful.

  1. A lap desk that resembles a TV dinner tray so that I can write more comfortably from my couch, possibly one of my most self-enabling purchases.

  1. The first seven days of the same 30-day yoga challenge I did during the beginning of the pandemic, in an attempt to un-shrimp my spine, further shrimped by the addition of my lap desk.

  1. “The Secret of the Magnus,” a 1993 profile of magician Ricky Jay by Mark Singer for the New Yorker. Not a quick read whatsoever but genuinely enthralling the whole time. (Thank you to the people who suggested this after I posted that Ricky Jay video last week!)

  1. @favetiktoks420, the most cursed TikTok curation account I’ve seen. Truly a cringe endurance test. Good luck & godspeed.

  1. A burgeoning belief that linen bedding is a scam….it’s hot and itchy and everything everyone says it’s not!

  1. “Ultimate Outsider,” an episode of the London Review of Books podcast about the activist, philosopher, and writer Simone Weil, a genuinely fascinating person. I love learning about enigmatic figures from history who seem to exist in worlds of their own...it helps pull me out of the banality of the things I’m usually worried about.

  1. The UN climate report, as haunting as all the other climate reports that keep trying to tell us the same thing. I honestly don’t know what to say...I’m still sorting through my own reaction and depression around the topic. 

  1. My friend Ki’s YouTube channel Woke Kindergarten, designed to educate young people on abolition and other social issues. They’re currently being targeted and abused by the alt-right, so if you’d like to support them or their channel, give them a follow and check out their work.

  1. “There’s no joy in this industry, only relief,” a quote about Hollywood shared by Kate Berlant in her episode of Las Culturistas. I love Kate, I loved this ep, and this quote also reminded me of writing.

  1. “I thought that was art, but it’s just a broken mirror,” said by a woman I passed on the street.

  1. This weirdo little song that I think I like but not sure (?):

  1. YouTube essayist Contrapoints’s lasted video on Envy, which I’ve been thinking about all week:

  1. “The Uncomfortable Rise of the Instagram Novel,” by Jess Bergman for The New Republic, which is only technically a book review. I haven’t read any of the novels she mentioned and may never, but think she did such a good job of weaving them into an interesting conclusion about social media today.

  1. A dream that I was in a big meeting in an office and started quietly crying because I was so happy to be there….yikes. 

On the podcast this week: A reading of this newsletter

This week I’ll be doing an audio-reading of the above essay, plus offering some background thinking and insight re: what’s going on in my own life that inspired me to write about this theory.

Thanks so much for reading and happy Cuomo’s resignation,

This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be redistributed to National Bail Out, a collective of abolitionist organizers, lawyers, and activists focused on ending pre-trial detention and mass incarceration through community-based advocacy.

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