Living with contradictions

I love consistency. I’m pretty sure the reason why is because my father was super inconsistent when I was growing up, and I really disliked it, so I went way in the other direction. But as with everything, it’s a blessing and a curse! One of the reasons loving consistency is great is because it’s easier for me spot inconsistencies in logic and thus learn faster. And one of the ways it has made life difficult for me is that, for a long time, I’ve struggled to resolve a bunch of internal inconsistencies, so that I can feel alright with myself.

One of the first things that made me realize that it’s not “wrong” to have internal contradictions is when I was starting character work for one of the people I interviewed over the summer (for my solo show!). She is an older woman, and I was confused about how to play both the silliness in her speech and her laughter, as well as the serious, high-achieving part of her. I told my advisor how frustrated I felt, because it was difficult! And she responded with something along the lines of, all these parts of this interviewee have been developed over her entire life, and although it may feel to me like they’re contradicting each other, there are reasons why they all exist.

More recently, my experience traveling to Mexico City (last week) has really allowed me to actually internalize the previous lesson. Around a year ago, I posted this status to Facebook: “I used to believe that it was important for people to learn about metaphors and analogies so that they could use them to understand abstract concepts and the world. Now I realize they’re important because you can use them to understand yourself.” I thought about that a lot this trip while I was walking around all the different neighborhoods. The architecture in Mexico City is beautiful—the colors were so inspiring to me!—and there are so many different styles, all on display next to each other. I don’t know what prompted this, but I asked myself, why is it that I love seeing two completely different buildings right next to each other, but strongly dislike seeing any kind of inconsistencies in myself? And that made me realize that people are just as complex as cities! And it reminded me that it’s fine to house internal contradictions (and it’s so natural to have them!!), because our lives are complicated processes, just like the inner workings of a city are.

One area I’ve been trying to apply this lesson to is my thinking around my body and appearance. The “contradiction” at hand is that your body is, on the one hand, just this physical vessel that contains “you,” but on the other hand, also the thing that lets you interface with the world and vice versa. So when your external state doesn’t match your internal state (dysmorphia), it can feel really bad because the part of you that the world sees doesn’t reflect the you that you feel like you actually are. For instance, this is why I want to have a sense of fashion that reflects my personality. But what I realized from applying the Mexico City metaphor is, while I can have that, it’s also totally fine for the clothes I wear to just be the clothes I wear. And also, I’m so complicated, and there’s no way that my clothing can always be expressing that! I’ve also been able to develop a lot more acceptance towards my acne, which has been something that has been really frustrating me for the past few months.

By not having to reconcile these contradictions—in a way, prescribing less meaning to things and just accepting them as a consequence of the complexity of myself and my life—I feel so much more at peace. (And of course, the journey is never over!)

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The importance of small things

I was reminded of how much of an impact small things can have on your life after I started using a new water bottle last week and saw my water consumption drastically increase.

This lesson was one of the first things that I internalized when I started studying design (and it probably goes without saying that it’s generalizable haha)—habits, physical objects, aspects of the environment, etc. can all have seemingly disproportionate effects, and not just in an emergent/gestalt sense.

For instance, there was a housing project in St. Louis known as Pruitt-Igoe that turned into a crime hotspot and was demolished around 20 years after completion, despite a ton of public enthusiasm and optimism for the plan. There were a bunch of factors that contributed to its decline, but one of the dominant ones was a design decision that had an unexpectedly large negative effect: to reduce elevator congestion, the elevators only stopped at certain floors, forcing residents to use the stairs in between certain floors. The number of residents sharing each stairway made it difficult to know which pedestrians were actually residents and which were intruders. And a lack of funding for building maintenance combined with the sheer amount of foot traffic also led to the stairways quickly falling into disrepair. Both of these factors contributed to the stairwells ultimately becoming sites of frequent muggings. In contrast, the Pruitt-Igoe apartments that “clustered around small, two-family landings with tenants working to maintain and clear their common areas were often relatively successful,” as were the adjacent Carr Village apartments.

This lesson is also embodied by the “For Want of a Nail” proverb.

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To go into more detail about my new water bottle, the story behind these three water bottles is that I realized in September that I’d been using the purple one for like 10 years(!!) and I wanted a new one, mostly because I really no longer liked its appearance. I ended up getting the pink BKR bottle as part of the Sunday Riley subscription box (which ended up not being a good purchase, btw), and used it for around 4 months before admitting to myself that I hated it. There were many annoying things about it: it was difficult to fully clean (because of the silicone ring in the lid), it got gross super fast (because you drink directly from the mouth), and it wasn’t super compatible with my water dispensing system (the opening is pretty small). All of those small inconveniences ultimately resulted in me drinking a lot less water, which I only realized after getting my new water bottle, which has been wonderful so far. It’s actually the most recent version as the purple water bottle (which yeah, if I used it for 10 years is probably pretty great/well-designed), and I totally recommend it if you’re looking for a new water bottle that is spill-proof, easy to clean, single-handedly operable, and see-through, and has a non-straw but still indirect method of drinking!

The life hack way of framing this lesson is that having the right tools/products/systems can be hugely enabling. Why make an aversive task more aversive by using the wrong tools/products/systems? Off the top of my head, here are some of the other ways I’ve made use of this in my life (aside from the small habits that I’ve already written about): having designated spaces for categories of things (e.g., organizational containers) to facilitate tidiness, purchasing a cushion for my desk chair so that my back can be upright while I work, having a meditation cushion and yoga mat readily accessible in my room (in general, associating physical locations with certain tasks/actions/ways of being) to encourage me to meditate/not be at my desk/stretch/exercise.