The following piece was repurposed from Euwyn Goh’s newsletter A Memoir Worth Writing.

These axioms feel somewhat sacred to me. I am unsure if I am doing my worldview any justice by attempting to articulate such complexity into something bite-sized, or into language at all. Everyone’s worldview is complex, and language is tyrannical, in some sense. As soon as anything felt is articulated, it is irreversibly reduced. The richness of its feeling is sacrificed to intelligibility. So much of the mind is unsayable, unintelligible, and unconscious. Also, what if I am spouting nonsense? Perhaps I should have kept all this to myself, and spent more time putting them to the test of life. Still… my internal voice compels me to spend hours upon end every week to write these down! It is deeply fascinating how nothing puts the mind truly at rest. Not even heeding the internal voice, which only creates new problems!

Over the years, I have come to see much of the world through a pattern of thought much like this. Words such as “balance”, “integration” and “overcorrection” has been relatively familiar guests in my vocabulary as of late, and they all relate to my framing of perpetual imbalance.

Perpetual Imbalance

It probably is not surprising to say there never is a moment where do we not want, need or concern ourselves with something. Human nature seems to prescript a deep sense of an ideal self, a desired state, and with it the instinct to measure the actual self up to it. How does this picture of the ideal self come about? The ideal self is the unconscious culmination of the most potent stories consumed, I think. Surely we do not come up with them by our own merit. As dominant figures change over the epochs — from the courageous fighter of snakes to the revered general to the world-changing visionaries, perhaps oscillating between that and the self-conquering ascetic over a lifetime, so we are conditioned into idealising such archetypes. Residents of the jungle certainly do not desire the same things as the modern civilised man (although there is a mysterious consistency to human nature). But what is clear — is that there exists an ideal self at all.

Why do we possess such an instinct for an ideal self? I believe it arises from a deep primordial need to measure our individual standing relative to others (for which the Darwinian lens of natural selection, of mating and reproduction, should provide an adequate explanation). To how we measure our individual standing, let me use an analogy. The measurement of an object, say the length of a pencil, is only made possible when in relation to a minimum and a maximum point. So one measures their own social standing with a similar principle of measurement — in relation to the ideal and the worst conceivable states. The maximum point of the social ruler, the most dominant conceivable in the hierarchy, is represented by the unconscious image of the ideal self. (And perhaps the image of the lowest point is that which evokes gratitude, a kind of egoistical self-justification, as Nietzsche may say. But, I digress.)

The instinct and will to an ideal self lie within the deepest recesses of the mind, a deeply unconscious activity, hinged upon potent stories. It is a psychological reality, I believe. Why else is there so much talk of improving the self, that there is something to improve at all? What about those prosperous movements of motivation and self-development? And New Year’s resolutions? Why do we work towards a few things at a time and not others? I have come to think this — we compensate where an unconscious imbalance between an ideal state and an actual state is felt, as ranked on a unique leaderboard of valuations derived from our own life experience. The thing is, it is not so simple a matter as solving for an imbalance, for life is infinitely complex, like machinery spinning an infinite number of gears against each other at all times. Reality, as it is, is quite overbearingly complex! We evolve to cope with it by way of a very narrowed perception, which lets us focus only on one or a few things at a time, for which we can only pull a finite and small amount of levers.

With such sheer complexity, any kind of individual or collective equilibrium is nigh-impossible. There are countless forces at play at any one moment — forces that are biological, psychological, spiritual, economic in nature… the list is endless. These forces form layers upon layers of reality, and each presents infinitely complex worlds on its own! Even so, the audaciousness of human nature demands coherence, as we perpetually look to cohere at all levels — a utopia of self. We allocate our finite resources to solving a handful of those harrowing deficiencies as we judge them, and sometimes believe the solving of them to be the solution to end all problems. But we constantly prove ourselves wrong, and to be in no shortage of problems requiring fixing. We find ourselves in a state of perpetual imbalance, and that has implications on the individual and collective scale.

. . .

Armed with a narrow, laser-like perception, we tend to overcorrect for the imbalances. You might wonder, what is the difference between an overcorrection and a pure and simple correction? Here I think it is useful to visualise the balance of scales. At any point in time, we come to be gripped by some specific shortcomings. In order to compensate for them, we consciously and unconsciously concern ourselves with those shortcomings, and henceforth spend considerably more attention, time and energy on it than we normally would on any normal activity of life. We become devoted and incessantly occupied with getting those things right, and in doing so, we do not balance the scales, but we tip the scales way to the other end in order to do justice to our will to the ideal self. We compensate for an imbalance by overcorrecting. There is a similar response in how we overcorrect at a steering wheel. At the identification of impending danger, we do not merely correct, but we overcorrect with a jerk of the steering wheel. We apply a similar reaction even where we meet with a more existential kind of impending danger (say, the need to “make a difference”), albeit less sudden, but more drawn out over time and just as concerning.

We overcorrect towards a vision of the ideal all the time, without knowing it to be at play. For example, if a man feels dissatisfied with his lack of fitness, he acts upon his overcorrecting mechanism by focussing ample attention and exerting abnormal effort on going to the gym what is felt to be a satisfactory number of times. This is something pressing on his mind for the next couple of weeks. If he keeps striving at it incessantly, he even comes to identify with it — as not someone who goes to the gym, but a gym-goer, as one who values fitness above other things. He comes to look up to human representations of the ideal self, those he deems atop the hierarchy of fitness and (essentially) worships those ideals through his own effort. It is only in such a radical overcorrection that he edges closer to his vision of the ideal self that is, a fit self. The ideal self is always radical. How else does one become more dominant than the average person? Anything worthy of the ideal self must be sufficiently difficult. It is no wonder then that we are never truly at peace!

It is sensible to overcorrect, and in doing so, we go from a negative point to a positive point. We do not aim to find equilibrium immediately, but we aim for a positive, and only once decisively so, arrive at justifications for it, when we unconsciously identify another equilibrium to be attended to. Take a typical modern person, for example, who goes from overcorrecting for a luscious career and once at the forefront, overcorrecting for mental health, then to overcorrecting for family and loved ones, lastly maybe to contemplate and be one with nature. The overcorrecting mechanism exerts itself even on much deeper problems. In the face of existential dread, we overcorrect by expending the majority of our mental resources on it. Of course, existential dread has us more than we have it, but let me ask — is it not the same in the drive for a luscious career, good health and close relations? They all have us more than we have it. In each case, we respond to a deficiency with an overcorrection by passionately seeking all sorts of practical solutions and putting our attention to it — practice, books, therapists, coaches, pilgrimages, experimentation, safe spaces… you name it. We come to have periods in our lives defined by those overcorrections.

Behaviourally, such overcorrections are sensible. What we overcorrect becomes easier to maintain over time, as we start to be incentivised by the maintenance of the deed itself, and consequently becomes part of one’s own identity. It becomes integrated into the big picture of life, and its maintenance keeps us at ease. It begins at the point where we gain more comfort from acting on something than not. Overcorrection would not be necessary if we could simply will a habit (a new state of being) into existence, but since that is not the case, the overcorrection is a necessary phase of behavioural change. To overcorrect is the first step towards what we call ‘self-improvement’. Baby steps towards the ideal self. Post-integration, our mental resources are freed up to locate new imbalances to laser on, which it always does unprompted, anyway.

In a nutshell, we overcorrect in the name of the ideal self, then overcorrect for the overcorrection, and where any temporary state of micro-equilibrium is apparent, we uncover new or adjacent problems to overcorrect, and so it continues. It goes without saying that the radical ideal self lies perpetually beyond our reach.

. . .

Even on a collective scale, we overcorrect. Our collective attention is limited to a small number of concerning matters, since our feeble minds can only hold so many ideas and laser-focus on so many problems at any once. How the same mechanics play out may be this: In a democratic society, a collective group identifies a political shortcoming, an area they deem the current state deficient (which is also dependent on the potent stories and narratives, which differs culturally). This goes regardless of the factfulness of such framing since the mind is wired for coherence and not truth. They then allocate ample attention and effort to address it, perhaps in the form of political activism, with the intent to overcorrect for it. They want all of the headlines to be on it, they warrant all serious discussion to be on it, they view any nonparticipation as malicious — a sign of quiet contribution to the imbalance. This is a pure and simple overcorrection. They feel the need to score a decisively positive point, not to arrive at a state of equilibrium, before they reach a ‘finish line’. The problem is — the positive point, the overcorrection of a deficiency, while necessarily en route to balance, still lies out of balance. And on a collective level, there is that added complexity of the diversity of valuations, where a positive point to some is not so positive to others. Hence, we are constantly in a tension of people groups and ideologues — a perpetual war over different valuations.

But what powers the collective overcorrection, if not a Darwinian need to attain dominance and reproduce? I think it is dependent firstly on how much the ideal self takes matters of the collective into account. Some tie their ideal selves to the visionary hero who saves the world from the reins of evil, most commonly the progressive types, who tend to pull at the collective levers most often, usually at the protest of the conservative types, who prefer to tie their ideal selves closer to their own locus of control. Others may find the attainment of their own individual ideal selves inhibited by collective factors, as in the case of the discriminated against, and thus their will to ideal self takes that into account and values accordingly. So the collective overcorrection is dependent on how the ideal self indexes on matters of the collective.

Visualised, the collective overcorrection is perhaps akin to attempting to cut a perfect circle out of an incomprehensibly complex shape, except we tend to snip right into the circle itself, while everyone has a different conception of what a circle ought to be! This sends us all on a perpetual wild goose chase to rectify any identified blemish in its shape. The one who identifies it first and comes up with the more compelling narrative for doing so, most commonly again the progressive types, manages the first and deepest cuts, after which those with different valuations snips the correcting cuts, and so it goes on forever.

. . .

On an individual level, one’s own life can be viewed as a series of overcorrections. We come to the conclusion that ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ when based on an error of framing, when we fail to notice in our desired states the newly generated shapes that bring us right back to a state of imbalance. Given an incomprehensibly complex reality, we never reach equilibrium, and we ever only manage to jerk different levers in different directions. Although we may edge ever closer to a vision of the ideal self, the ideal self keeps itself perpetually out of reach. We can ever only hit a satisfactory point or learn to cope with perpetual imbalance.

On the collective level throughout time, the entirety of human history itself can also be viewed as a series of overcorrections. Every epoch is defined by its overcorrections. The one we are now in is no different. The social justice movement is an overcorrection of the judged imbalances of a war-torn and repressed age. That of spiritualism and mysticism is an overcorrection of the spiritual imbalance of a scientific materialist age, which was itself an overcorrection of the over-spiritual age of religion. We perpetually go against the current, and in doing so we reshape the currents, which the collective mind of the future then feels compelled to reshape once more, and eternally, in different directions. All of human history and all of ‘human future’ is a series of overcorrections. If we had one among us who was all-knowing, all our progress could perhaps be calculated step by step!

Even if a hypothetical one among us somehow managed to live a perfectly moderated life — in obtaining complete balance, a state of quantitative and qualitative equilibrium across all identifiable key areas of life — he will still feel the need to strive towards something, perhaps a new imbalance on part of his freedom! There comes the instinct to change something. To attain something. To prove himself to be “more than a piano key”, as per Dostoevsky’s words. This speaks to the folly of utopias. One may edge ever closer to the ideal self, but one never attains the perfect equilibrium to end all inequilibriums, given we are perpetually doomed to be dissatisfied. Humanity is a Sisyphean spectacle!

. . .

Side note: This might be interpreted as a framing against change of sorts. To be clear, I am all for change that seeks to rightfully correct a deficiency. It is only a reality that we never attain balance, individually or collectively. I do work in technology after all — the epitome of utopianism and change-making! To that, I have come to wholeheartedly believe that those who aim directly at changing the world are at the core unreasonable. A reasonable person would not change the world in their own image! It is an almost-irrational persistency combined with a collectively-captivating narrative that changes the world and the way things are done. One can only watch and hope that these changes turn out to be for the actual betterment of humanity. But the rigour of such visionaries is deeply admirable. The audaciousness of the technologist is a big part of the potency of the change-making narrative.

Thank you to Euwyn for letting REALM republish this piece.

Cover image: 鱼跃龙门 Fish over the dragon gate by Wu Qingxia: A symbol of striving towards the ideal (Source)