“It’s turtles all the way down”: Searching For a Real ‘Self’

Okay, so, being the stereotypical English teacher that I am… this post is going to be inspired by the most recent book I finished reading: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. I’m going to admit that I didn’t actually want to like this book because I have this persistent aversion to liking things that are wildly popular. It usually happens anyway. Whatever.

Back to the book, even though I found it perplexing how the teens in the novel did not actually speak like teens, I did find the inner world of Aza to be extremely comforting in a… literary kindred spirits kind of way.

There won’t be any particular order to this post… just a bit of sharing and explication of my favorite quotes. But, I don’t know, maybe something good can come of it anyway. Because, you know, idealist here.

Starting at the beginning: 

“your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell” (1).

I think, for anyone who has ever had choice taken away from them this quote is applicable. For me, that theft of choice has come in the form of quite a lot of abuse through the years which has left me sometimes struggling with this idea that the only way for me to author my own life story is to maintain choice. Whenever I perceive that choice is being taken away from me… I run. I run as fast as I can from the discomfort that starts to take over my body. It is literally a visceral response. A terrifying, uncontrollable response.

“True terror isn’t being scared; it’s not having a choice in the matter” (22).

Recently, a friend, someone I genuinely allowed myself to love and trust, was hurt by my actions. I didn’t know what actions though because she refused to engage in dialogue with me (which I now know was for her own safety, though at the time I had no clue). I spiraled. My chest tightened. My throat constricted. My face got hot. My stomach tied itself in knots. My limbs tingled. I felt choice oozing out of me. By not telling me what I had done, it felt like I was having the choice to make amends taken away. I felt that I had destroyed something good and wasn’t being given the chance to fix it. So… what did I do? I made a choice. The only one I felt like I had left. I completely severed anything that was left of the friendship. Now, I hurt in a different way. I have regret. But, at least it is a story I got to tell, right?

Not so much.

Thoughts Steal Choice, Too:

“The thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening infinitely” (7).

Yup, that’s what I’m saying. I ran from the first relationship in a long time that really made me feel like I could take risks. That I could let someone close. And then, I spiraled. I followed it inward. It’s still tightening. I imagine it will probably continue to do so until something happens between she and I to either gain some closure or to make some attempt at repair. For now, though, this is what the spiral looks like:

“the thoughts kept coming, unbidden and unwanted” (8).

Oh, they have been: “you hurt people so they won’t hurt you, that makes you just as bad as the people that hurt you.” “You took her choice away. How is that any different?” “She would have stayed away anyway, I didn’t do anything wrong.”  There goes a bit of that dissonance. “No one is ever going to stick around.” “No one is ever going to be able to love you through your dark times.” “You’re going to continue to fuck things up.” “Just push everyone away. That’s the only way to make sure no one gets hurt.” At this point I deleted a ton of people literally and metaphorically from my life. My regrets about this are probably minimal in comparison. They haven’t even noticed. “Okay, now what?” “I don’t feel fixed.” “That didn’t actually help.” You get the picture… it’s vicious, the spiral. Vicious and painful.

A Constant Game of Pain and Blame” 

“Whether it hurts is kind of irrelevant” (40).

There are so many applications to this statement when living with anxiety and depression and various physical ailments and who the hell knows what else. Everything hurts almost all of the time. And because everything hurts and there isn’t any way to really conceptualize the hurt for anyone else, it is irrelevant. And somehow this translates to… I am irrelevant, which, you know, further complicates the whole relationships and friendships thing.

“Sometimes I wondered if [she] was my friend only because she needed a witness” (64).

While I can’t say that I have ever felt like my friendships were based on a foundation of voyeurism and exhibitionism, I do sometimes feel that they are built on an equally unstable foundation. It is just a feeling, though, of course. But, nonetheless, I think our feelings go a long way in creating our worldview. And, in mine, I often feel as  though I am just worthwhile in friendships because of the things I can do. As soon as the tricks run out then I’m no longer of any worth. This is probably why I’ve cultivated so many skills over the years. Writing (creative, grants, resumes), art, music, photography, research, coding, finding things, doing the whole college thing, etc. I recognize that being useful does not actually make me more lovable or worthy. But, at least, it gives me some sort of value. And, maybe that makes me worth keeping around. I don’t actually want that to be the basis of my worth and friendships though. I’d like to feel like I am loved despite my flaws…maybe even because of them. I’d like to feel like I can screw up and not have love withdrawn. But, then, that hasn’t really ever been my story. And I think that is why this whole, loss of the friend because of my actions thing is hurting so much this time. Our friendship wasn’t based on usefulness. It just was. I got comfortable. I felt secure. Yet, somehow, the outcome was still the same.

Loss is Inevitable: 

“when you lose someone, you realize you’ll eventually lose everyone” (81).

Yes, yes, I know that rationally everything in life is shrouded by impermanence and thus it is something that realistically one must become comfortable with… but, damn it, I’m not there. It feels as if I have lost so many people, whether by death or by walking out of each other’s lives. And, even knowing that “you’ll eventually lose everyone” it still hurts. That temporarily soul crushing hurt. It’s inescapable. And, that, is the glorious irony of pain… often it is “inescapable” because we have brought it upon ourselves.

When grappling with the idea that she may have acquired an infection Aza says, “I did it to myself. I always do.”

Such simple words. There isn’t anything at all special about them except that they touch on some fundamental truth. At least, it is a truth that I know well. A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with a condition which I haven’t really told people about. Most people are still of the belief that I need more tests. The truth is, I haven’t told people because of shame, my constant companion. I know that what I am dealing with now is something I brought upon myself. Sure, yes, genetics and pre-existing conditions and all that jazz probably contributed. But, ultimately, my choices brought me here. And to think, that the same logic applies to the pain felt in the loss of my relationships… that’s excruciating (in part because it was preventable and in part because it means that I really am a danger to other people, too). It becomes even more painful when all of this is validated by the people who love you (or who you thought loved you). What’s happening with my friend (or once friend) now… I did that. My actions were the catalyst. While I know that it was her choice to take the space, I also know how difficult it is to be my friend. And that’s what really hurts.

Hurt People, Hurt People:

“you’re slightly tortured, and the way you’re tortured is sometimes also painful for everyone around you” (140).

Can  you imagine what it feels like to know that all the awful things you think about yourself on a daily basis are really true? I mean, you think them about yourself, so on some level you already believe they’re true. But, something about hearing someone you love, that is supposed to love you, tell you the same things… that validates them further. That makes them more true. And, even worse, knowing that things you never even imagined being wrong with you are also true. I never believed that I was someone who could hurt anyone else. I guess I thought my existence was so insignificant that my actions were just like a blip on the radar. Turns out they’re not. And this thing I’m going through now, it validates that, confirms that I’m not only not good for myself, I’m not good for others either. That makes things even more unbearable because until that confirmation is received there is still some glimmer of hope, some sliver of light living inside me. It’s holding on for dear life, hoping to right things. But, each time someone withdraws or gets hurt or says, “you’re too sensitive” or ” you’re selfish” or “you’re not really making an effort” or “you just need to be more [insert trait]” it drives home the “not good enough.” It dims the light. Weakens the hope. Without that hope… what even is life? So one defense mechanism leads to another.

A Tome with No Words: 

“we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms […] that both ostracize and minimize” (89).

There are really no words for the pain of these losses, for the pain of knowing you’re the reason they happened… and that is saying something because, as you can see by now, I am filled with words. I am a body of words. But, feelings, they often leave me stumped. The only option is to minimize. Not that I am pretending that I would do anything other than that anyway. Because, let me tell you, minimizing is a glorious tool. (Though, yes, I admit, a rather maladaptive one). Over the years I have learned that there is always someone with experiences more painful than mine. I have learned that there are people who have things worse than I do. I was reminded of this frequently. And by frequently I mean any time I ever expressed an emotion. At some point, I internalized this as, “then my problems don’t matter and don’t have to matter.” This was both a curse and a blessing. It allowed me to tell myself that my pain wasn’t real but it also made it so that I couldn’t process and move through any of that pain. And, I think, that is the real point of Turtles All the Way Down.  Trying to move through the pain. Trying to find a “real self” in the dark cave of the mind. And learning how to let love in, despite the risk of being hurt in ways that can’t even be articulated.

Love is Light, Love is “Self”:

“nothing in this world is deserved except for love, […] love is both how you become a person, and why” (285).

So, even though I still approach my relationships with shame and a sense that I am not good enough and that I am more than likely going to screw things up and run them off… I still intend to try. And reading Turtles All the Way Down, in the midst of feeling like giving up on friendships and relationshipsreminded me of why I need to keep trying. I’m sure that more people are going to leave. I am sure that for some people I will continue to be too much or not enough. I am sure that in some ways I will always be a liability. But, I’m going to keep showing up. I’m going to keep trying. Because before I did the thing that brought this most recent friendship to its end (if it is an ending) I was genuinely starting to feel like a person again. I felt a little bit like the self that wasn’t afraid to take risks and let people see me. I felt a little bit like the me that I used to know and love.

6 thoughts on ““It’s turtles all the way down”: Searching For a Real ‘Self’

    1. Oo, I had to Google that book. How are you liking It? It seems like a good read (maybe a little heavy). I’m on a non-fiction kick right now, so I think I might check it out.


  1. One thought on your comment, ” I guess I thought my existence was so insignificant that my actions were just like a blip on the radar. Turns out they’re not. And this thing I’m going through now, it validates that, confirms that I’m not only not good for myself, I’m not good for others either.”
    As I was reading this I was wondering if you may be looking at this from the wrong perspective. You see your actions which hurt another as proof you should not have relationships with others when all it might prove is that you are more powerful than you ever imagined. The fact that your actions could have caused pain for another is just proof to me that you are very important to this person, otherwise there would be no pain. Someone who cares for you this much may be ready at some point to accept your heartfelt apology. There is discord at times in every relationship, now is the time to find out just how much she means to you. Will you fight for your friendship or let it go quietly?


    1. I really appreciate this perspective. I’ve been giving her space because it seems the friendship is pretty well over. But, some day, maybe she and I can bring it back.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s