"Circling" and nerd society
"Dreams don't work unless you do."
In the form of a short failed relationship (for shocked readers, yes, I am following my late wife’s instructions, and no, the kids are not in fact mad about this), I had a fresh contact with something I’ve spent the last quarter-century trying to avoid: nerd society.
I’m happy to report (hi, talk.bizarre trilobites!) that it hasn’t changed at all. Today, for the imagined audience of some bright but awkward young man or woman still looking to plot and hold a course in life, let me talk frankly about the pros and cons of this thing: nerd society.
Are you involved in it? Do you want to become involved in it? Do you want to stop being involved in it? These are all interesting questions with no easy answers.
Today one would say “rationalist” society, but this arrogant and pretentious label—as if no one else was ever reasonable!—should embarrass everyone in it. Anyway, it is just the same nerd culture I came up in, in 1991—when Eliezer Yudkowsky was, like, 12, or something. And nerd society is indeed much older than 1991—it goes back through the science-fiction conventions, the Trekkers, the SCA… deep into the ‘70s. My first girlfriend (hi, Meredith!) once had Isaac Asimov try to autograph her breasts.
Let me be clear about the virtues of nerd society. Nerd society actually only has two virtues—but those virtues were of supreme importance at one stage in my life. Its first virtue is that every nerd is a member. Its second virtue is that it is a society. While it has few if no other virtues, and plenty of vices, for many nothing outweighs these two.
If you are a nerd and you have no society—you are just a floating atom in some kind of anonymous academic or post-academic space—you have no choice. You will go to the Dagobah system. You will enter into nerd society. There you will find a member of the appropriate sex; form a durable adult bond with them; and together become trads, de jure or de facto. In this way, you will complete your mission.
Or at least, this is the best common outcome. You could also do what I did, which was to flee nerd society with my hair on fire. My wife was a playwright—when I met her, she was finishing her MFA at SF State. And where did I meet her? Dear reader, I met her on Craigslist. (That was so long ago that Craigslist was cool—and there is a cute story which doesn’t belong here.)
I actually preferred to be an atom. This radical re-isolation is not for everyone. I feel it worked out for me (modulo waiving, like an eager buyer in a seller’s market, a cardiac inspection on the female unit)—I am sure it does not work out for everyone. Clearly not everyone is as handsome as I, nor as—never mind.
In any case, in my teens I had no friends, and then in my late 20s I had no friends. Even Hitler had friends! Now I need, like, software, to manage my friends. Or are they really my friends—but who even knows these days?
In any case, that this stunt has worked out for me (so far) doesn’t mean it will work out for you, which is why you really do need to suck it up and go to the Dagobah system. Remember: there is no try, only do.
Since nerd society has not changed in the last 30 years, and will probably not change in the next 30 years, I thought I would very briefly describe the recurring features that I observed in my own descents, three decades apart, into the thick, jungly atmosphere of Dagobah. This map of the territory may warn you off; it may help guide you on the dank Dagoban surface; it may even attract you to nerd culture. Suum cuique!
This is a term associated with burners (those who go to Burning Man). Many nerds also go to Burning Man; many do not, and not everyone at Burning Man is a nerd. At Burning Man, “default world” just means the world outside Burning Man.
But the term expresses the fundamental idea of nerd society, because nerd world means the reinvention of humanity. “Default world” is the unreinvented world.
While there is much to say for educational tracking, the minute anyone is placed in a “gifted” class (curiously, I got the exact same IQ score as the Unabomber), their tribal loyalty is transferred to nerd world. I even went to nerd camp—the whole nine yards.
This necessity of reinvention becomes the fundamental credo that binds all nerds together. It is taken for granted that default people, default habits, default ideas—anything you learned from your parents, or should have—are inherently inadequate.
Personally, I am sympathetic to the abstract idea of reinvention—rather than repair— for all sorts of reasons. In certain ways this choice might even define my career. Here, though, is why I prefer default world—a choice I made originally when I was 14, as a senior at a public high school in Maryland. Yeah, man, that was sick!
What you will find in nerd world is largely a reinvention of social solutions—such as friendship, dating, marriage and religion—that, with the arguable exception of the last, needed no reinvention at all.
This daring attempt at Life 2.0 does not in general come from the masters of Life 1.0—nor did it generally recruit from them. Otherwise it would be in default world—it would be Skull and Bones, or Bohemian Grove, or the Union League, or Davos.
The revenge of the nerds is the creation of new, reinvented social institutions for social failures—people like me, who had no friends in high school. The outsiders.
The eternal dream of the nerd, who would not be a nerd had he not in some sense socially failed between 10 and 20, is not to succeed at being human—not to catch up to the default social world, to learn its secrets and be admitted to its citizenship, to rise in its conventional ranks—but to skip being human—and jump directly to some kind of para-human, trans-human, posthuman or just superhuman experience.
The question is: inventing from scratch, are these outsiders, these nerds, these losers, going to do a better job than the masters of Life 1.0—especially when those masters have inherited their ways of living across many generations? Who would you bet on? Especially when the nerds are not even reinventing themselves as a group, but each working alone from his own fragile psychological capital… I’ll bet on Chad and Stacy.
It makes sense, actually, to have a shared nerd identity. It even makes sense to modify the infinite lessons of the past to fit the present, which is always new. Nerds do not need exactly the same life patterns as Minnesota farmers.
However, they have much more in common with Minnesota farmers than almost any of them knows—and, if they adopted the life patterns of Minnesota farmers without a change, they would probably do much better than they do by reinventing themselves.
The great contradiction of nerd society is that while it aims at the stars, it constantly trips on its own toes. It is happy to invent new ways of living, never before conceived in human history, and test them not on Dos Equis man who knows every way to live, but on adults who did not socially experience 8th grade and above. (I had almost no social life between 9 and 19—how was your traumatic childhood, dear reader?)
In their 20s and 30s, our dear nerds are still building the life experiences that Chad and Stacy were working through in high school. They emit a sense of the overgrown teenager; and their social structures and choices (as I got to observe both in 1991 and 2021) often reflect this “Freaky Friday” effect. Then their pride and intelligence makes them want to reinvent all of human society—which is why this essay.
Are you in a Freaky Friday social group, even in your 20s? Here is one epiphenomenon of Freaky Friday societies: low social parallax. How many crowds are you part of? How many disjoint social sets are needed to count your friends? Outside your family, does everyone you know know each other, or are they strangers to each other—besides you.
Here is a motivational-calendar thought for you: your connectedness to the world, and to reality, is measured in crowds, not friends. If you are in a true cult, your number is 1. The more crowds you are in, and the more different they are, the more perspectives of reality you have to be able to hold in your mind, to participate in all these crowds. And the more (reasonable) ways you have of observing reality, the saner you are.
If you are in any situation where your crowd number is 1, you have only one social eye—only one shared way of observing the world. You have no parallax. If you are totally at home as a precious metals trader in the City of London, but never miss the Sturgis biker rally; while you spend a month every summer harpooning killer-whales as an honorary member of the Makah tribe, in the winter you teach ancient Greek and astrophysics at Stanford, while assisting CIA here and there… you have mega parallax.
In default-world people in even early adulthood, crowd numbers tend to go up quickly, as you meet and grow connected to more and more different kinds of people. Any fairly successful cosmopolitan adult should be connected to many different crowds. This multiplicity not only provides a sense of parallax, but a sense of social safety.
If you have a parallax of 1, as is very common with young nerds who have embraced a single social group or clique, you have a social network that looks much more like that of a high school or a middle school. (If you find yourself in a group with a parallax of 1, just do your best to establish human connections outside the group.)
The social politics of this structure follows—with brutal fights over ostracism, etc. Since these social structures evolve naturally in “Lord of the Flies” style, as in normal grade school, they are not built on any kind of hereditary social technology.
And since the parallax is 1, the stakes are as high as possible. And since it’s 2021, politics will often play a role! Good times.
Naturally evolved communities, of the nerd kind, have no shared sense of manners—no social rulebook. Of course, they can evolve, or even compose, such a social rulebook—this is exactly what cults do. But most nerds just play it by ear—often making social errors that would not tempt any reasonably-smooth high-school freshman.
So why not compose a new rulebook? Why not build a new system of manners? Why not, in fact, redesign the way human beings relate to each other? You think I’m kidding.
Meet “circling,” which is not actually a pure product of nerd culture—but of New Age human-potential culture—Esalen, est, Landmark, etc—lightly infused with nerd culture. In the end it may even owe quite a bit to the Quaker meeting.
To be exact, the group interaction in circling derives from this old encounter-group tradition, but much more herbivorous and less confrontational; the bilateral interaction is more from authentic relating; and the mode of discourse is straight out of nonviolent communication (which, hilariously enough, my own kids spent two years enduring the discipline of, at a strange little “independent” school). As a cult, the whole thing is organizationally about as un-culty as it gets—I think.
At least in the nerd circles I know (of), circling has done very well—it is said, for instance, that the top MIRI people do it. A thing! It’s a thing! But why am I even interested in this thing? How did it come to the attention of the august Gray Mirror? Well…
Mixed marital arts
Well… it so happens that your author had, well, a thing, with a lady who is into circling. Well, fine! Women are not robots. They have their things, their hobbies. She also had an astrology app on her phone—it would be fine. She didn’t actually believe in it. Also: I’m a philosopher.
Unfortunately, her hobby bled into everything—including relationships—especially relationships—because of course, being an expert in circling makes you a PhD, like a kung-fu master but for the heart, in relationships.
This was her thing! It’s like if I got together with someone who had a BA in poetry, and for, like, some reason, she kept lecturing me on computer science. I’m sorry, but—bitch, what? Such was, like, pretty much the vibe.
But whatever the credentials… the thing… the hobby… the cult… well, it kept coming out weird. After a while, it started to cause problems. As an older female friend of mine said to me, “whoever convinced young women that the secret of a healthy relationship is deep interpersonal understanding is guilty of some kind of a war crime.”
Actually, my only expertise being a happy 20 years together till-death-do-us-part over here, I can share the secret of a healthy relationship. Here is the one commandment.
Care about your partner. Care about how they’re feeling. Keep track of what they like and don’t like. Try to keep doing the things they like; try to stop doing the things they don’t like. Yeah—it’s really that easy.
If you can do these things, your relationship will not explode. If you can’t do these things, at least not with this person, you can’t have a relationship—realize that sooner rather than later. If you can, the relationship will be deeper and better if you have good sex, good communication, etc—but none of these can override the one commandment.
When I shared this deep secret—not even really original!—of default-world marital wisdom with my circling girlfriend, she exploded. Girl literally used ALL CAPS in text. This was codependency. To accept the burden of caring about the arbitrary, capricious desires of your partner is is to infringe on your own freedom.
Rather, when your partner does something you don’t like, you should communicate it in the following manner: “Dear, when you chew peanuts on the couch, I feel grossed out, and less close to you.”
You should respond with: “I’m feeling glad to learn about how you feel about chewing peanuts on the couch. I feel like I would like you to stay close to me. Therefore, I feel like I will probably stop chewing peanuts on the couch.”
When compared to the default-world version of this conversation—“I’m sorry, but I kind of hate it when you chew peanuts on the couch”—“OK, I’ll try to stop,” besides the absurdly cumbersome shape of this “nonviolent communication” (of course my kids at the NVC school, not to mention my ex-girlfriend, became quite proficient in the art of “nonviolent violence”), what stands out is that the “authentic” way is actually a much more stressful conversation.
By sharing your feelings, you’ve brought up withdrawal or reversal of the relationship. This is one of the heaviest weapons you can use in any kind of relationship dispute—the conventional wisdom says to use it only with great caution.
But, by relating deeply and authentically, you’ve “triggered” your partner—if your partner feels less secure in the relationship than you do. And one partner always does—that’s how human relationships work.
So, once your partner learns to parse and decode the NVC protocol, what they hear from this ridiculous rigmarole is just: “if you keep eating peanuts on the couch, I’ll break up with you.” This is no way to run a railroad, or at least a relationship. Why share that? If it is necessary, it is assumed. If it is not assumed, it is fruitless.
More broadly, anyone who wants to have a happy and contented relationship needs to understand the basic principles of politeness and consideration, which are often quite directly opposed to any kind of “authentic relating.”
For example—this is a purely hypothetical example—suppose you suffer from some kind of moodswings. Many such cases! No, they are not all “manic-depression.”
If you are authentically relating to your boyfriend, you will not buffer these swings. You will say “I love you” on Tuesday but not Thursday, simply because you feel it on Tuesday and not on Thursday.
This will cause your boyfriend to go into a panicked stress spiral on what he did wrong on Wednesday—because you are acting as you would if he did do something wrong on Wednesday. But he didn’t. This is bad boyfriend training.
You’re just sharing your authentic self, on both days. You have given yourself a license to violate the one commandment—because why? As for his stress, he should own it. It’s on him. Why is he so insecure? In short, this ideology is pure Bitch Powder (tm).
In my view, you are not ready for a really happy and tranquil grownup relationship until you can learn to act in that relationship. Your goal in acting is not to say the true fact, but to send the true message—which reflects the long-term reality you wish to convey, not the short-term vibrations in your serotonin balance.
For example, if on Thursday, you suck it up and say “I love you” even though you feel nothing but a cold gray emptiness, you are sending the true message that you have not stopped loving your boyfriend. If you take the opposite choice, you are sending the false message that you might have maybe stopped loving your boyfriend. So, to tell the truth, you have to tell a lie—yes. This is really how a normal, successful, multi-decade relationship works. When was the last time you saw the dead body of your wife? Next.
Now, take this and multiply it by like 100, and you’ll get what happened. The first time. The second time I could only take enough of this cult relationship propaganda—my position being that the cult stuff was fine, but maybe basic consideration also deserved a hearing—and I lost control.
I was like: “I feel disrespected because I’m feeling lectured about how to have a happy relationship by someone who doesn’t strike me as listening to my experience about how to do that—and who I don’t feel sure has had one herself.”
Despite being perfectly nonviolent communication (okay, I have edited it slightly), this set off the H-bomb. It certainly did not result in anyone owning their feelings! Which, despite my ex-girlfriend’s many excellent qualities—was surely a good thing. Sad, dear.
A suppressive person
Anyway. This sordid story can be boiled down even further: even the most un-culty of cults is still a cult. I broke up with this fine and excellent lady (well, actually, she dumped me—this never happens!—only after I’d tried to dump her twice, I protest) because I was what they call, in Scientology, a suppressive person.
Well—if the shoe fits, wear it. Personally I think cults are fascinating. I don’t even think they’re all bad; circling is an extremely un-culty cult, or let us stipulate that; and I will even go so far to say that the experience is good for many people. Okay, fine. I am a suppressive person. Sorry, my dear!
During the relationship I actually tried to avoid researching circling, because it was her thing and I wanted her to own it. I wanted her to explain it to me, or if possible try on me. But now it’s pretty interesting—I think it says much about how we live now.
At a certain point she realized, probably correctly, that it probably wouldn’t really work on me—that I was one of these people who can’t really be hypnotized, or effectively subjected to other such Jedi mind tricks. I will simply not enter the required trance, even if I want to. So I never got circled, because the trance is necessary.
A friend who has tried it has the same character, and reports one of two experiences. Either he fakes it and pretends to feel what everyone else is feeling, which is fine, or he talks about what he’s actually feeling and winds up deconstructing the moment itself—ie, being a suppressive person. Or as we say in CA, like, harshing everyone’s buzz.
Here, if you have an hour—and I think it is actually an hour that tells you a lot about how we live now, is one circling—one session, different from every single other:
This is a “birthday circle” in which one woman, the Chinese lady at the top of the frame, a first-timer, is “circled” by the others. The facilitator is one of the founders of circling, and this is a professionally-filmed video of a very successful circling which is the top hit for “circling” on YouTube. This is what circling itself believes itself is.
There is very much a dramatic arc to this movie; if you don’t have time to watch it, skip around randomly to get the tone. Yes, I think this phenomenon does tell us a lot about the world we live in. It is not just about my wacky ex-girlfriend; it is about the modern experience of the human heart. Yeah, really.
The Platonic orgy
The first thing you will notice about the above movie is that it is actually an orgy—to be exact, a Platonic orgy.
A Platonic orgy is a group that, without getting wild and scattering its clothes, experiences the sense of intimacy that a bonded couple normally feels. For instance, it is normal to look deeply into your wife or girlfriend’s eyes. It is normal to follow things about her body or her mood. It is normal to depersonalize yourself and try to enter her perspective. It is not normal to do this either with nonsexual friends, or strangers.
So you see the circle (which, as in many porn films, has already “gotten going”), using meditation and other hypnotic techniques to enter a shared trance. Compared to 20th-century human-potential movements such as est, circling creates this forced intimacy and depersonalization in an extremely gentle and loving way.
Nonetheless the state achieved is instantly recognizable as an orgiastic, unsober state. By 2:26, “I feel a peacefulness, a softness… being with you,” we are already violating standard social boundaries in a way that is normally reserved for sexual encounters. The Platonic orgy has already begun.
Over the course of an hour, the Chinese woman, a complete circling virgin who has no idea what she’s getting into, is completely broken down and converted. She herself refers to the experience as a “confession session.” Yet there is never any rough est-style confrontation at all.
If you have no time to watch, just look at her mood at the beginning, versus her mood toward the end. This is a mood change comparable only to a sexual experience—this woman seems changed, opened, freed. Which is presumably why this video (which not only I, but my daughter, have watched—in a sincere effort to be open-minded) is the top hit for “circling” on Youtube.
And I don’t doubt that this “confession session” was good for her—confession, after all, wasn’t exactly invented 20 years ago.
That was your daily steelman. Now let’s go to the case against these kinds of cult rituals. I actually think they’re, generally, terrible—though probably still good for some people, maybe even the woman in the video.
First of all, I believe, Platonic orgies are bad for the same reason real orgies are bad. They dilute and harden the human capacity for intimacy. There is no free lunch—once you become used to generating fake intimacy, sexual or not, there is no real intimacy. Hyperstimulation will always exact its dues.
In a traditional marriage, neither husband nor wife is staring into anyone else’s eyes for 30 seconds, or anything even remotely like that. I never would have! The idea is awful. Chastity of the soul is even more important than chastity of the body.
What is the result of indiscriminate intimacy? Ultimately I feel I have no way to know whether my ex-girlfriend cared about me at all—almost exactly as if I’d been dating a stripper, but in the department of connection, rather than sex. Which is almost worse.
I wound up feeling that her practice had burned out her capacity for actually authentic relating—that she had pretended far, far too many times to be deeply absorbed in the utterly jejune and platitudinous human narratives of a zillion random human beings who had passed through her workshops and seminars.
Like the facilitators in the film, she (a circling facilitator herself, and I’m sure an excellent one) had become a veritable artist of synthetic emotion. You could almost never tell—I flattered myself that I could tell, but I was probably wrong half the time. And there was no way that she could control it; it had become how she emoted. I am not even sure she herself could tell the difference. An occupational injury, of sorts.
Fake emotion is easier to see at a greater personal distance. Go back to the tape. While the Chinese woman (a circling virgin) has a completely natural affect, at all times throughout the video everyone else on the set—especially the grandmaster, Guy Sengstock, the short bald one—has an affect that, outside the context of the trance, would seem extremely bizarre and disturbing—almost a pedo vibe.
Imagine at any short clip of him out of context—it is like a porn star out of context. Why is she gasping like that? Why is he so… sultry? Yet in the context it seems to fit perfectly, although it is still… not quite like anything normal and human.
It is not that porn stars and prostitutes feel nothing when they have professional sex. They feel the physical sensations of sex—but the spiritual sensation has been burned out of them. I feel when I look at these advanced circling practitioners that they are like emotional porn stars: not hotter than hell, but colder than the North Pole.
But hyperstimulation is a small problem compared to what is happening here.
Here is a quick summary of the video: the Chinese woman enters the circle a nervous, uncomfortable, normal human being who is confused about who she is and what she wants from life; she exits it warm, open and glowing, with a clear narrative of herself.
What’s not to like? Well…we cannot help but notice a couple of points about the invention of this narrative.
One: the facilitators are doing quite a bit of work in helping her tell her story. We might almost say they are playing a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure, adding blocks to the mix and letting her choose them—or add her own beautiful details.
What will one of the other people—one of the facilitators—remember about this woman in six months? Maybe he uses paper notes. “Chinese woman—late 20s—strong, warm, independent—boyfriend yelled at Uber driver—deserves better.”
After a whole hour of everyone’s time, this is the actual content of the conversation. This poor woman’s new narrative of herself, of her life, is the thinnest of stereotypes—as transparent as a bad college essay.
And it is largely authored by the facilitators—around veresimilitudinous details supplied by the author herself. The template feels standard—rewriting her story of herself, a strong empathic woman, just as Gordon Ramsay is always going to give you a clean bright look and a new fresh menu. Surely they do this all the time—despite just how authentic they seem to feel this time… ah… it’s always been hard out there for a pro.
The rest is—platitudes, flattery, jargon—ridiculous, embarrassing filler, that taken out of context would make a strange clip itself. But within the beergoggles of the Platonic orgy, the para-sexual warmth of the emotional group-grope cuddle-pile turns these sweet, content-free nothings into the deepest, most meaningful of communication—rather like William James awaking from his nitrous buzz and realizing that the secret of the world was, in fact, turpentine.
Lovers lick each others’ necks. Friends don’t. It would be gross to lick most of your friends’ necks—yet, at least in theory, there is some drug that would make it crazy hot. Probably there exists some molecule on which you would go wild for a dog. And—for fifteen minutes, so long as you can finish before your liver finishes—that hot animal scent of Rover, his lips, his eyes, his hair, will be the most charged moment of your life.
And yet if, alone and stone cold sober, you read the transcript of this video—there is no way you could respond with anything but boredom or laughter. Without hypnotic cues, it is utterly devoid of content—except for the ex-boyfriend and the Uber driver. Instead we see flattery and platitudes enough to make Bulwer-Lytton look like Hemingway—and the transcript does not even record that all this is uttered in the soothing tones of a pedophile dressed up as a busdriver. “And where would you like to sit, Billy?”
There is actually no deep understanding here. Everything is insanely shallow. The good old signal-to-noise ratio is scraping the bottom of the barrel. Predictable jargon and platitudes are everywhere; new information is nowhere.
And consider this poor Chinese woman. She has been programmed. She came into the room herself—a stressed, conflicted, confused, insecure, normal human being. She left the room with a story of herself. Has she benefited? If so, how? Discuss.
Unfortunately, writing the story of yourself is exactly the definition of narcissism.
Narcissism is when you inhabit a character which you think is yourself—which is exactly what the circle is training this poor woman to do. It has shown her that her mission in the world is to be a complete phony, a ridiculous stereotype of a good human being that would embarrass an airport bookstore. It has taken her complex, delicate, shy bundle of emotions and replaced it with a standard propaganda line. Yes—it feels good to her. This does not mean it was good for her.
It has taught her to bare her soul to the world; to segue quickly onto these gobbets of jejune propaganda she has learned to regurgitate; and definitely not to date ignorant yokels like her ex-boyfriend, who yelled at the Uber driver when he was two minutes late. How insensitive! This is her—a person who has real empathy.
When we ask human beings to tell their stories in a safe space where everyone who shares will feel heard, and no one at all will feel judged, we are creating a machine to nourish narcissism. We are asking people to discover themselves—a hard problem. Instead they will invent themselves—which is much easier. So what if the image and the reality diverge? All that matters is the image, anyway.
The narcissist is a writer with an unfinished novel. He has a character, who is himself; his interpretations of the things he should have done, given the things that happened. Whatever happens in the future—if relevant, it will have to be written into the story.
What the circle has done for this poor woman, or to her, is to grant her her own story fresh from the printer. Now she can fit further events in her life—a new boyfriend, maybe, more sensitive toward Uber drivers—into her $16.99 heroic journey. If this is what Hillary Clinton meant by “the politics of meaning,” nothing could be sadder.
Everyone has narcissistic tendencies and anyone can be a narcissist—especially in their 20s. In the prettiest girls the mad glow of power can last well into the 30s, and mating with the power of the ego-dissolving circling trance is almost unbelievable. After watching this video, an attractive woman as a circling facilitator must be almost a kind of Platonic dominatrix—one can see her reassembling the world of some beta-male shlub, much as the grandmasters rebuild their once-shy subject’s world, to her own specification. Here is a level of mutual narcissism the world has never seen, that shouldn’t even be possible… alive with the full power of the Platonic orgy… I digress.
While the Chinese woman was a newbie, it strikes me as like that those who return to circling and become deeply involved are people who become deeply invested in this process of collaboratively constructing their self-image, like a D&D character—and who, since they get extremely good at this process of self-authoring, construct very beautiful and elaborate narcissistic avatars of themselves.
Ultimately, a symmetric circle of experienced practitioners must be almost like an improv group—an exercise not in therapy, or even communication, but in theater. Together the circle are creating stories of each other which did not previously exist. As with the Chinese woman, there is no process to ask: is this really you? Or just who you want to be?
Having gone down this horrific “circling” rathole (dear reader, I hope you will forgive me for the digression—it was, I fear, cathartic), let us go over the solution.
The solution is that “default world” sucks and so does “nerd world.” The only answer is, in one sense or another, “trad world.” Trad world is just default world—but some decades earlier, and therefore not quite so rotted. It is not reinvented, but uninvented.
While my late wife and I were never literally religious, I will compare our based kids with anyone’s. I could have more. (I want more.) But I think that makes me trad. Just figure out what “trad” means for you—and do it.
Yet it is foolish to think we have nothing to learn from the modern world. Perhaps “circling” is just an inferior version of Catholic confession. Perhaps it is even a better version of Catholic confession—which Catholics, even trads, seem to have forgotten.
In the 2020s, is it so wrong that people are inventing new cults and new ceremonies? Maybe the only problem with circling is that it isn’t ambitious enough—that it’s like confession alone, without the Catholicism.
And what is confession without religion—without God? A group confession session, without benefit of clergy? Any answer except “Quakerism” will be considered. Surely it is a remarkable quirk of history that hippies and nerds have reinvented the original spirit of this pivotal 17th-century religious sect. FYI: Nixon was a Quaker.
There is an interesting answer to this question: the fundamentally Satanic—or, to be perhaps more genteel, Luciferian—nature of confession without God. For confession in any circling-like context is intended to be heard by the audience, certainly not judged. Obviously for God to hear is for God to judge.
Ergo, your confession session is a confession to yourself—and you are, in the usual modern style, worshiping yourself. And one need not know much about theology to know who is the inevitable recipient of self-worship. There is no way around the trad!
To worship yourself is to grow proud of your own flaws—neuroses, prejudices, biases, etc (in the strict sense of these terms). Once you learn to repeatedly confess a flaw, you lose the sense of pain in confessing it; you cease, in fact, to struggle against it; you make it part of yourself.
Continued confession, in adults, must create these complex characters, really literary characters, and sustain self-invention into ripe old age—but these characters will be complete confections, sprayed-on in a hundred brainstorms. Who needs them? What, are you applying for a grant?
It does not require a clear sense of God to abandon this literary character which you have built up in your 20s and 30s. “Circling” is only a turbo version of self-invention. Once you learn to understand yourself by looking at who you are, rather than asking who you want to be, you are ready to be middle-aged.
And at that point, while it is always great to have friends—only your family, once complete, will really matter. There is no way around the trad!