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you are what you think: aesthetic + the mind
Call it manifestation by another name, but the imagination is a terrible thing to leave unconsidered
cw: brief discussion of mental illness, depression, and suicide
Make your mind a beautiful place to live.1
Most of us have probably never thought of the intellectual arena as having an aesthetic. It’s far easier to aestheticize a visual dimension—the body or physical space—and things that are communicated partly (or primarily) via visual means—authenticity and behavior, for example. But cultivating a mental (or intellectual) aesthetic is key to crafting an aesthetically-fulfilling life.
the power of the mind
Adventures in communication and social psychology have unveiled the mind’s power over behavior and academic, relational, and professional growth. Studies show consistent ideation leads to actualization. People who imagine they are good at something (say, math) act as if they are good at it and, over time, become good at it.
Of course, this sounds like manifestation (and vaguely new-Agey), but the proof is in the pancakes. Researchers sometimes refer to the phenomena of “self-fulfilling prophecies.” The term has negative connotations in popular usage, but it is neutral in academia. The name (what you call it or what you think about it—the prophecy, if you will) makes the thing a reality (causes its fulfillment).2
Personality psychologists also identify locus of control as an essential dimension of (what I’m calling) a mental aesthetic. Some people have an internal locus of control and believe they have mastery over their circumstances and future. Others have an external locus of control and believe their circumstances and fate are largely influenced by outside forces. People with internal loci tend to be more successful, self-responsible, and optimistic. People with external loci are hesitant in their approach to life, believing that they don’t have as much say in what happens to them; they more readily give up or become discouraged by setbacks.
I’m not trying to endorse a class system here, but it’s undeniable: how we think plays a huge (probably primary) role in how we live.
A few years back, I began noticing the rise of the depression aesthetic on social media—aka the romanticization of mental illness: more social media posts casting sadness or depression-adjacent feelings and behavior in attractive, pathos-laden, meme-laced language. People were applauding, “liking,” and reposting this stuff. It was all I want to die, who else is with me lmao, and not I want to die—please help. My suspicion then, confirmed by research later, is that not everyone who posts like they’re depressed is depressed. And the danger is that those who are crying for help on social media can easily be overlooked because so many others are capitalizing on a vibe to gain an ironic sense of community.
Our culture often “promotes mental illness as alternative self-expression,” treating it like “an accessory” with “personal struggle and distress [being] regarded as a quirk admired by young individuals.”3 Obviously, many people wrestle with depressive thoughts and feelings (I have myself)—and I’m grateful we live in a society where talking about it is not taboo—but I wonder how much these struggles can be laid at the feet of mass subscription to a mental aesthetic that lends a rose-colored prism to the well of despair.
[Accounts of increased suicide attempts and suicidal ideation in the aftermath of celebrity suicides are well-known. Back in 2018, I wrote a piece that speaks to the danger of buying into the aesthetic of death, though not in those terms; it might be helpful to some: A Revolt Against Death.]
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The mind is the seedbed of life (or death); what we sow there eventually flourishes for good or ill. Two crucial cognitive functions, belief and imagination, are critical to making the mind an aesthetically-pleasing, homely house, weathered against the storms of the world. Some might object to belief and imagination being twin oars of the same boat. (Hello, my Christian readers.) But professional philosophers have argued that there is a functional similarity between believing and imagining.4 The way the mind reacts when it receives information conflicting with what it believes is the same way it reacts when receiving information that conflicts with what it imagines. And what we imagine—our “attitude toward the possible,” to use Kurt Goldstein’s words—is key to developing the aesthetic of the mind.
The boundaries of our beliefs and our imaginings—and thus our behavior—are primarily drawn in our youth. Research shows that children who develop “imaginary worlds or societies” are more likely to become “creative persons, scientists, artists, and inventors.”5 The pillars we add to our mental houses when we’re young shape the course of our thinking and behavior as we grow older. In fact, a particular dalliance of the imagination of childhood tends to draw people into more mystic, spiritual modes of life as adults.
While many adults may think of children’s make-believe [and] invisible friends as the erroneous trivialities of the youngsters’ limited grasp of reality, are they not, after all, foreshadowings of our adult religious or other forms of spiritual consciousness? Think of how many adults carry on extended interior monologues with their deity or with patron saints, guardian angels, or deceased parents and mentors.6
The practice of imagining and the content of our imaginings shape our beliefs and behaviors later in life. Of course, the older we get, the harder it is to change how we imagine and what we imagine. But just as athletes train themselves to visualize winning the game or crossing the finish line before competing, our mental carriage often presages our behavior (and the results thereof).
[A day or two after drafting this post, I started reading’s new book; in her opening chapter, she writes: “The imagination shapes us and our world more than any other human power or ability.” She quotes James K.A. Smith:7
…much of what we do grows out of our passional orientation to the world—affected by all the ways we’ve been primed to perceive the world. In short, our action emerges from how we imagine the world.
…much of our action is acting out a kind of script that has unconsciously captured our imaginations.
The imagination, an undeniably aesthetic dimension, is the leading edge of life.]
renewing our minds
The mind contains two things:
(a) symbolic representations existing alongside material,8 time-bound counterparts
(b) a lens through which material, time-bound counterparts are perceived
Our aesthetic intuition both precedes the received world and perceives the world as it is received. It casts a fore-shadow across all that comes to our senses and all the circumstances we find ourselves in. Our mental aesthetic is the scaffolding upon which all other aspects of our lives are draped.
There are benefits (beyond the merely practical ones suggested above) to considering and modifying the aesthetic lens through which we perceive our life and the world. Here’s an example: Dr. Jason Baxter, a Dante and Lewis9 scholar, recently spoke on adding a medieval perspective to our ideas about life. He points out that we all have interiorities which, according to the ancients, are connected with the divine in some capacity. “The goal of human life is to recover this connection and reintegrate our psychological, spiritual, rational, and ethical powers. Then we become whole, integrated people.”
C.S. Lewis keenly understood the value of expanding aesthetic intuition beyond comprehension of one’s own era. According to Dr. Baxter, he was in love with the idea of atmosphere, the sense that reading ancient literature provides not only the capability to know facts, but to breathe ancient ways of seeing the world. We get to listen in on the emotions, the way of being, of those long dead.
We’d benefit from an ancient aesthetic overlay on our mental houses, a result that can only come through the transformation of our intellectual aesthetic.
Saint Paul speaks of himself and his fellow believers being ‘transformed by the renewing of the mind.’ Renewal has the sense of renovation or complete change for the better. It’s a time-bound, material change of form and function—Mark and Matthew use the same Greek word to describe Jesus’ transfiguration from mundane, mortal body to resplendent, glorified body.
The affirmation here is that the mind is the key, and the most significant power of the mind is its aesthetic inclinations and influences—how we think and what we think. Some might be philosophically inclined to argue that I’m overlooking the dimensions of spirit, soul, and heart in the work of mortal transformation. But the aspects of what we call the mind in this area of conversation are plainly inclusive of elements of the soul, spirit, and heart. At any rate, the avenue through which we affect our mental aesthetic—including our soul, spirit, and heart—is the mind. When we set out to build a more aesthetically beneficial life, to change our behavior, to challenge how we see the world, or to change ourselves, we first attend with our minds (and the unavoidable mental lens through which all other experiences are perceived).
(It’s a funny thing I’m just now thinking. The spirit-soul, the thing that is us, is only consciously accessible to us via the mind. We access the soul at a remove from ourselves; we are what we are unable to grasp. It’s very Schrödinger’s cat.)
Life is, in fact, the byproduct. To have an aesthetically-fulfilling life, we must develop the mind. As we think, so we are.
asides + signal boosts
Elizabeth Bruenig has a moving piece in The Atlantic about a convicted murderer who underwent spiritual transformation while awaiting the death sentence. “I was in jail with no bond, no chances left. At the edge of the Abyss. Everything gone in the wink of an eye,” Jimi Barber wrote shortly before he died. “But… I opened a Bible. And God reached down, lifted me up… He created a new thing in me.” I got teary-eyed reading about how he “forged a bond [with the family of his victim] from the remnants of what he had broken.”
If you’re wondering how to do creative work when it seems like you have no time, check out Paula Cocozza’s piece on’s substack: How to be creative (when you have no time).
I sit in the chair, and I understand what I’m there to do. I never wait for “the right moment” to write, but take whatever moments there are. I picture myself parachuting into that writing chair. I land however I manage, and do whatever I can.
I recently rediscovered how amazing the TENET soundtrack is. Popped it into the queue during a long writing session after The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises had played through. It’s trippy, brilliant, and bristles with a mild, mysterious intensity. Perfect for writing flow.
Something Bill Maher said in reference to the purpose of college education.
Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion
Somsamay Vidamaly and Soon Li Lee, “Young Adults' Mental Illness Aesthetics on Social Media,” International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 2021
Aaron Meskin and Jonathan M. Weinberg, “Imagination Unblocked,” The Aesthetic Mind: Philosophy and Psychology (eds. Elisabeth Schellekens and Peter Goldie)
Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer, “An Attitude Towards the Possible: The Contributions of Pretend Play to Later Adult Consciousness,” The Aesthetic Mind: Philosophy and Psychology (eds. Elisabeth Schellekens and Peter Goldie)
Singer & Singer, “An Attitude Towards the Possible: The Contributions of Pretend Play to Later Adult Consciousness”
From his book, Imagining the Kingdom. Karen Swallow Prior’s book, The Evangelical Imagination, has been a great read so far. Also, she’s now writing on Substack @.
By material I am not just referring to physical, but anything we can perceive in these mortal frames on this mortal coil.
He wrote the recently-published Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis, a book I own but have yet to read.