When I was a junior in high school, my creative writing teacher, Jean Gill, asked us to read nature writer Annie Dillard’s essay “Handed My Own Life,” from her memoir An American Childhood.
In it, little Annie Dillard begs her parents for a microscope, and they give her one for Christmas. She investigates all sorts of things over the winter, but she is dying to see an amoeba. In late spring, after the thaw, she is finally able to gather some mucky pond water, prepares a slide, and sees one! She scrambles up the basement stairs to the breakfast table where her parents are drinking coffee, and asks them to hurry, before the water dries, so they can see it too.
Mother regarded me warmly. She gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be coming down.
She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself.
I had essentially been handed my own life. In subsequent years my parents would praise my drawings and poems, and supply me with books, art supplies, and sports equipment, and listen to my troubles and enthusiasms, and supervise my hours, and discuss and inform, but they would not get involved with my detective work, not hear about my reading, nor inquire about my homework or term papers or exams, nor visit salamanders I caught, nor listen to me play the piano, nor attend my field hockey games, nor fuss over my insect collection with me, or my poetry collection or stamp collection or serious rock and mineral collection. My days and nights were my own to plan and fill.
Other people might have viewed her parents’ laissez-faire attitude unfavorably, but not me. The story blew my mind. My microscope had come with strings attached: a brass plate engraved with the title of “Dr.” and the family name. My piano lessons too: the promise of a rhinestone-studded piano if I could learn to play like Liberace (I quit after my teacher moved away). When I got straight A’s, my father took me to Baskin-Robbins to share a banana split with the chocolatey-est scoops of ice cream and gooiest toppings. When I didn’t do well, I was reviled and made to suffer.
Young Annie’s life couldn’t have been more different from mine, and I knew it. Taking a creative writing course had given me a taste of freedom; my father, who ordinarily oversaw every single aspect of my academic life, was mysteriously disinterested in my writing until I got published in the literary magazine.
I did not know then what a motivation researcher was, but Annie Dillard planted the seed of my becoming one. I loved her writing, and the way she reimagined the simplest of occurrences to make them profound, but what I think I loved most about her was the way she laid bare the contrast between what my life was and what my life could have been.
Don’t let anyone fool you: even research in seemingly the most objective of fields has a story like Annie Dillard’s, or like mine, behind it. Research is never neutral: who we are and what interests us shapes how and what we choose to investigate.
Starting when I was a teenager, I’d done a lot of reading about Buddhism and other religions. I’d done counselling courses, and gotten a degree in psychology. But when, as part of my graduate studies, I took a motivation course and learned about self-determination theory (don’t let those words scare you), I found my amoeba.
What is the self (according to self-determination theory, anyway)? The (true) self isn’t a thing that you can point at. It’s a process. It’s the drive to grow and to glom onto all sorts of things — values and interests and capabilities and so on — and make them our own.
Deep down, my self and your self are the same self because they’re the same process, even though they may glom onto different things, depending on what’s been made available to us. But the self is impersonal! Isn’t that cool?
Our selves are fed in three different ways, all of which are necessary: by being loved and cared for no matter what (relatedness), by being handed our own lives (autonomy), and by feeling capable (competence). These are psychological needs, just like food, water, and being protected from the elements are physical needs that have to be satisfied for us to survive, grow, and thrive. If they consistently aren’t met, we can do some funky stuff and feel some funky ways, but that’s just the self starving and eating Twinkies because they’re the only thing around.
Self-determination theory says, simply, that you want your self in the drivers’ seat, determining your behavior, rather than abandoning the self to answer to the whims, wants, and demands of other people.
The self always knows what’s up.