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Quicksilver and Clay

Like everyone else, I walk around the world in a body made of quicksilver and clay. The pieces of my body—my sense of humor, my beliefs, my opinions and artistic sensibilities and worldviews, everything—combine to present a cohesive self to be publicly displayed.

There are two ways that a piece of me can be formed. The boring way is when, over months or years of effort, I work clay into a new fragment of my being. Perhaps a new opinion might be formed after hours of study, or my style of speech after many conversations of practice. In rare and precious cases, these pieces survive the fires of challenge and hardship to become ceramics, the strongest parts of me.

But clay has seemed rather underwhelming ever since I discovered that, like everyone else, I possess the ability to shape magical quicksilver to mimic the shape of anything I can see, forming a replica that will remain nearly-identical to what I saw as long as it doesn’t get too hot. I can encounter a political opinion or a helpful rule of thumb that I find aesthetically pleasing, and have a replica of my own in an instant. This ability is particularly potent when combined with Internet access. Now we can fashion ourselves entirely of ideas we learned from academics, sensibilities we gleaned from artists, preferences we copied from experts. We have never been so ornate, so beautiful.

We’ve also never been more unoriginal. Sometimes, I take stock of myself and come to the unnerving conclusion that only a few parts of me are made of clay. Much of me, perhaps the vast majority, is copied from someone else. But who wants to bother with the messy, time-consuming process of working with clay when you can have something nearly equivalent in a few seconds? Why work harder to make something uglier? Humans have been specializing in crafting individual pieces of the self for so long that attempting to make myself “from scratch” would mean missing out on centuries of advancement, reinventing the mistakes of the past. It’s hard enough to find greatness, let alone to craft it, so why not just dedicate myself to researching excellence in every field and then form myself entirely of quicksilver imitations?

Quicksilver is great. Life is too short to be spent crafting clay pieces that you don’t care about, so when it comes to opinions on topics you think are irrelevant, or your wardrobe if you’re not into fashion, or any facet of yourself that you’re expected to have but can’t be bothered to create, I see little reason not to just copy something that works and move on.

But I still work with clay because I haven’t forgotten the kiln. I’ve seen how quickly quicksilver beliefs give way when exposed to argument, watched how every time I try to construct myself a shiny new self in a day of furious copying, my quicksilver legs start to melt at the first sign of any kind of adversity. I could keep deluding myself, believing that someday quicksilver will reliably support my weight, or I can resign myself to the messy, time-consuming task of shaping the load-bearing pieces of myself out of clay.

I’ll start by making clay imitations of designs from others, repeating their work, only veering off to try my own designs once I’ve gotten a bit of practice. I’ll craft the essential parts of me slowly, painstakingly, with hours of work that could be sidestepped, and I’ll end up with something crude compared to the best of what’s out there.

But this time, when the flames come, I’ll be able to stagger on.