How Programming Helps Me Heal

Meditations on coding and self-transformation

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Over the last year I got back into various little programming projects. Most of it was fixes and tending to projects, from updating little apps to migrating my server, and some of it was trying out new tools. Most recently, it was some data manipulation in python, which I hadn’t really done since I was a researcher.

Usually, it begins with some task I need to do. Some feature I’d like to have or some error that I want to fix. I’ll google for that feature or I’ll copy/paste the error that shows up in the console into a google search. I browse through guides, DigitalOcean forums, Stack Overflow posts, or GitHub discussions or other forums for the tool. I tweak what I google, searching for the right thing to search. Then I copy/paste what I find into whatever I’m working on, making changes as needed. Then it works, or there are other issues and I repeat the process.

A variety of feelings show up along the way. I feel daunted and overwhelmed in the beginning. How will I figure this out? I haven’t done this before. Or if I have done a similar project, it’s been years. As I search for answers, curiosity turns to excitement as a solution comes together. Then that flow of iterating — testing, fixing, updating. And finally, if it works out, this burst of esteem from that feeling of accomplishment… I did this! Such a joy.

In “The Healing Power of JavaScript,” Craig Mod beautifully describes some of this joy. That magic of iterating and learning and making.

Therein lies part of the attraction: Moving through that jumble — with all of its perverted poetics of grep and vi and git and apache and *.ini — *and doing so with a fingers-floating-across-the-keyboard balletic grace, is exhilarating. You feel like an alchemist. And you are. You type esoteric words — near gibberish — into a line-by-line text interface, and with a rush not unlike pulling Excalibur from the stone you’ve just scaffolded a simple application that can instantly be accessed by a vast number of humans worldwide.

Maybe it is like alchemy. Transforming one thing to another, with some feeling of magic and mysticism in it. Recently, I’ve come across an interpretation of alchemy that turns inward. Instead of transforming substances, say lead into gold, it’s about transforming the self:

Since the Victorian revival of alchemy, “occultists reinterpreted alchemy as a spiritual practice, involving the self-transformation of the practitioner and only incidentally or not at all the transformation of laboratory substances”,[93] which has contributed to a merger of magic and alchemy in popular thought.

Perhaps by placing attention on my learning, curiosity, and creation, in a way I’m placing attention on my own transformation and growth. But there’s something more about this growth. It isn’t just newness. When things feel stuck, stagnant, hopeless, as they’ve felt through this past year, these smaller, manageable, personal puzzles, these gestures of maintenance, are motivating:

This work of line-by-line problem solving gets me out of bed some days. Do you know this feeling? The not-wanting-to-emerge-from-the-covers feeling? Every single morning of the last year may have been the most collectively experienced covers-craving in human history, where so many things in the world were off by a degree here or a degree there. But under those covers I begin to think — A ha! I know how to solve server problem x, or quirk y. I know how to fix that search code. And I’m able to emerge and become human, or part human, and enter into that line-by-line world, where there is very little judgement, just you and the mechanics of the systems, systems that become increasingly beautiful the more time you spend with them. For me, this stewardship is therapy.

What jumps out to me here is this quality of stewardship. Often programming and making things is associated with some newness, some innovation. Less often is the act of ongoing maintenance in focus. To continue this thread of programming, alchemy, and self-transformation — for ourselves the focus is on productivity and growth. Growth hacks. Personal works of maintenance are overlooked since there’s nothing new. This outlook is shifting. For the self, this passage I wrote a few years ago comes to mind:

Validation from work and projects gradually faded. That kind of productivity worked, until it didn’t, and I found myself alone and shook. That’s when the deeper work started.

There’s a thought that brings me a strange comfort. If I ignore this work now, no matter how successful I am, those demons will come back to shatter me.

Those demons, they’ll always show up in some form. That inner work is ongoing. It’s maintenance.

Writers @Medium, Editor of Creators Hub. Author of “Feeling Great About My Butt.” Previously: Product @embedly, Research @NECSI.

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