I often describe myself as being in a state of “existential crisis” . Over the years I have largely attributed this state to problems with anxiety and depression. But perhaps my anxiety and depression is actually being caused by my existential questioning?
I have to preface this post by admitting that I do have a Bachelor of Arts with a double major in History and Philosophy, and one of my favourite subjects covered in philosophy was epistemology. For those of you who don’t know, epistemology is the study of knowledge, and this study is largely taken up by the attempt to answer the question what IS knowledge.
In general, in order for humans to function we have to assume that we KNOW what is going on. You aren’t going to find a lot of people who go into things saying “well I KNOW I am wrong about how this will turn out but we will do it MY way anyway”. (Yes, there are people out there that will do something the wrong way while KNOWING it is the wrong way BUT those people usually do it to prove a point, that point being that SOMEONE ELSE was wrong about how it was going to turn out.)
Sometimes you will find people who say “I know I don’t know how to do this, so I’ll find out how and then do it” or “I don’t know how to do this but I’ll find someone who does” but what happens then is they create for themselves a situation where they then “know” how to do something. They might be wrong about it, and it may fail miserably because of this, but they didn’t KNOW they were wrong when they started. I went into university KNOWING that I didn’t KNOW THE TRUTH with the express purpose of trying to figure out what the heck was going on in this world, what is THE TRUTH?
What I have discovered though is that while there must BE something that is THE TRUTH we have no way of knowing IF we know what that truth IS.
Despite the fact that we all seem to have the idea that we can trust what we see, hear, feel and remember, our “version” of what we KNOW about something is always coloured by our past experiences. Two witnesses who are looking at exactly the same thing often see two completely different events. Why? Because our brains try and make ‘sense’ of the inputs and fill in the blanks to make a complete and convincing (to us) story about what it just saw. When I was growing up there was a common saying “there’s always two sides to a story”, but to be more accurate there is actually at least THREE sides to a story: MY side, YOUR side, and what ACTUALLY HAPPENED.
Case in point:
I was sitting on a bench with a friend late at night talking and watching a fountain. When we arrived, there was a “homeless” person laying on a nearby bench with a backpack and a bunch of other stuff. Some time later three younger men were slowly making an approach and as they got closer we could tell that one of them appeared to be somehow giving some sort of ‘tour’ of the area describing how in the winter the area was a skating rink and where you would put your skates on etc. My friend commented on how it was a bit odd to be giving that sort of tour at such a late hour, especially in the SUMMER. The “tour guide” went over close to the “homeless” person and then the trio of young men went and hung around another bench for a few minutes. Shortly thereafter our young “tour guide” went over close to the “homeless” person again and then back to his buddies and they all walked away. Almost immediately, the ”homeless” person started packing up his “bed”. At this point my friend said “oh, maybe we should move along because I think maybe our talking was disturbing that guy who was trying to sleep and now he’s got to move because of us” to this I chuckled and said “nah, what we just witnessed was a drug deal rendezvous”.
We were sitting right beside each other and witnessed the exact same events at the same time, but what we “knew” about the situation was coloured by our past experiences. I can understand why someone would see what she saw, but after explaining to her what I saw she could also see what I did. Who was right? We will never know.
How does this apply to my existential angst?
Well, once you are aware that you can never be SURE that you KNOW the TRUTH, you realize that you can’t KNOW anything (in fact, it is generally accepted that there is no generally accepted definition of what it is to KNOW something, but that’s another story).
So asking questions like WHY? WHO AM I? and WHAT IS MY PURPOSE? become terrifying when you realize that even if the answers DID actually exist you will NEVER have a way to be CERTAIN that you are RIGHT about what they are.
Once you internalize that notion that there is ALWAYS going to be a POSSIBILITY (however remote) that you MIGHT be WRONG then you can never look at anything the same way again. (Maybe I am just a figment of something’s imagination? Maybe I’m on a reality show where everything is fake and everyone I meet is an actor attempting to see how unbelievably outlandish they can be without me realizing that I’m being punk’d? Maybe I’m a brain in a vat and I just think I’m experiencing a physical existence?)
At this point you have two options:
Live in a constant state of anxiety and depression paralyzed by an existential fear that you admit that you will never be able to resolve.
Adopt the philosophy of “Que Sera Sera” and figure that you are almost definitely going to mess some things up and get some things wrong (and yeah, maybe this whole thing you call your life is one big cosmic practical joke on you), but there isn’t much you can do about it anyway so you might as well just do SOMETHING and hope for the best.
As for me, I figure there are very few “mistakes” you can’t somehow come back from, so I’ve decided to go out and make some because it just seems more fun that way (besides, it’s better for the ratings that way, I mean who wants to watch someone sit around all day contemplating their navel?).
Maybe ignorance really IS bliss?