Updated: Dec 11, 2022
Knowledge is useful for navigating the illusions of our culture. But it has its limits. Knowledge cannot help us to answer the most important questions about existence such as "Why am I here and for how long?" Since knowledge cannot help us when we are facing the void, what are we left with?
"Don't worry, be happy!"
Imagine you are a person who is alone and lost in a jungle that keeps getting denser with each moment. You don't remember how you got here. You don't know where you are going. All you know is that everything you've learned is insufficient for navigating the terrain. It feels like the jungle is closing in around you and you notice that you aren't even certain if you're still breathing. Now imagine that you hear what you think is a person approaching. You aren't sure that it matters much since you're still stuck in the middle of a jungle. Oddly, someone is nearby. But they are sitting on a flying carpet, completely unaware of the peril and smothering jungle you are dealing with. As they approach, you rally the smidgen of emotional reserves you have to declare your flailing emotional state to them.
"Hey, you there on the flying carpet. I'm terrified! This jungle feels like it's trying to kill me with every step I take and I have no idea where I am or how to get out," you say.
They look at you like you're a sad little puppy before curtly saying, "You fool! Just hop on a flying carpet and live a life of whimsy! Weeeee!" they shout before lurching away on their flying carpet.
While this story sounds ridiculous, it's an apt metaphor for the type of treatment many people encounter when they share their existential fears with psychotherapists. If you've ever encountered such a frustrating event, I'm sorry. To be in such a vulnerable state, to find the courage to express it, and then to be met with such flippant disdain is demoralizing. Unfortunately, this happens frequently and it's why I've encountered highly intelligent, creative people, who have given up on therapy because as one person said, "every therapist I've been to is either stupid, a narcissist, or both." While this sentiment might be extreme, the situation described is common enough that many people who are looking for help with serious problems give up after a string of failed efforts at finding a therapist who can adequately be with them.
It's not unusual for adults to respond in insufficient ways. However, hopefully therapists have more understanding around this, right? Sadly, many therapists are no better at dealing with these impossible states of despair than the average person. In fact, therapists commonly respond to someone despairing in the face of dread with ham-fisted, comically insensitive remarks. But this is not surprising since so few people, including therapists, are willing to go deeply into these places where all of the comforts of all the cultural illusions fall away and all we are left with is our frail, quivering self, positioned alone and without answers in the infinitely dense jungle of being alive.
While any person who has seriously grappled with serious questions and serious situations would quickly identify the lack of comfort, not to mention the hostility laden in such words as "don't worry, be happy" (or their infinite manifestations), those of us who have encountered and continue to encounter the dread of being alive are used to encountering dismissive and naive reactions to our expressions of suffering. Those who can truly find no comfort in periods of deep despair continue to be met with a world that is alienating, overly optimistic, and myopic (if not incorrigibly arrogant). And so when we encounter these reactions, we slink off to our lair to be alone and lick our emotional wounds in quiet darkness again.
The Trap of Culture
Those in the dominant culture have their identities supported by all of the structures within it. They see themselves in the characters on TV. They are treated as legitimate by others in the dominant culture. Their existence is not questioned. For those not disaffected by the culture, it creates the secure footing for each day's struggles. Those in lower positions serve to help create the sense of certainty and legitimacy that permeates the internal world of the privileged. Afro-pessimism knows that black and brown bodies will never be treated as valid because they serve the function of making the dominant culture real. Status and power are used to protect the entrenched status quo and create a society of valid and invalid people. When the alternative is to be plunged into a world of uncertainty, with no inherent perceivable value, it's no surprise that so many are content to live within the accepted norms of the status quo and play life by those rules as if they are the only ones that matter.
However, counter-culture folks are also comforted existentially by the culture that they attack. By attacking culture, culture becomes something worthy of being attacked. The radical identity is then centered and grounded within a Nietzschian resentiment toward the "bad culture." The Othered are now also real because their fight with the status quo makes them real.
The product is that everyone within the culture is hypnotized by it, tumbling over each other into the future. Each illusion is reified in the infinite drama. The culture warrior is existentially soothed by the unconscious palliative they took. Many "educated" and privileged people get stuck here since they don't really want the culture to change, they just want their identity to be affirmed. They need the problems they perceive to remain so that they may continue to be someone "who fights the system" while still benefiting from their position within it. Meanwhile, the truly oppressed suffer silently.
This is in the best-case scenario. As history has shown, those that start off as anti-establishment, become the establishment. The Grifting Industry exists purely because establishment and anti-establishment need each other to perpetuate the grand illusions and endless culture wars. Often, the cause of justice quickly evaporates once power and influence shifts. Those who previously claimed victimhood, become the tyrants, corrupt managers and politicians, or just banal Twitter bullies. Even a casual student of Chinese history can easily see the absurd shift by the cultural revolutionaries of China. In the span of just a couple of generations, China's dominant culture has shifted from one that aggressively sought to weed out the "Capitalist roaders" to one that values wealth and materialism just as much as any red-blooded American. But now it's sanctioned by the "revolutionary" Communist Party. It's all of the excesses of global capitalism but with none of the freedoms. (See also the ANC in South Africa and an endless list of other liberators.)
A person experiencing timelessness has not forsaken uncertainty to be cloaked in the time-bound culture. In this state, the person resists the urge to confuse themselves by identifying as "an anti-establishment sort of person," "a therapist," or whatever. The problem then is that all of the ground that is created by those living "in time" is not available. However, it is within this place where true freedom lies. It is also in this place where a profound sense of responsibility lies. The interplay of these two are at the core of existential concerns. But the seductive call of culture is always present, pulling us away from this precarious, but incredibly alive, frightening, creative place.
Why Am I Here?
Existence is a great mystery--a mystery within a mystery. For some people, feeling the depth of this mystery intensely can feel overwhelming. When one is fully in the present moment and without any stabilizing illusions, there is great aliveness, but also great fear. One senses both one's powerlessness and one's responsibility for this little world that has been brought forth by one's nervous system.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live... We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” ― Joan Didion, The White Album
When we are just observing our experience, it doesn't take long to see that our experience of life is incredibly fragmented. After we experience life, we create a story to make sense of it. However, this is commentary on a stream of sensory input and internal sensations. As Joan Didion writes, life is just a phanstasmagoria that we narrate. We get confused and believe the narrative is life when in fact it is the coping mechanism. We are here not to create stories. Rather, we create stories because we are here and the fragmented nature of reality would be far too much for the conscious mind to handle. And so our ancestors learned to cope by creating narratives to ease the anxiety and fear of existence.
This is the importance of narratives. None of them are true, but they are necessary for us to survive. The problem then is that people believe the narratives are more real than reality. They defend the narrative with their lives because they believe that the narrative is life itself. This leads people to do incredibly irrational things if they believe they need to in order to keep alive the story they believe.
To live more freely, we need to understand that we can take all of our stories with a grain of salt. None of them are reality but just tools for us to navigate a constantly changing landscape of sensations which includes our thoughts. We are perpetually swimming in our own consciousness and we are only here to tell ourselves the stories that are necessary so that we may continue on.