Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The fallacy of event-based epiphanies

A couple of months ago, we referenced a column by Tim Kreider in which he recounted a near-death experience (he was stabbed in the neck) and subsequent epiphany. In short, Kreider found the experience caused him to appreciate the joy of simply being alive (i.e., the absurd) for about a year, after which "the same dumb everyday anxieties and frustrations began creeping back."

We imagine this is a fairly common occurrence for people who experience such "event-based epiphanies." The reason, of course, is that such revelations are not revelations at all, but rather yet another thread in the internal "story" we each construct about ourselves. As such, they do not actually change the structure of one's thinking, but instead cause one to morph into (for example) "someone who is always happy because he was stabbed in the neck and now understands the inconsequential nature of life."

Said a different way, someone who experiences an event-based epiphany does not (usually) accept that the concept of identity is an illusion, but rather posits he is a more enlightened individual because of his personal experience. This is quite a different thing. In fact, in that the transforming event is the memory of something that happened to you, such events actually reinforce the concept of identity. Thus, it is easy to see how such epiphanies would fade. Kreider's experience strikes us as typical--as the event receded into his past, he assigned less and less importance to it (much as sports fans are less interested in how their team fared 20 years ago than how they did last night).

One who comes to believe life is meaningless due to an event becomes reliant on the memory of that event to maintain his perspective. As the memory fades (and the event becomes more abstract) so will this individual's perspective. Indeed, it is a cliche that people at funerals--particularly those for younger individuals who died unexpectedly--talk earnestly and compellingly about how the death has been a "wake-up call" for them, and from here on out they will "live every day as if it were their last," or some other such platitude. And yet...the number of people who actually subscribe to this view on a consistent basis is far smaller than the number who express such views at funerals.

Our point here is not to disparage those who believe an event has transformed them in some fundamental way, but rather to point out that such feelings are (almost always) a mirage rather than a true epiphany, and will fade with the passage of time. People who experience such "revelations" are no different from those (for example) who believe their personal experiences make them well-qualified to opine on broad matters of public policy. (E.g., the individual who says he supports health care reform because his mother had cancer, or family members of terrorist victims who opine on the "best" ways to keep people safe.)

But we digress. The bottom line is that event-based epiphanies are not what they seem. Those who experience them believe for all the world that their perspective has changed forever, and they will henceforth live according to a different code. But almost without fail (there are, of course, exceptions), such individuals slide back, as Kreider did, to their previous state of worry and regret. This is because the epiphany was not real--rather than showing them the fallacy of the self, and thus the meaninglessness of life, the event actually reinforced their own view of themselves.

Event-based epiphanies are false.

1 comment:

  1. From my late adolescence through my early adulthood, my life could be described as a series of event based epiphanies. While I was acutely aware of the random nature of many of those events, the lessons and insights I was able to take from them have formed the core of that aspect of myself that is affected by experience. While, perhaps, the path my life has taken may even prove the fallacy of depending on such epiphanies to determine the course of one's life, the consciousness and awareness I have managed to retain through the subsequent slings and arrows have certainly contributed to my survival and mental health.

    (Of course I should refer here to the notion, demonstrated in a study a few years ago, that optimists are the most emotionally healthy and stress free people, but that what they have in common is a capacity for self-deception.)

    I think that what I am disputing here is not the absurdity of the world (after all, that is why I signed on) but the conclusion drawn that that makes life inherently and inevitably meaningless. Rather it is in this absurd world that we must determine ourselves what meaning life may hold; and as such the truth or falsity of event based epiphanies is essentially irrelevant. What is relevant is how we use experience, real or imagined, to augment our ability to survive the absurdity.