Monday, November 9, 2009

Some kind of hell...

"Imagine if you suddenly learned that the people, the places, the moments most important to you were not gone, not dead, but worse, had never been. What kind of hell would that be?" --Psychiatrist (Dr. Rosen) referring to schizophrenic John Nash in A Beautiful Mind.

Yes, just imagine. Imagine if you discovered your whole past had been a lie, an illusion, a fantasy. (Take your time...)

It's funny, this thing we call identity. It feels like the most concrete thing in the world--the concept of "who" we are, the things "we" have experienced, our "own" internal wants, desires, feelings, emotions, and thoughts. And yet, for all its soundness, we have this nagging sense something is amiss. After all, if "we" are not the same person we were 20 years ago (and who could feasibly make such a claim?), then when did the shift occur? Could we not also argue we are not the same as last year, last week, or this morning? Could it simply be that these shifts occur so gradually we do not notice them, or do we really believe the (rather fantastic) notion there is some ethereal "self" traveling alongside us? this hell? It is, we must admit, a bit cooler than we expected. To paraphrase Patrick Henry, if this be hell, make the most of it! For we must be blunt, the "hell" to which Dr. Rosen refers is the world we inhabit each day--the knowledge (or belief, if you prefer) that all we have ever done, felt, and experienced has been but the most vivid of illusions; that none of it truly "exists"; that the sense we have of a separate identity, of a self, of a fundamental "being" is nothing more than some evolutionary trick of the mind.

But far from being hell, we find this state of being the most liberating and exhilarating destination imaginable. Yes, our past is but a mirage! Our future as well! Even this present moment, the reality of which could be doubted only by delusionals and cranks...even this is but smoke and mirrors, a full-length movie in which each of us unwittingly plays the starring role.

Should we not celebrate this insight and shout it from the rooftops? This is not hell--it is heaven, contentedness, pure and eternal bliss. Unfortunately, while the entrance is forever unlocked, most spend their entire lives pounding ever more frantically on the door, desperate for someone, anyone, to show up and let them in. Or as David Foster Wallace once put it, we are "pounding on this door, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don't know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. Then, finally, the door opens...and it opens outward: we've been inside what we wanted all along."

1 comment:

  1. Great David Foster Wallace quote! It's unfortunate that he ultimately succumbed to that "total desperation to enter," however.