One day, after a long night’s sleep, I walked into the bathroom expecting to take my morning shower. I looked into the mirror above my dirty sink like I have thousands of times before. But then, one day, the person I see in the mirror isn’t the same reflection I have come to know throughout in my entire life. It’s someone who has had things happen to them, as well as having done things to others. It’s a person, an existence, me.
Somewhere along the passage our lives, we observe ourselves. For the first time in our lives, we become acquainted with the fact that our body has some sort of personality attached to it. The only thing we know for certain is that we exist. At least, the only thing that gives our lives some sort of inherent purpose is that our existence carries some sort of inherent purpose. Without existence in a truly fundamental way, our lives would be pointless. If we were in a computer simulation, we would still exist, for sure. But, how real would that existence be? Like the characters on our favorite TV shows, we would exist in a plane less real than whatever plane of existence we currently occupy.If we don’t exist, we must continue to believe that we exist to believe we have some sort of purpose.
But even with existence, are there things that exist more than others? We tend to think that our existence is more important than that of an animal. The rationale is: animals exist, but we exist more. That’s why we can justify eating a drumstick at Wishbone without regard to the chicken that was bred for slaughter by a multinational industry set out to maximize profits from massacring animals. We can’t eat other humans because, like us, they also exist. We can’t kill other humans because, like us, they have relatively the same set of life events and thought processes that make their identities understandable to us. A chicken is, well, a chicken.
The danger is when we start thinking that we exist more than other people. After all, other people’s existences fade in and out of our perception; we are the only things that exist permanently in our lives. Sometimes, we come to the realization that other people have lives just as complex and wistful as ours. But these thoughts, like all other thoughts, come and go. We might try to rationalize our existence into the collection of other existences in the world, but at the end of the day, we still feel as if our existence is the only existence that has inherent meaning. Other people exist. We live to help ourselves and other people who exist to us and sometimes people who don’t exist to us. But at the end of the day, we are still the most existent.
And when things don’t go our way, we become angry at the universe because it feels if it doesn’t value our existence. It’s like Harry Potter. Everything works out for Harry Potter. Harry Potter became friends with Ron and Hermione because they happened to sit with him on the Hogwarts Express, followed by a series of circumstantial events that led them to share near-death experiences on the reg. Harry Potter became involved in Quidditch because Malfoy decided to be a dickhead and steal Neville’s ball jawn, and Professor McGonagall decided to reward him instead of punishing him for breaking the rules, not to mention that his dad had been the previous Gryffindor Quidditch captain. Everything in his life was just a series of circumstantial events that somehow all contributed to the person he eventually became.
And when things don’t work out for us the same way they worked out for Harry Potter, we become miffed. For Harry Potter, everything was just barely enough. He was barely able to defeat the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets. He was barely able to fight off the dementors in the Prisoner of Azkaban. He barely grabbed the Triwizard Cup in the Goblet of Fire. He received just enough help each time to ensure his success with just enough challenge to ensure his growth as a person. His life follows a narrative of things working out for him despite the difficulties he encountered. Everything that has happened to him has made him into a stronger purpose. Everything in his life has an express purpose of advancing the plot of his life. All of his pain is growing pain, never suffering.
But unlike Harry Potter, our lives aren’t written out like stories with clear lines drawn between internal motivation and external validation. A sense of profound bitterness derived from an intrinsic human nature to resent. It’s human, along with the other negative aspects of personality that make humans, humans. It comes with angst and passion, intermingled together in a disgusting amalgamation to hide the sense of hallow consternation behind the red curtain of living with purpose. A journey with no end. Life defined as an endless stream of goals with no foreseeable redemption arc. One goal leading to another goal leading to another goal leading to another goal. A sense of direction to distract from the empty reality devoid of J.K. Rowling writing a protagonist that has everything work out for him.
Things work out for some people. Things don’t work out for others. It did with Harry Potter. But like the story, some people’s lives seem to follow the same patterns of difficulties followed by external validators that create a narrative that results in a wholesome life. A sharp dichotomy that splits the world between those that have redemptive arcs and those that don’t. A series of stochastic illogical givens in the world that catalyze a series of actions and reactions to propel us through a desolate existence to an unforgiving conclusion devoid of any greater significance. And somewhere within an endless series of dichotomies, our identity exists. Some people are born with a genetic predisposition to mental illness. Some people are born with loving parents and a supportive home. Some people seem to have every misstep contribute to some sort of character growth that would eventually work out. Some don’t.
Because it’s funny. It’s so funny that I laugh at how funny it is. Because there’s nothing I would otherwise do with my life. What am I doing with my life, anyway? Existing? Trying to occupy my time as much as possible distract myself from the emptiness underpinning my existence? Trying to stay afloat amid a torrent of waves constantly pushing my life towards one ocean or another, much less trying to fight the waves? What a series of funny questions.
I wonder if anything in my life is real. And, if so, what is worth fighting for. If I lost it all, would I even mind? What does it even mean when I say that I exist? Whatabout me, actually exists? Why am I so sure that there is something about me that makes me distinctly me? I could argue that my life is just a series of predetermined life events which are the result of other life events. Isn’t that a normal way to think? What’s the point in building a life when the ending is death? To live and progenate? To maximize my own personal happiness? To make an impact on others, whatever that means? What else should I live for other than to conform to societal expectations of productivity and purpose? I mean, I can’t spend all day laughing at how pointless everything is. After all, I exist. And existing means doing things that people do when they exist.
When I read an article about a convicted murderer with a violent upbringing, I oftentimes am overwhelmed with a sense of pity, as opposed to contempt. Sure, upbringing doesn’t excuse action; murder isn’t one of those things that can be excused the same way a child can be excused for taking a cookie out of the cookie jar. But like a child helping themselves to a gelatinous globule of warm cookie dough, how much choice do people really have? It’s all just one event leading to the next event leading to the next event. A series of vague inclinations that propel actions leading to other actions into more vague inclinations. A series of arbitrary gifts and curses given at birth, followed by a series of events that are the results of those gifts and curses.
Is living just an instinct? A series of feelings and thoughts to guide us to the next set of feelings and thoughts? We create a distinction between humans and animals, but are we really different from the beasts we argue act on the primal instinct we think to be so uncivilized? Critical thinking, allegedly, is what separates humans from their animalistic counterparts. But what does that really even mean? That we think? Yes, we think. We think about more than simply finding food or water or sex. We think about what types of romantic partners we want or what missions to which we dedicate our lives. At least, We think about what it means to live and how our past has affected us. I think that’s what humans think about. But does that make our lives more meaningful than that of an animal?
Like animals, we are guided by one action to the next. If a lion is hungry, it will probably stop j chillin next to the giant rock and go out to hunt. And, while a meaty gazelle could satisfy its hunger for a few hours, it will, once again, go out to hunt when it is hungry again. Likewise, if we are hungry, we check the fridge for Hot Pockets. And we will keep on checking the fridge for Hot Pockets until one day, we discover that we have run out of Hot Pockets. Once we run out of Hot Pockets, we will wander into a nearby Fresh Grocer in search for more Hot Pockets. And when we have bought more Hot Pockets, we will return to our house to eat more Hot Pockets. And repeat. While a lion may never contemplate its existence relative to the universe, it is still guided by the same instinctual drives caused by a series of arbitrary enzymes in its body that also drive us to pursue Hot Pockets day-by-day.
What about me — my personality, my accomplishments, my friends — is actually the result of my efforts? Which parts of me are actually the result of my existence as opposed to me, once again, succumbing to the whims of my feelings and desires that are the result of the resources given to me at my inception? I could pinpoint a series of three events in my life that have caused me to become the person I am today. Those are the ones that I could quantify. My school life that followed my birth was defined by a series of arbitrary classes and activities that have given me the friends I have now. Capricious events due to factors largely outside of my own control to dictate the person I will become. Some of those events have made me into a better person. Some haven’t. But my question is, where do I fit into my own life?
Where do I get a conscious choice to decide the personality that I want to have or the friends I want to spend time with or the interests I want to pursue? There is nothing about my personality that I consciously created. Except as aggregate collection of my experiences and thoughts, my personality does not mean anything at all. When am I free from the instinct and external validators that seem to guide me from one action to the next action to the next action? Where, in my own life, am I living?
Even my preferences are reflective of a series of circumstantial life events that elicit some sort of permanent response. My love for writing comes from a quote found on the internet. Start a journal, said some stranger in some random internet forum in 6th grade. And so, I did. I opened a Google Docs and scribbled down some undeveloped thoughts because I was curious how I would reflect on my life 10 years down the line. I wanted to know where the insecure child who wrote, “Ok, so today im going to start one of these google docs things” on October 19, 2012 was going to turn out. And that’s how my journal started. Somewhere along the line, my 12th grade AP Lit teacher said she liked my writing. External validation. Some things happened in between. One thing lead to another, and now, I’m taking a creative writing class. All from a quote on the internet, followed by a series of circumstantial life events.
And that’s just an aspect of my personality I could pinpoint. Most of my personality — I can’t.
My friends are largely the result of people I spend my time with. Sometimes, I consciously create opportunities to see people in my life through getting lunch or studying or something. Other times, I just walk into my intermediate macroeconomics and sit next to my friends without needing to plan anything. And the cycle repeats. One class here. Another dinner there. The more time I spend with people, the more intimate I become with them. And then, sometime along the way, I stop considering them to be strangers and incorporate their existences into my monthly routine of actions and reactions. And then, further along, their existence becomes tied to my identity. And while I would consider some my friends to be the result of my choices (and some of my friends to be circumstantial), I can never say that any of my choices are conscious choices.
But in the end, what’s the point in preserving these aspects in my life if it will all crumble away eventually? Nothing lasts forever. Not friends, not memories, not legacies. The time we spent in college will become irrelevant when we become older just as our time spent in high school has become irrelevant now. That trip with friends to rural Canada during spring break of sophomore year will be a faded memory. The intense sadness and despair that follows a breakup of our first relationships would just be a faded memory. Those conversations well past midnight on the steps leading to Provost Smith 201 after spending the past couple hours studying will just be a faded memory. And before long, those faded memories won’t exist anymore either.
My friends and I will move to different cities and go on living our separate lives. We would promise to never lose touch, fervently asserting the connectivity we have been afforded by our readily available technology. We would start by FaceTiming weekly, always with a new update in our lives. New friends. New lovers. We would visit each other annually to feel each other’s warm embrace once again. Perhaps, we would try to coordinate our vacations together in order to maximize the number of experiences we could share together in a time when we could no longer share experiences together as easily. I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska to see the northern lights. But, deep inside, we know that nothing that could quite replace the intimacy that we knew to be irreplaceable. Our closeness was an accomplishment, yet so easily lost.
But then, those weekly FaceTime sessions would turn into monthly phone calls, usually spurred by a sense of boredom on the commute back from work. It would still be casual. Then, in some unknown moment in the future, the contents of the phone call stop being about casual life events like wild dates and aggravating coworkers but more about catching up. We would be those old people at the Green Line Cafe buying coffee and summarizing the past 10 years of our lives. We would still joke about those intense moments we had shared in college, but even those memories would fade eventually. Our friendship, we would claim, would be impervious to distance and time, as if a couple years of circumstantial events could create something resistance to the whims of time and space. But we all know that everything, in time, will fade.
The time between the phone calls vary. Sometimes, it would be a couple of weeks. After all, we had lives outside our monthly phone calls. We still went on dates with people we met in the most random circumstances that occupied all of our thoughts. We still watched the next season of Stranger Things in a mutual friend’s living room surrounded by knockoff sour cream chips and a two-liter bottle of grape soda. We still spent time looking up at our bedroom ceilings pondering the what ifs in our lives. The biggest what if: What if we didn’t move to different cities? But then, sometime later, “a couple of weeks” would be an inadequate phrase to describe the time between our phone calls. We would make new friends, new lovers, and we would spend all of our time with them as opposed to a voice on the other end of an invisible line.
After some more time, those phone calls we prided ourselves to be the cornerstone of our long distance friendship would stop being something we thought about. Our lives would move on; college, in its entirety, would just be a distant memory. In fact, the only time we would ever think of each other is when we see a life event on Facebook, assuming that Facebook would still be a thing of the future. A marriage, perhaps. We would call, once again, and act as if things were just the same when we were two insecure teenagers living too recklessly (or too cautiously) in college. We would think, how did this idiot who tried to chug an entire bottle of spiked soda (and threw up profusely afterward) get married to anyone? Things would be different, but that would be okay. It’s natural. It’s a universal experience. Growing apart. So it must be okay.
Then, one day, one of those yearly phone calls would be the last phone call. We would laugh, together, at our stupid college selves before clicking the red icon that ended our call, located wherever it would be 30 or 40 years from now, one last time. From then on, no new memories would be created. The only glue holding the tenuous connection of intimacy and loyalty derives from a set of fading memories. Some thoughts that wander into consciousness here and there. Maybe, we would reminisce the summer trip we took to somewhere far away when we drop off our kids at summer camp. Maybe, we would remember the first friends we made in college when we help our kids through the college application process. Maybe, we would think about our college friends even when we stop talking to them.
But then we die, and the memories stop.
Once again, we fade back into nothingness. Any memory of us will fade. All of our accomplishments, all of the cherished memories that we had created, all aspects of our identity will return to the nothingness that incepted with our existence. Our loving relationships, which we would have considered to be the greatest accomplishment of our lives at that point, will end with our death. Or before the end, similar to how a summer fling fizzles out in mid-August when the wind starts to blow and the mosquito start dying off one by one. Our friends will grace our lives with their presence. We will share moments together that we would cherish for years down to come. And just as we see moments in our lives pass, we will grow to see our friends pass by us as well.
And then, when our existence is finally extinguished, will we know the true meaning of impermanence. We cease to exist, the same as we have been for whatever amount of “time” before came into existence. Everything that we have lived for will disappear. Every moment in our lives that we claimed to have made us exist in the world disappears from one second to the next. For the first time, we become exposed to the idea of nothing. A block of time multiplied infinitely without any substance. It is just like how we “were” before we were, except there is such a discrepancy between things that existed and things that didn’t. After all, because we contributed something to the world—even if it were due to factors outside of our control—doesn’t that mean something?
Doesn’t the summation of everything that has happened in our lives mean anything?
Something more than nothing?