Do you ever have moments where you’re overwhelmed by the arbitrary nature of your existence? I’ve been feeling it periodically since at least 2012, which is the year I relinquished that comforting notion that everything happens for a reason. Now and then I still find myself free-falling into some strange brand of existential dread that centers around the happenstance. For example: a couple of Fridays ago, I worked at the store til 10 p.m. and biked home alone. I circled around back of the house I live in to the gutted “back house” where we store our bikes, and as I was unlocking the padlock to the basement door, I was overcome by this odd feeling of not-me-ness: Is this really my apartment? Do I live here? Is this my home? …Why? Why here and not anywhere else?
It struck me in that moment that I could just as easily put my bike in any other building, that I could sleep anywhere that night, in another house, in a field, in another city, that the possibilities for my evening were nearly endless.* This is pretty much always the case, but we manage not to think about it most of the time. Acknowledging the infinitude of possibilities can be terrifying. But, I put my bike away and went upstairs to make dinner because that’s what I usually do. I generally think about the inertia of life in a negative way: that it gets me stuck in ruts I don’t want to be in and I end up going along to get along without thinking things through. But I suppose inertia can be a valuable force in our lives, in that it anchors us to our identities enough to keep us from spinning wildly out into the existential void. (Why am I here? Why do ANYTHING? Because it’s what you do—so you better get on that.)
*It can spiral quickly, from “Why do I live here?” to “Why am I me? Why am I human rather than some other mammal? Or insect? Or object? Why any of this, when it could just as easily have been any other thing, or no thing at all?”
When I get sucked into one of these spirals at an inopportune moment, it can make it hard to function, because it’s hard to see the point in doing anything. Work and school are the worst times for existential crises. I refer you to my favorite dearly departed webcomic, Pictures for Sad Children.
In the midst of one of these crises at work—trying to figure out why I was here and what was the point of being at all—I called my mother and asked her why she decided to have children.
“Because little babies are sweet!”
I mulled this over. “Really? So, like, maternal instincts? That was it?”
“You think about things WAY too much.”
“I mean, obviously. But was that really your only reason?”
“No. I figured, God gave me this body, and I might as well see what it can do.”
This did not help me deal with my existential crisis, but I really don’t know what I expected. It’s sort of unreasonable to expect your mother to bail you out of that one. (I’ve since related this to a few friends, and they’ve told me that those are actually pretty good reasons, that most people decide to have kids because they get knocked up, and that’s about it.)
Oddly enough, taking biology has been stirring these thoughts up too. The more we talk about the evolution of cells and organisms, the more I think, God, I’m a weird mammal. Sitting here in class stressing out about grades is actually a pretty weird thing for a mammal to do. Shouldn’t I be out looking for food or something? Spending quality time with other mammals?
Which brings me to the shore upon which this two-day existential voyage crashed, where I’ve been stranded ever since:
—The Infinite Loneliness of Mortality—
It’s a thing that’s always been there, I think. Sometimes it’s just a quiet undercurrent that’s easy enough to ignore. I can blot it out pretty thoroughly for short periods of time with alcohol, with dancing, with intimate interactions with other humans—but it’s always there waiting for me in the background. When I was younger, I thought that I would someday be able to escape from it—that that’s what true love was for, or failing that, perhaps enlightenment. At this point I’m pretty sure that it’s the human condition and I’m stuck with it.
I’m very much an introvert. Even so, I sometimes feel guilty because it seems like no matter how many people I interact with on a daily basis and how many meaningful relationships I have in my life, it’s never enough to extinguish the loneliness. Why is no one ever enough? The only answer I can come up with is because I fear death—or rather, I fear nonexistence—and somehow it feels like the more of myself I share with other people, the more I exist. Which is silly, because we will all ultimately be forgotten. Why fight that? But I can’t reason with it; it seems to be something deeply wired into my brain. It’s not that I’m afraid of being alone, exactly, either—like I said, introvert—I need and enjoy my alone time—but it’s more that I need to connect with people on a deeper level on a regular basis.
And the cultural model of having one person—boyfriend/ girlfriend/ partner/ lover/ spouse—with whom you connect deeply and who knows you better than everyone else does not suffice for me. If life is just one big meaningless social experiment, we might as well make the most of it, right? Each of us is isolated in our own head in a way we can never completely transcend, and we each get to experience our own tiny existence while we’re here, but this whole experience is so much more worthwhile for me when I get to share my weird brain space with amenable company, and I get to hear in detail about their unique experiences and fucked-up thoughts as well, and we grow closer as a result. That’s kind of hard to come by in our social structure. Maybe it’s not even a modern problem; maybe it’s always been this way—I don’t know. But although pushing back against the Infinite Loneliness is necessarily a losing battle, I suppose it’s a hill I’m willing (destined) to die on.