An existential dilemma?

Imagine something bad happens in your life. In fact, imagine that it is the worst thing that has happened to you so far.

Now you can think about this event, and respond to it, in two basic ways. Two ways which both offer something, but which also each extract a price. They contradict each other, so that you can’t hold both perspectives at the same time.

The first way of thinking about things is to rationalise. To get a sense of perspective. To say to yourself “It could have been worse”. Now this is essentially looking at your life from the outside and evaluating the meaning of things in a wider context. “I’m still alive”, you say. You look at the news and are grateful. “I could have just had boiling engine oil squirted over my face” or “At least my entire family haven’t been killed in a brutal and senseless tribal war”. This can work – you realise that compared to the sufferings of the rest of humanity, and compared to those sufferings you could potentially undergo, your trials are minor. They do not mean as much as you feel they do, you realise, and so you can feel more phlegmatic about them. And then you look at the whole of your life, and you judge it on the same scale, and you realise that to look at your life from the outside derives it of meaning. Not just this event, but all events in my life are minor. My sufferings, and my joys and my achievements do not count for ought on this cosmis scale. I win, I lose, I live, I die. So what. Your life becomes so trivial in its significance that it is effectively meaningless. This is depressing.

So you come to realise that the only way your life can have meaning is to evaluate it from the inside. To say “Yes, there are billions of lives like mine, billions that might be more important in the grand sense, but only this one is mine. Only I stand on this spot, only I can do the things I am uniquely positioned to do, and only I can feel the wind on my cheeks and turn my closed eyes to the morning sunlight, here at this moment. Only I can experience myself and so I must regard my life – I must value my life – in terms which are defined from the inside, on the scale of my own experience”. But now you have changed your perspective to give back meaning to your life, you are assulted by the disaster that started you thinking on this track in the first place. If you give meaning to events according to your experience, you may have the feeling of meaning in your life, but the events in your life mean you are sad. They are the worst thing(s) that have ever happened to you, remember. This is depressing.

But maybe you have a suspicion – or someone offers some sage advice – so you try and get a sense of perspective, but then you are back again to draining your life of meaning entirely. You revolve between the two point of view. Meaning and suffering, suffering from meaninglessness. You twirl and spin, exhausting yourself.

Now this paradox works however trivial a disaster has beset your life. Perhaps my goldfish dies. I loved my goldfish, and until he died my life was uninterrupted joy. Now this event has blackened my existence and I try and make sense of my pain. Obviously, compared to being locked in a cellar for the first fourteen years of my life, seeing daylight only when my abusive father comes into the room to beat me, the goldfish thing isn’t that important. Realising this I feel better. Then I realise that my so far pampered existence is equally trivial. I am sad. And so it goes on.

Disclaimer: I am fine. My family, including my father (non-abusive), are fine. My goldfish (non-existent) is fine. The worst thing that has happened to me today is that I have come to work wearing a t-shirt which has a wine-stain on it.

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