The Fringe Dweller’s Guide to the Universe
I suspect that “I’m bored!” is one of those things that have moved from childhood into what passes for adulthood these days. There seems to be an epidemic of ennui about, as people mindlessly flit from one thing to another, neither noticing, nor caring.
At one point, he’s having a conversation with one of the “girls,” and they’re talking about the state of the world. “The Chink” says that the biggest problem facing humanity is “ambulatory catatonia.” And doesn’t that just seem to be the case?
Perhaps this “bent” is attributable to the existentialists, who can’t be faulted for noticing the obvious:
Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813–55), Either/Or, vol. 1, “Rotation of Crops” (1843; tr. 1987).
Kierkegaard, joined by such notables as Nietzsche, began an exploration into meaning vs. meaninglessness. Thus began the modern “noticing” of how fundamentally weird the world is. By the end of World War II, existentialism was at its height. European existentialists like Sartre and Camus thought that nothing could be any worse than, nor a more clear-cut example of, the meaninglessness of life than the destruction of the War.
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre first gave the term existentialism general currency by using it for his own philosophy. Explicitly atheistic and pessimistic, his philosophy declared that human life requires a rational basis but the attempt is a “futile passion.” Nevertheless, he insisted that his view is a form of humanism, emphasizing freedom and responsibility.
The Encarta — Desk Encyclopedia Copyright 1998 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Or, to put it more humorously, this cartoon seems to capture it all: (This cartoon was a pert of a t-shirt collection by a company called Bovis Threads of Kingston, Ont. A web search failed to turn up the company after 1999. They seem to have gone “belly up.”)
The Sartre reference, above, from Encarta, actually contains the seeds of liberation, as noted in the last sentence. Freedom and responsibility is actually the antidote to the stultifying effects of being human.
Thus, existentialism in its purest form makes much sense. Note the following definition of existentialism:
A philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts.
Excerpted from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition Copyright � 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
What ends up being rejected in existentialist thought is that life is predetermined and run by something (i.e. god) outside of us. In other words, gone is the idea that life has meaning. By this we mean a meaning that is “for all time and for all people.” Instead, we are left with personal understanding (or lack thereof.). That is, life is “about,” or “means” whatever I choose for it to mean.
So, how does this relate to ambulatory catatonia? Well, the catatonic among us “get” the first piece of the existentialist paradox:
the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable,
There is a certain scariness to this idea- one we’ve mentioned before – that of being cast adrift, alone, in a little boat on a dark and stormy sea. There is no meaning, no direction and no help from “above.” Giving these choices, three options exist: fall overboard and drown, stop paddling and tune out (ambulatory catatonia) or enjoy the paddle anyway.
A guy came in for counselling yesterday, and I’m still not sure why he was there. He’d been critically hurt in an accident, and got a big settlement. While recovering, his sister and brother in law showed up and talked him into lending them $75,000. He’s never seen a nickel, and they just went bankrupt. In a sense, he wanted me to agree that a) he got screwed, and b) that this wasn’t fair. I could agree, in spades, with the first. I was unsure about what value there would be to agreeing to the second. Even if we rail, loudly, “it isn’t fair!” what will change?
No, my questions to him are contained in the second part of the definition, above:
and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts.
His choice has been to feel very sorry for himself, and to hire a lawyer and private investigator to make his relatives’ lives miserable. He said, “When they go down, I want to be there, rubbing it in and letting them know it was me who got them.” While he has the means to do this, and thus the freedom, the consequence is to spend years obsessing about vengeance.
Many of us, rather than living in the now, sucking the experience out of life, are still stuck in past relationships and situations, as if frozen in motion. We obsess and obsess, and nothing changes, except for one thing: the number of days of your life goes down by one, each day. You don’t get ’em back at the end.
To be self-responsibly free is to let go of attachments to the past. It is to let go of obsessing about the future. It is to find this moment, again and again, and to seize the moment and wring the living out of it, swallowing the moment whole, so to speak.
To do otherwise is to stop in your tracks, and plead for rescue, or to freeze and hope that someone is coming to even the score and level the playing field. In the mean time, life continues apace, never once looking in your direction nor caring how you are doing.
This week, look at how you are fixed in place, by your assumptions, by your fear, by your lack of courage. Then, decide to experiment with leaving ambulatory catatonia and the dread of meaninglessness behind, and live despite it all.
It’s really the only life there is.