Ruminations on explaining oneself
Posted on November 5, 2022
A person wakes up one day, having for some years diligently been performing various functions expected of them, and they look around at the world, as if for the first time. ‘Mm’, they wonder, ‘what has been the purpose of this? For whom have I been labouring, and to what end?’
There is no response - both this lack, and the fact that they asked the question at all, feel like matters of vital importance, like the first truly vital facts of any substance there have been for some time.
They wonder further, what exactly is the essential character of this life they have been living? For they do not recognise it as their own - it seems to them rather to have the shape of someone else’s life, some other person that they perceive dimly, like the shadows of fluttering leaves projected on a billowing curtain.
Surely, the person thinks, there must have been an original motivation for the years of work and striving, some reason behind this routine - surely. But as they cast their mind back, they cannot in fact find any such thing. Indeed, while they can recall events, reconstruct the decisions they made in response to these events, and convince themselves that they made sense at the time (they must have, surely), the result of this line of questioning is a place of emptiness - they can find no singular set of facts or causes sufficient to explain the current state of their life, only various contingencies and post-hoc analyses that crumble under scrutiny, like so much dry, ancient paper.
They aim to reassess their values - yet when their mind is turned to the task they find to their consternation that they do not know where to look. They must have believed things, must have valued certain ideals above others; they were once younger, and had much passionate conviction (surely?). But they cannot now tell you what precisely those beliefs were, not with any certainty. It is as if they were a person formerly passionate about geography, well acquainted with the boundaries and physical landmarks of the world, such as great torrential rivers and soaring mountains, but who has never left the small town where they were born; they can not speak from experience, their words are empty, rote speak. Even the memory of having loved this knowledge of foreign places is now dim, and unsure.
They remember striving after knowledge, but realise that much of that knowledge has already been lost. They feel this loss keenly, because for a time they believed that devoting their life to the pursuit of knowledge would give their life purpose. It did not. It also transpired that their knowledge of the nature of the systems of the world was inadequate, and they could no longer ignore their quotidian human needs, as hard as they tried. They felt quite foolish once they realised this, and humiliated, like a child caught out believing itself to be as wise as its elders; or like Gilgamesh searching for eternal life, who is chastened when he realises that he cannot defeat the need for sleep, never mind death.
The entire experience is peculiar and disconcerting in the extreme - waking up, ready to go about one’s business as one always has; but then being struck by the thought that perhaps one has always been asleep, and are only now awake; logically there is then no business for them to do, as the idea of it was a dream. They look around at the world with new eyes; they do not recognise what they see.
They know there were things they believed they wanted to do when they were younger; write a book perhaps (but about what? and what for?); and things that were expected of them; or at least things that they believed were expected of them. Now different things are expected of them (or they believe them to be); upon investigation it is apparent that there is a sharp discontinuity between the former and the current sets of expectations. Where exactly the cleavage occurred is not clear; but the discontinuity is essential enough that the mind cannot conceive a possible reconstruction of life events that could have led to such a confusion. Why must they now do X, when at a former time the whole premise of happiness and life was Y? How could such a state of affairs have come about? It seems impossible - certainly it is unreasonable.
The person teeters on the precipice of the unknown; they shrink from it. They know a change must be made, but the thought is too daunting. There are too many possibilities - none of them have the feeling of rightness, of certainty. What does the person do?