Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Agony of (Non-)Existence

A few days ago, I stumbled across a beautiful article about the necessity of questioning your own existence. The author suggests that by doing so, we can free ourselves of emotional self-absorption and create space for G-d in our lives.

The article was moving, eloquent, and most importantly- true. But I couldn't totally relate to it. I don't always feel like I really exist. And I imagine that a lot of people feel the same way.

Let me explain. See, life has always felt a little alien. Contrived. An image superimposed on some other, truer reality. Like a shadow puppet performance against the backdrop of a lush, red curtain. What's behind the curtain? What goes on before the play? After? There is so much unseen, so much that no one knows and no one cares to talk about.

By the end of the show, everyone is bawling. Or rolling on the floor, laughing in hysterics. It dawns on me that maybe my emotions themselves are actors in the performance. They certainly don't feel real. After all, I can provide them with a new script and they reorient themselves at the discretion of my intellect.

The visceral feeling of existence should be enough to prove existence. But what if it's not? What if your problem is not that you are blinded by your own existence, but instead blinded by the fact that you know your existence isn't real? What if you live your life glazed over with apathy and uncertainty, incapable of committing yourself to anything? What do you do if you desperately want to feel that your existence is absolute just so you can be certain about something?

You might try to jolt yourself into awakeness through the euphoric experience of studying philosophy or listening to music. Or maybe, believing you'll never truly feel "alive," you surrender to the non-existence waiting for you with open arms where the sidewalk ends. You may find meaning in detachment, turning to a life of contemplation and detective work.

People tell you that by engaging in the world, by affecting it through action, you will become aware of the significance of your life. Transform yourself from the outside in. You'll start to care about your existence, because you realize you have a responsibility to G-d. Only through embracing your temporary, perceived existence can you reveal the scope of G-d's actual existence. So, just do what you're supposed to do and everything will be fine.

Wise words. But for those who can't get a grip on the fact that everything "contrived" is contrived with G-dly intention and therefore truth also lies within physicality and subjectivity, action is much more difficult than it sounds.

I don't have an answer to this dilemma. What I do have is a description of a phenomenon that I've observed in myself and in other people. In my opinion, people tend to possess one of two existential orientations, meaning that they relate in different ways to the notion of existence. This relationship affects behavioral and coping patterns as well as perception of G-d. I'll call the first perceptual orientation "quasi-existence," and its mirror-image counterpart "invested existence." The point of providing these descriptions is not to put people in boxes- these categories are general trends that I've observed and are by no means absolute nor comprehensive. It's more to give a language to a pre-existing experience and allot people a sharper awareness of how it affects them so they can ultimately overcome their "box." Here is a rough overview of my theory:

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