It’s one of the most overused lines in movies and TV shows, often spoken by a character who’s really not had that big shake up, revelation or event. The characters are not often people with fragile grips on reality, so the line is often met with humour and a little disdain because it simply doesn’t ring true or very profoundly.
To truly not know what to believe anymore is to be shaken to the core, to your foundational beliefs about the world and how it operates – it means an existential crisis, a collapse of meaning and loss of values.
Living through losses – deaths of pets, friends, family, can often cause people to ask the big questions – are you really there god? What happens when you die?
Even a non-believer in any gods can wonder about death, since our brains don’t like to think of themselves as an organ and contemplate it’s functioning – but personality changes after strokes and brain injuries demonstrates that we are brain bots who are programmed to not believe we are.
Trying to think about being your brain, is like trying to force a cat to look at herself in the mirror – she doesn’t want to see that other cat, who has no scent and copies everything she does – so will struggle and shift to avoid being confronted with something that is a cat but isn’t what the cat recognizes as a cat.
In one house I lived in, I had an office that I painted lavender and painted in dark purple, outlines of cats and dogs on the walls and ceiling –I painted a cat as if it was sleeping on the top of the computer desk; so when my actual cat jumped up to that spot – her spot – she got big and furry and hissed at the intruder cat – a crude purple outline shaped like a sleeping cat – she could assign the painting on the wall a value of being a cat, but not her own reflection in the mirror.
But death is a part of life, and as distressing as it is, as devastating as the loss of loved ones is, death does not shake the meaning of life to its foundations – it can cause a person to rethink their religious beliefs – and often, the anger at the loss of a person too soon, too young, too quickly, too horribly, can make a believer angry at their god and starts them on the path towards non-belief.
Many believers cannot understand non-belief and so convince themselves that the professed non-believer is just angry at their god and simply not worshiping – because this is a common experience that is more easily relate-able than understanding, no, I do not believe there’s any deities because they are illogical in a natural universe and there’s no reason to assume the universe isn’t natural.
Existential crisis are often considered to be the crisis that one falls into when you realize your own mortality. What meaning does life have when we all die? To that I say, life has meaning because we die, because our time is limited, we have to make the most and experience and live while we can, because you never know what day your last day is going to be. Every year, the date slips by with less notice than any other day of the year, save your birthday and whatever holidays you observe.
However old you are, you have had as many death anniversaries as birthdays, except that you don’t get to know what day that death day is ahead of time – unless you choose a day – which I am specifically not recommending.
I find that having been shaken to my foundational core, that knowing that I will die does not cause me overmuch concern, after all, what is my death when the society that I live in was also born, exists and will eventually die out. Such is the way of civilization through conquest, through demographic change, through natural disasters.
But civilization is too big picture and inhibits functionality to consider, so life returns to is meaningfulness because it’s limited – the idea of eternal life feels like a cosmic joke too cruel to contemplate – any pleasure after a long enough time period becomes torture and any torture given enough time becomes a pleasure, so it’s only by straddling the line between pain and pleasure can either have meaning, because too much of one consistently becomes the other.
Everything can be reduced down to the cumulative moments of increased and varied sensation, the faster switching between pleasurable pain and painful pleasure, being in the moment, the now, until the sweet release of oblivion, the little death, the small sleep, the orgasm where all sensation resolves to overwhelm all senses and there is blissful oblivion perched at the peak, fleeting, until the collapse and exhaustion settles you into boneless sleep.
A dream state of dress rehearsal for events and particularly dangers and how to deal with, brain floss, flights of fancy and wishful thinking, problem solving, inspiration – dreams, unadorned and uninhibited, sometimes, more real than reality.
But when the sleeper wakes, what to make of the world? Of their place in it?
There are things we can count on – the sun will continue to rise and set; well, until it doesn’t anymore, but that’s cosmologically too far off to factor in. People will be born and others will die, good and bad things will happen, but there’s no rhyme or reason why that person will experience goodness and others will not.
We can only control what we bring to the world each day – how we act or respond to others and not be able to control how they behave towards us. Who we are and what we are capable of punching above or below our weight at a given moment, informs our reactions to the world.
That was a foundational shift for me, I previously believed in the rules of society, the workplace policies, the social norms that allowed me to expect from others, to rely on them behaving in particular ways, ways that were group focused – and that’s just not the case. I am unsure of what to believe anymore.
Everyone is self-focused and if that aligns with the group, all the easier to get people on board – but the only goldenest rule is that whoever has the gold rules.