It’s not about the Guinness Book of World Records: Musings on Existential Angst

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post here.  Even though it’s summer, when things usually slow down a bit, life, as it is wont to do, happened, and I ended up being needed to do a bunch of stuff, from covering an employee at a church I attend sometimes to helping friends move apartments.  This doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for writing.

HOWEVER, (there always seems to be a “however”) running around and doing things does leave some time for introspection, and for me, that introspection entailed thinking about why I was doing what I was doing.  Why was I running around doing things for other people?

Ignoring the whole “it’s good to help others and you are a good person” argument for a minute, let’s pretend that this is a fair, non-nihilistic question: Why was I devoting so much time into other people’s lives instead of directly enriching my own?  Why was I helping my friend move apartments when I could be setting the Guinness World Record for Most Uninterrupted Hours of Netflix Watched?

Think about it: my name would be set in that book forever!  My achievement in the history books would be forever noted.  Even if (let’s be real, when) the record was broken, I would still be remembered as the first person to even set the record to begin with!  There would be books written about me, and maybe someone hundreds of years from now would write their PhD in American Media History on the history of Netflix, and how I was the first person to set the record for Most Uninterrupted Hours of Netflix Watched.  Then, generations of people who don’t even exist now would know my name!

OK, thought experiment is over.  Anyone else see a few problems with this line of thinking?

Let’s start with the big issue which all of this is stemming from: I am an existential wreck.

Dorie, what the heck does existentialism have to do with Netflix or helping people move?

Good question, friend!  Let’s go back to the beginning: in the scenario, I am watching Netflix with the sole end goal of ending up in the Guinness Book of World Records.  Why do I want to be in the Guinness Book of World Records?  So folks will theoretically remember me forever.  And there is where the existential piece comes in.

See, at the end of the day, we are all going to die.  Not only that, but everyone we know and who has ever known us will die someday.  We will all disappear from human consciousness as if we were never here to begin with.  That (understandably) freaks us all out.  So, to borrow a phrase from John Green, we act like dogs peeing on hydrants: we become obsessed with claiming and marking something as MINE for all eternity, in order to have a stab at immortality.  Don’t get me wrong–it’s totally not the same as living forever.  However, there is some comfort to be derived from knowing that something of yours has the potential to go on in perpetuity.  We want to make our lives count for something.  We want to make some memory of them last beyond us.

All of this isn’t bad at all, at face value.  However, a problem with this line of thinking is that we become remarkably self-centered.  Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but let’s return to the John Green dog example for a minute: if we are dogs peeing on hydrants, marking our territory, we claim it as our own, but our urine seeps down into the groundwater, poisoning it for future generations.  That’s not OK, because we share this temporal planet and temporal existence with everyone else.  Not only do we have to put up with our own existential angst, but we have to make sure that we’re not hurting other people in the process (if for no other reason than this: if the future generations die, then our own memories die with them.  No idea of immortality for anyone).

What to do?  How do we wrestle with making a mark on the world while also not doing anything to totally destroy everything for everyone in the future (or present for that matter)?  With the infinite possibilities of effects our actions can have, it is just as likely, if not more so, that we are going to hurt someone–either now or in the future–as we are to help.

Well, the possibilities I’ve come up with are these:

1) Hide under your bed for the rest of forever and do absolutely nothing.  This does not help with your existential angst, but it also ensures that you don’t do anything to hurt anyone.  However, this also guarantees that you won’t help anyone, either, effectively squandering this gift of your own life.

2) Attempt to tread lightly.  If we’re all going to die anyway, with no one to remember Joan of Arc or Malcolm X, let alone us, what’s the point of ending up in the Guinness Book of World Records for a completely solo endeavor?  Why sit around watching a TV show for no reason other than to quell our nihilistic tendencies when we could be investing in the relationships presented to us to hopefully cobble together a better world?

Because here’s the thing I haven’t talked about yet: this human existence thing–no one does it alone.  We are social beings, plain and simple, and we are just as dependent upon each other for the survival of our species as we are our own common sense and skills.  There is absolutely no way that we could have made it this far through history without one another for survival, let alone thriving.  Think about it: if the guy who invented fire didn’t share it with the other cave-people, where would we be?  Or houses?  Or hunting and gathering?

If community is the key to our survival, then it seems to be the only entity that seems to last in some form throughout history.  Community, then, is some type of key to immortality, to lasting beyond our temporal existences.  Since we cannot prove any kind of afterlife (that’s where faith comes in, but that’s a discussion for another day), the only one we can concretely invest in is the one we leave for our children and future generations.

So, how to invest in community?  Well, that’s a question for the ages, but, for me, at least, it’s about relationality.  It’s about prioritizing and maintaining relationships above and beyond anything else.  It’s about enacting love–showing kindness, charity, and generosity–whenever possible.  It’s about living out the values we want to see in the world today and always, together.

To be fair, though, these are only the conclusions that I have come to–religions and philosophies have spent millenia on these questions, and their answers are probably a lot more nuanced than mine.  Maybe I’m totally off-base.  However, it just seems to make sense to me–living out my temporal existence on this time-bomb of a planet by prioritizing one another.  Maybe it’s just another shout into the void, but for me, at least it’s a shout I can feel good about.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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