Schopenhauer believed that the best moments in life are when we are no longer aware of ourselves and are so engrossed in some activity that we cease to be self-consciousness for some period of time. Ligotti wrote that ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the contents of their consciousness’. Socrates believed that one should know oneself, yet this can only go so far. Too much knowledge, too much self-awareness, and it may result in nothing but scorn for the human being. It is unclear what consciousness is, what it means to be conscious, and what its limits are. Nevertheless, one might conclude that, paradoxically, our consciousness strives to flee itself. This is because life is suffering. It is not easy. It’s fight or flight. It takes less of an effort to be pulled under than go over. Jordan Peterson reconciles the bleak pessimism of Schopenhauer with the naive optimism of Socrates. Yes, life is suffering, and yes, if one has not contemplated that being itself may not be worthwhile, that it may be better for there to be nothing rather than something, then one has not looked both at oneself and the world properly. But despite this, life is worthwhile. It is worthwhile if there is some meaning, some goal that works toward a higher good, and if unnecessary suffering is eliminated as much as possible. The opposites of chaos and order, of Apollonian and Dionysian, are coupled to formulate a life that justifies its existence. Consciousness can be a terrible, terrible thing, yet it shouldn’t be eliminated for this reason. If it can be manipulated as a potent force for good, then it may justify itself, and we may not have to flee so far from it so often.
More and more often have I recently heard people telling each other they’re not ‘normal’ or asking ‘why you can’t you just be normal?’ The tone is always a slightly insulting one. The thing is, being normal is overrated. When someone says ‘be normal’, what they’re really saying is ‘be average’. Yet it shouldn’t be like this. We shouldn’t be telling each other to be normal, first because the concept of normal is a societal norm, formed by the culture we live, and the consumerist, social-media ridden society we do indeed live in is not something, I believe, to be hugely proud of. Second, because we are not normal. None of us are. However much we might like to convince ourselves that we are or can be normal, that is just not who we are, and a denial of this is, really, a denial to be truly human. This is because humans have strange thoughts, think things which would be considered to be strange or nasty or wrong. We are complex creatures with many opposing and conflicting ideas and beliefs floating around in our subconscious. We are not ‘normal’ and we never will be. We must accept this and move on. Instead of being good at being normal, we should try to become our best self. What that is, no doubt, is another question altogether.
Picture your funeral. What is the scene? Who is there? The chances are, you won’t exist anymore, in any form whatsoever. So, you are dead. Your life is over, forever. The question is this: what will you have wanted to achieve before this somewhat haunting event? Some people go the grave having created magnificent works of art, some have changed the lives of others, some have made the world a better place. But, for all the achievements, other things enter the graves with people, and those things are unfulfilled potential, achievements that were easily attainable if only a little more effort was put in, actions that could have been just, or calm, or rational, yet turned out to be unjust, angry, and impulsive. We should, it seems, at times ask ourselves, ‘What do I want to enter the grave with?’ Do you want to die knowing that you have squeezed every drop out of your one life, or do you want to die regretting that you didn’t put in that extra effort, that kind word, that tiny fragment of concentration? We must keep the end of our life in mind when acting now, otherwise what will we be using as our motive for choosing what we do with our lives? Perhaps if we recall to ourselves daily that one day, perhaps much sooner than we think, our funeral will occur, where we will not be present, and that people will be there who will remember us for who we were and what we did, then maybe we can act in accordance with what we truly desire, yet this, again, requires us to know ourselves, and this takes reflection, questioning, and time. We can, if we so desire, form what people will remember us for. What is it that you want to be remembered for, and what is it that you want to achieve before you die?
Are we dreaming? Does the world we live in even exist? Do I exist? These are questions that have been grabbled with for thousands of years, and yet we still have no definite answers. The question ‘Do I exist?’ was best answered by Descartes when saying ‘cogito ergo sum’. However, there are still no satisfactory answers, it seems, to the question of whether anything outside of our minds is real.
There are many things which may make life seem real, especially when we compare our ‘real’ life to that of our own dreams. Our dreams tend to be disordered, random, and unpredictable. The conscious world is much more orderly and understandable than the murky depths of the unconscious. Maybe there is no world outside our minds, but even if there wasn’t, it probably wouldn’t change much. We cannot not live in this world unless we die. Of course, we don’t have to ‘die’ in the most fundamental sense. We can kill ourselves without really dying, and in today’s world this seems particularly applicable. How much of our time do we spend in the ‘real’ world? Was there once a real world which is no longer really accessible to us? We spend so much time watching other worlds, reading about other worlds, dreaming of other worlds, and creating other worlds that it is hard to decipher what is real and what is not. Is social media real? Or is it a virtual reality, a fake? We exist in this world, but are we living in it? Perhaps we have become too detached from what is real-nature and other people-that we have lost a sense of reality. Even if the world outside our minds isn’t real and other people and nature doesn’t really exist, it doesn’t matter, because they exist to us, and they are the most real thing we could ever experience.
If we want to live again, we must come back to reality, whatever that is. It may not be possible to say what reality is, only what it is not.
What makes me, me? Who am I? These are questions we all ask ourselves, though the answer may be difficult to get at, if at all possible. Perhaps we think that our unique qualities makes us who we are, or just our conscious subjectivity. But are we really all that unique? Are we different, or is the ego and the self just an illusion?
Although we tend to refer to ourselves as ‘I’, and to say things such as ‘me’ or ‘mine’, does this mean that there is such a thing as ‘I’? If there is one self, what is it made up of? It seems that we are not one self, but many selves. This has been made clearer since the introduction of social media. There is no doubt that the ‘I’ on social media is different from the ‘I’ alone in my bedroom or the ‘I’ with my family. Some people may be vaguely similar to the people they call themselves on social media, while some are vastly different. But is this also the case in our whole lives? Is the person I meet my friends different to the person writing this post? Do ‘I’, in this sense, even exist? Perhaps we must ask ourselves whether it is our appearance that makes us seem different. Maybe even our self-consciousness may convince us that we are different. Maybe we are unique, but then again, maybe we aren’t.
The self may or not be an illusion, but one thing is certain-that we cannot help being individual. We cannot not take our lives seriously, as Thomas Nagel puts it, and so perhaps this is irrelevant. It could be true that the ‘self’ doesn’t really exist, but it is not possible for us to live without the concept of a self. Maybe there is a genuine way to live without a self, but if there is, then ‘I’ have not been able to do so. Whether there be a self or not, what seems most reasonable is to act in a way that will make us free.