How René Descartes Saved My Life
Part of the postmodern (or post-postmodern if you’re so inclined) predicament is the amount of time we have to be neurotic and even narcissistic. I firmly believe that if I were not living in a society where I have ample time to let my thoughts wander, if I were so focused on the tasks necessary for survival, if I were given solely to my occupation and the immediate needs of every day life, somehow I would not have the leisure time to ponder my existence in this world to the degree to which I do. Don’t get me wrong: I love the fact that I’m sitting on my back porch with a laptop and some music playing enjoying the spring air in rural North Carolina, but I almost feel guilty of the mental freedom I have with the convenience of technology to really let my mind wander.
All that mental meandering wades through the fields of philosophy and political science that dominates the spheres of public discourse on social media and the blogosphere, movies and music, books and newsprint. If you’ve never read Nietzsche, it’s okay, you’ve been exposed to him in those arenas. Not familiar with Sartre? Trust me, those filmmakers you watch are. Don’t feel well-schooled on Keynesian economics? You have been receiving a light dusting of it every time you’ve turned on the news during your entire lifetime.
Why do I name drop these intellectual heavyweights? Because, if after leaving a movie you’ve ever stopped to consider whether or not there was any meaning to this life, the filmmaker probably read a bit of Nietzshe. Have you ever heard a song that made you think, “I really am the center of my universe?” That songwriter, knowingly or not, probably was influenced by some Sartre. Did a news story ever leave you thinking that the government could end up taking care of that need of yours? Guess what? Those politicians were all influenced by Keynes.
I get lost in it all. At times in my life, I have been absolutely befuddled by the control that the government, economics, society, and even religion has over my life. I’ve thought, “Am I really an individual? Do I really have any say in my own destiny? Or am I just a cog in the machine?”
You can make yourself crazy thinking that way for any real length of time. That’s why I at times (stupidly) envy the subsistence farmer, the hunter-gather, the medieval craftsmen. I doubt very seriously those people had the opportunity to get lost in such existential questions. You could make yourself crazy. But what if you actually do go crazy?
I went crazy once. (By the way, I have no segue for this. I’m simply going to say I went crazy once and then tell you about it. You’d think I could come up with a more compelling lead in, but I can’t. You’ll just have to deal with it.) Around eight years ago I awoke from a sound sleep, but the world I to which I awoke was completely foreign. Nothing made sense. I was unsure of the substance of anything. The best way I can describe it is that my consciousness was stuck in a clothes dryer. Every time it tried to gain some footing, the whole thing spun round again. I freaked out. I started crying. Think of being stuck in a glitch of the Matrix that was on endless loop. That’s about where I was at. My wife had no idea what to do. I couldn’t even express what was going wrong to her. Reality was at best an idea, but certainly not something which I could ascribe to anything I saw or felt. I was awake, but in a nightmare. To be quite honest, I didn’t even know if I, myself, was real. I’ve read some people who have had some bad drug trips that have related similar feelings, but this was something with which I was completely unfamiliar, but, thank God, not something for which I was entirely unprepared.
I read something from this French guy once. He had been pondering mirages. He thought to himself (and I’m paraphrasing or, perhaps more accurately, bastardizing), “If I can’t trust my eyes to tell me that that glimmering over there is water, what can I trust?” The line of inquiry continued, what if this was all a dream from which one can’t be awoken? How can one know anything? How can one know his own reality? What was this French guy’s response? Cognito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” He knew, at the very least, that the guy who is having the dream, at least was thinking about it. There was an individual in there somewhere doing something.
That, my friend, is something to tuck back in the recesses of your mind. In case of emergency, break glass. It roused me. I was able to pray to God in the midst of my craziness because of René Descartes’ overly quoted philosophical postulate. Through prayer and conversation, reality set back in. I started to be able to control my own thoughts and senses. And now, sometimes, when I’m getting lost in the oppressiveness of Big Brother, in the abuses of power, in the dilemma of an abundance of leisurely thought, I still know that there’s still a semi-autonomous being back in there doing some thinking, and that guy’s at least in control of that.