Reality check

Think for a minute: When was your last existential crisis?

Who, me?  you say. Existential crisis? I don’t have existential crises. I’m a rational thinker. I’m practically an engineer.

I think everybody has existential crises, whether we recognize them as such or not. They’re in the high points, in the low points, in the situations that push you over an edge into a new thing. They’re moments in which you get a glimpse of the uncertainty at the very root of everything that is, and wonder about what your place in it could possibly be. You, this little wad of flesh and bone and bacteria.

Mostly, people manage to avoid this kind of annoyance by keeping busy or with various substances.  But sometimes the underlying fabric of the universe makes itself known (or rather, not known) despite all your efforts, and Bam! there you are. Crisis. I think some of us are more prone to it than others. Introverts, for example. It’s like getting a spiritual zit. (Painful and slightly embarassing. Everyone else pretends there’s nothing wrong with you.)

I had my first real existential crisis at 16. I remember sitting on a rock over looking a New Mexico canyon at sunset, Mortimer Adler’s “Six Great Ideas” in my hands, contemplating Truth and Beauty. Compared to the glory of these abstract ideas, everyday existence seemed so meaningless and vapid. High school? Boys? Ridiculous. A total waste of time.

Each succeeding crisis altered my life in ways that I only later was able to recognize. After that first one I didn’t become an entomologist like I’d planned. Instead of rearing butterflies, I studied Kierkegaard and Nietschze and contemporary literature in college. And so on.

I had a biggie when my dad died. I had been a firm believer in “materialism” – you know, the idea that people are just sacks of physical matter. Your consciousness, your feelings, your self, it’s all just electrical impulses in your brain. Stupendous, yes, but all explainable scientifically. I had read the studies about the adaptive, neurological basis of the human tendency to religious belief. Sorry, guys, but when we die, well, that’s it. Worm food.

Until I arrived in my parents’ house just moments after Dad died.  Standing there over his body, I knew with every ounce of my being that this body wasn’t my dad. He was something else. He was gone but he was most definitely not gone. I didn’t understand this, I simply knew it. It shook me up, and it made me question everything I thought I had figured out.

That crisis sent me back to Carl Jung, to my dreams and my unconscious, and marked the beginning of the end of my infatuation with science and technology.

And that brings me to the existential crisis du jour: my hearing aids.

I’ve had a moderately severe hearing loss my whole life, but I’ve managed to adapt by lip reading. I switched from violin to viola because the bigger instrument transmits vibrations better. I feel it in my bones when a note is in tune.  (No viola jokes, please. I did not switch because everyone knows violists play out of tune! We do TOO have standards!)

In the back of my mind, I always thought that one day, when money was no object, I’d get some hearing aids and I would finally get to hear what everyone else did. I would be able to understand a whisper. Music would be richer, things would be full and round and complete.

Why did I think this? Maybe because of the experience I had when I was nine and first got glasses — suddenly, I could see ALL THE LEAVES! Everything was sharp and clear! It was intense and beautiful. I just assumed that the same would be true with sound. Everything I was missing out on would be there and it would be wonderful. I would finally be fully human.

Instead, it was a nightmare.

A barrage of harsh, sharp, cracking sounds assaulted me. As I walked I was constantly startled by the crash of my footsteps on the ground. The rustle of newspaper pages felt like sandpaper on my brain. The knife hit the cutting board with a resounding crack.  Driving the car home in the rain, it sounded like someone was throwing pebbles against the windshield. My own voice even sounded harsh; I tried to soften it and Marc complained he could no longer hear me.

It was exhausting and utterly disappointing. There was nothing beautiful about it at all. It was like waiting your whole life to finally taste a jelly bean, thinking about how great it will be, imagining the moment when it finally hits your tongue, the sweet wonder of it, only to find out it’s snot-flavored.

Okay, fine, you might say. Bummer. But how is this an existential crisis?

Well, for one, it has rocked my grasp of objective reality. As in, I am no longer so sure there is any such thing.  I just assumed that my auditory reality was inferior in some way because it wasn’t like everyone else’s. I figured getting hearing aids would get me good hearing.That didn’t pan out. Turns out, my hearing isn’t worse, it’s just different. And if mine is different, that means everyone else’s is, too.

For another, once you see this, then you realize that a “sound” is not really a thing at all unless there are ears and a brain involved. And that particular insight leads you to see that all bets are off for vision and touch and all the other stuff as well. And if you can’t trust your senses, then is there any way to know what is really out there? Does it even matter?

This particular vessel you’re born into is your only means of interpreting the universe, and although it is miraculous and wonderful, it is woefully incomplete.

One thing I can hear, loud and clear, is another nail being driven into the coffin of my faith in scientific reductionism. I’m not disillusioned with science, I still think we’re discovering all kinds of cool things and that science explains tons of things very well. But I think I’m just more conscious of its limitations, and perhaps its hubris.  That makes the world a more interesting place, in some ways, but it’s also deeply unsettling.

You should know all this stuff already, if you studied philosophy, I hear you saying. True. I have read about all of this many times over. But I didn’t really know it until I lived it. With my dad, with my ears. The reality is completely different from the theory.

There are more insights, I’m sure, but that’s enough for one day.

Enjoy your reality. It’s truly one of a kind!

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