Thursday, March 14, 2013

Resolving Existential Crises Through Philosophy and/or Film (or, My Dinner with Megan)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Last night, our delightful, thoughtful, ambitious, and very smart oldest daughter, now aged sixteen (and getting ready to graduate a year early; help support her year abroad in India here!), had an existential crisis. She's been studying other religions--particularly Buddhism--at school, and while at an activity at our own church last night, it suddenly struck her: what if Buddhism (or, as I would emphasize to her, the version of Buddhism she'd become familiar with) was correct, and all she knew and had ever experienced was a kind of karmic illusion of suffering, one that she could only transcend through self-annihilation? Late-night bull-session thoughts, you might say, but they really shook her, and by late that evening she was crying and shaking, desperate to make some sense of the world. What did it all mean? Was there such a thing as meaning? Was there such a thing as herself--much less God or reality or anything else?

I'm a modern human being, with a modern sense of subjectivity, which means that there is no obviously, material, unchallengable response to the "why is there something rather than nothing?" question immediately available to me. I suppose my own religious faith ought to provide with such immediate conviction, but for better or worse I've never been blessed with that kind of revelatory confidence. What I do have, however poor a substitute it may be, is philosophy. I can remember many angry, frustrating, intellectually- and emotionally-fraught episodes over the years, where I find myself doubting and grumpily or angrily lashing out against just about everything--and (perhaps most revealingly) often doubting and lashing out against the significance of, or even the reality of, my lashing itself. (I tried to communicate some of this in an old religious post of mine, in which I lamented by double-mindedness and pre-occupation with doubt.) Faith has never healed me of this tendency, but philosophy gave me a different way of thinking about faith, and one of the results of such is that, for all my many remaining problems and struggles, I'm a happier, less intellectually plagued man than I once was.

Now it so happened that the philosophy which was of greatest assistance to me was phenomenological, particularly of the German romantic and hermeneutic tradition: the idea that we are thrown into being, thrown into interpretation, and that meaning is both constructed and revealed through responding to that thrownness, that "givenness," with attentiveness and care. Heidegger, Ricoeur, Taylor: these are the people who help explained the world, and myself, to me. But I confess that such philosophy was no help in Megan's existential crisis last night. (A friend of mine, afterward, told me, "That's not surprising; Heideggger writes to inspire existential crises, not make them go away!") What worked for me didn't work for her. To my surprise, what did give her some solace was the complete opposite of my philosophical approach: Rene Descartes's cogito ergo sum. The rationalism and empiricism at the heart of the modern scientific method. As we spent an hour or so talking, that idea--that whatever else she doubts, she can't possibly doubt that someone or something which can irreducibly identified as "her" is, in fact, doubting--or, at least, experiencing doubt. That became a lifeline to her, and so I have to give Descartes therapeutic props for that, at least.

This morning, though, in talking about the whole thing with another friend, I was reminded of a film which I love, and which I've tried (with no real success) to bring into various classes of mine over the years. A philosophical film with a decidedly Heideggerian tone to it. I'm talking about the cult classic My Dinner with Andre--and after poking around online a little, I've been able to put together a rough outline of its message through clips. Megan probably won't go through watching all of these, but maybe she will, or maybe someone else will...and thus, by putting them together in this way, perhaps I'll be helping someone else's existential crisis the way this sort of thinking once helped me:

The setting is a dinner between two very different people who are also good friends: the playwrights and writers Wallace Shawn (yes, of Princess Bride fame) and Andre Gregory. They begin a long conversation, in which Andre relates the extreme distances he has traveled and experiences he has had in an attempt to find some true connection to community and meaning and transcendence in his life:

Eventually, he does have an experience with transcendence--and what a weird experience it is:

Wallace can't accept any of this, and strongly defends the idea of taking joys from the banal, ordinary, quotidian realities of life.

As they move towards the climax of their argument, Wallace wants to know why anyone can even respond to life as his friend does, experiencing a need for a deeper meaning and attachment. Andre responds that perhaps our problem is modernity, and the way in which capitalism and government and the mass media strand us as intellectually as isolated monads, unable to realize the actual beauty and significance and connection and truth in and around ourselves.

If that is so, what can we do? Well, we do things, and we try to attend to that doing; we discover care through doing things. That's not a religious experience, it won't convince us that we aren't phantoms or ghosts, but it is, as Andre hints as their dinner comes to a close, a kind of revelation, a like a haunting melody, a reminder of our limitedness, our closeness to death, that through caring something more than forgetfulness will be given to us.

Towards the end of his life, Heidegger famously summed up his whole philosophy of modernity: "Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten"--"Only a God can save us." The Christian God? A religious God? Perhaps. But that, in the end, is what works for me--the idea that we can realize the truth of our need for transcendence (and our part in it) through our attentive engagement with givenness (other people, most particularly). I wouldn't mind some propositional truth about the world simply being revealed to me; I know a lot of people who claim to have had that experience, and I have no obvious reason to doubt them, and in fact I kind of envy them. But for me, the existential crisis has been overcome (to the extent that it has been) through conversation, a conversation which uncovers and reveals. Your mileage may vary, of course. Megan's, for now, certainly does.

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