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Growing up Part Five: Existentialism and Evolving Problems

During the first decade of my life and I was living at my parents’ house, there was an old man in our neighborhood. He was from somewhere rural and he was an old man for as long as I’ve known him. He didn’t really have a home. The few things I remember actually belonging to him include a thin walking cane he carried everywhere and the long tailed khaki coat he wore all the time. Later my mother would give him a hefty gabi that had once belonged to my father and a silhouette of anything resembling a tall, heavily wrapped human being holding a cane will forever remind me of him.

Some of the neighbors had decided to give this man a job and so they let him stay at one man’s unfinished home while he served as a guard for our neighborhood. He could visit anyone’s house for his meals and they would raise his monthly salary collected from each house. He would take that and spend it all on Tela and Areqe. Once in a while you could hear his drunken commute and his loud angry rants in the middle of the night. The neighbors knew it was him so we all slept silent. He wasn’t so much a strong man, like he wasn’t strong enough to fight an armed thief or even a young unarmed one really. But I think the whole point of having him was so he could notify the people somehow should some problem arise. No one really liked him. He wasn’t a very polite man. His hands were like hard rubber and the smell of Areqe mixed with the river down the road from our house followed him.

When the house he was staying at finally got finished, the owner had to move in so the old man was sort of kicked out. Right outside, they build him a nice corrugated iron sheet house that would only allow one man to sit or stand and he started living there but then the woman next door complained that he was making too much noise and waking her baby in the middle of the night when he got drunk so she wanted him gone. Somehow it got bad and the neighborhood got into a huge argument about what to do with him. The neighborhood had grown safe and they’d got barbed wires for their fences so most of them wanted him gone too.

My mother said she wanted him to stay. So, she had his one-man outhouse style corrugated iron house moved and rebuilt right outside our door. She gave him some clothes and told him if none of the other people would let him into their homes, he could always come to our house for food.

The old man didn’t really change much. He still got drunk and often got into petty altercations with my mother. She would ban him from coming into our house but he would always come back. And if he didn’t, she would ask me or the maids to take a plate of food and some water or tela for him.

Years passed and I left that neighborhood. My parent’s house was rented to strangers but my grandmother and my aunts made sure that the old man was taken care of by the rest of the neighbors. Whenever my aunt went to check on the house, she would check on the old man too.

One afternoon a few years ago, I’d just come home from school and my grandmother, in the most casual way, told me that the old man had died. He was found dead in his one-man outhouse style corrugated iron house right outside my parents’ house. I didn’t feel like I knew this man very much. I was a child then and he was just another grownup character that did grown up things and for the most part of my life, I forgot he existed. When my grandmother told me he’d died however, I felt great sadness that I couldn’t really show my family because they wouldn’t know what it was about. The truth is, I was sad because this man was utterly insignificant. I don’t know if he had a wife or children or siblings. I don’t know if a photograph of him existed although with my father having been something of a photography nut, there must be one tucked somewhere in the sea of photographs my father took. Still, it’s not often that I come across a silhouette of a tall heavily wrapped human being holding a cane so I thought miserably about how the man would be forgotten so unceremoniously. I was upset for a few days over this. Then I forgot about him too.

***

Existential crisis is a thing now I guess and it’s not really a very happy road to go down. It is the thought that there might not be a point to doing anything because eventually we’re all going to die and be forgotten. Because life has no purpose or meaning. I envy those who have found purpose in chasing after success, or love, or God. I like how my aunt talks about how much she would sacrifice in life because there is a heaven and that idea is enough for her. I can’t exactly imagine heaven being this everlasting happy place where there is no need to do anything. Just be with God and be happy. I worry when I’ve been happy for a whole day. Even through content afternoons laid back taking in caffeine and sunsets, my heart only gets to swell a little. I’m always reminded that moments are fleeting and memories are editable, fragile and perishable. Even doing things I love, I find corners to think about how on a bigger picture, it all really is pointless. The little moments in life that I got to enjoy by myself and not tell anyone about, or the ones that I made whole stories on, all the laborious hours I have spent hoping to make something, they’re pretty much like my little cousin building with Lego bricks. When they have to clean the house later, they’re going to break it apart and put it away.

Philosophy has a name for what I am doing when I try to do certain things thinking to find meaning. They call it The Absurd; trying to find answers when there are none. I’m always doing something to try and feel a little less like a slab of weathering stone; avoiding things that hurt and trying to project something onto others that might just make the world around me a little better.

In his lengthily titled orange book, Mark Manson mentions this guy Ernest Becker around the end when he talks about death. Ernest Becker thinks that we have a dual existence kind of like photons (both energy and particle). He says there is the physical us and then there is our “conceptual self” that lives on after we have died; that is kind of like the memory of ourselves that we leave behind. He says that everything we do in life is because we recognize that we are mortal beings and we make things on earth in an attempt “to never truly die”

The animated movie Coco covers this very well. In that movie, when they die they just go to this underworld-like place where they just get to live on pretty much decent lives as highly functioning zombies. But when they are forgotten in the real world, then they die from the underworld too and that’s when they are truly gone. I don’t know if this movie is just telling us to remember those who are gone lest they really be gone. But the cold hard truth is unless you’re Shakespeare or Hitler or Jesus, you’re going to be forgotten very easily and very soon. But I’m a Nerdfighter so every now and then John and Hank Green remind me that there will come a time when those men will be forgotten too. That’s where we come back to, if even Hitler will be forgotten then what is the point of trying to be nice to that idiot that I don’t like, what’s the point to giving the beggar on my route my taxi change, what’s the point to smiling for photographs or even taking them, what the point to anything?

I told you it was unpleasant.

Some people I know recognize this alongside a certain theme of existentialism that is the fact that if you stand back and look, you’ll see that you are free. Everyone really is free to do as they please. And this isn’t really as nice as it sounds and it’s not that political lie that you believe either. You are free to do as you please but so is everyone else. That knowledge that you are completely free to do whatever you want also makes you take responsibility for the things you do in your freedom and how they circle back to you. I’m one example. I dropped out of school because of this liberty that I recognized. Now I suffer the knowledge that if I somehow end up at the butt of society, it was because of a choice I made in my freedom. Most of my friends see this so they have fallen into this hedonistic blackhole where in seeking quick and easy pleasure, they self-sabotage. It’s a sad site to behold how many people believe that happiness exists in a bottle of beer or in a woman’s arms or a good cup of coffee and a warm sunset.

Mark Manson also wrote about Happiness in the orange book. He says that happiness comes from solving problems and after the last time I blogged about happiness, I had decided to believe that eternal happiness isn’t a thing. If God really is good and willing to grant me that place called heaven well, I’m ready to see that but in the meantime, I was willing to let myself be happy in little moments while not succumbing to extreme hedonism. Only a little bit. Because thinking about it, everything we do is a form of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. I took it slow doing small things. Drinking coffee outside and watching the sunset from roofs and balconies, reading good poems, listening to good music and like Mark Manson said solving my problems. And lately I’ve been thinking about what my problems where some ten years ago or even some five years ago and while even as a young girl, stumbling over some unfortunate events was kind of inevitable and something I couldn’t help, problems don’t seem to get better or go away. They mostly just…change. So, we have an endless supply. Mark Manson is right. There is nothing like the feeling of hashing things over with friends you broke up with some four years ago, or finally finding that movie you were looking for or even finally making it to a Sunday after a busy week and sleeping in all day. Although there are things you can’t really control like when you lose people you care about or when the person you like ignores you, it might help to know that it’s not okay now but it will be eventually because forgetting is also a gift as it is a curse.

Ernest Becker basically implies that the “cure” or the “bitter antidote” to existential crisis is coming to terms with it and accepting the inevitability of death or oblivion, accepting that we will be forgotten. I’ll admit I struggle to accept my insignificance. I was raised believing that I had to be something great, that I have to carry my family name in great things. Yet Hank Green argues in one VlogBrothers video that we all play small parts to change the world in our insignificance and perhaps he’s right because my taxi change probably adds up to feed that beggar on route to work, to solve his problem and make him a little less sad. The fact that I exist gives my aunt the hope that should something happen to her I’ll be there for her sons like she’s been there for me. The fact that VlogBrothers exists makes my days a little bit better and the fact that coffee exists makes sure that I’m a pleasant person to the people who get on my nerves. The fact that Daughtry and Kaleo exist make my mornings feel like powerful movie montages and Chris Brown and Jason Derulo make sure that I don’t give up at the gym. Books like the one by Mark Manson or Distant Waves by Suzanne Weyn or even Harry Potter give me small things to think about and keep the cycle of inspiration going.

I’m thinking that perhaps the insignificant and forgettable things we do could benefit so that the world doesn’t become worse if not better. I don’t want to be the old man in my old neighborhood but I remember him and will keep on remembering him now because I myself fear insignificance often.

So there’s life’s irony for you.