I am going to say, unabashedly, that John Green is one of my favorite authors and I have been listening to his podcast called "The Anthropocene Reviewed” since it debuted.
The premise of the podcast is simple: John reviews different facets of the human-centered planet on a simple five-star scale. Among the list of things he has reviewed so far are Teddy bears, Canadian geese, and Super Mario Kart.
The episode I listened to today was attempting to review air conditioning and Sycamore trees. The episodes have a lot of depth and the research that went into them is evident. The show itself kind of has a 99 Percent Invisible vibe to it and while I always found the episodes engaging and interesting, I never really thought anything of them apart from being fodder for my commute to the office.
However, in today’s episode, somewhere in the transition between the first and second segment, John, using elite-level prose, described what dealing with depression and existential crisis feels like. This struck a note with me as this is something I have struggled to put into words in the past whenever I sought support and was trying to explain that I wasn’t just “being sad”, “being lazy” or “not being myself.”
Being in the dark doesn't hurt, but this does. Like staring at the sun.
It goes like: I can't find a point to making art, which is just using the finite resources of our planet to decorate.
I can't find the point to planting gardens which is just inefficiently creating food which will sustain our useless vessels for a little while longer.
I can't find the point to falling in love which is just a desperate attempt at staving off loneliness which you can never really solve for because you are always alone in what Robert Penn Warren calls "The darkness which is you."
Except it's not really a darkness. It's much worse than that. We need to consider carefully what we construct as dark. When my brain plays "What's even the point?" what really descends upon me is a blizzard of blinding white light. Being in the dark doesn't hurt, but this does. Like staring at the sun.
This is the eyes' "bright trouble". "The bright trouble" is the light you see when you open your eyes after birth. The light that makes you cry your first tears. The light that is your first and greatest fear.
It feels like the only way to survive life is to cultivate an ironic detachment from it
What's even the point in all this trial and travail for what would become nothing soon? I am disgusted by my excesses, my failures, my pathetic attempts to forge some meaning or hope from the materials of this meaningless world. I am tricking myself thinking there's some reason for all of it; thinking that consciousness is a miracle when it's really a burden; thinking that being alive is wondrous, when it's really a terror. The plain fact that my brain tells me when it plays this game is that the universe doesn't care if I'm here.
The problem with playing this game is that when my mind starts playing it, I can't get it to stop. Any defense I try to mount is destroyed instantaneously by the blinding light. It feels like the only way to survive life is to cultivate an ironic detachment from it. If I can't be happy, I at least want to be cool.
When my brain is playing "What's even the point", hope feels so flimsy and naive. Especially in the endless outrages and horrors of human life. What kind of mouth-breathing jackass looks at the state of human experience and respond with nothing but nihilistic despair? But of course the problem with despair is it's not very productive. Like a replicating virus, all despair makes is more of itself.
If playing "What's even the point" made me a more committed advocate for justice or environmental protection, I'd be all for it. But the white light of despair instead renders me inert, and apathetic. I struggle to do anything. I often can't find a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
"Now" always feels infinite and never is.
Philosophical questions--"What's the point of being alive?", "What should we seek from life?", "How can we know what we know?", "How and where should we seek meaning?"-- are often dismissed as pointless.
"What's the difference between a philosophy degree and a pepperoni pizza? The pepperoni pizza can feed a family of 4" and so on. But I think those questions are genuinely important, because I need to be able to survive my mind playing "what's even the point?" I don't want to give in to despair. I don't want to take refuge in detached ridicule of unironized emotion. I don't want to be cool if "cool" means being cold to or being distant from the reality of experience. I want to feel what there is to feel while I am here.
You don't get to choose when your mind plays "What's even the point?" It's exhausting. It gets old so fast listening to the elaborate prose of your brain tell you you're an idiot for even trying. When the game is being played, it feels like it would never end. Like you will be in active combat for the rest of your wretched life. But no.
"Now" always feels infinite and never is.
You keep going, you go to therapy, you try different medication. You meditate even though you dislike meditation. You exercise. You wait. Your mind keeps playing "What's even the point" and your mind refuses to give into it--battling it with philosophy, self-help books, religion and whatever else works.
Until one day, the air becomes a little bit warmer and the sky is not so blindingly bright anymore.