And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself,
well...How did I get here?
From an early age we are taught to follow the rules of society very seriously. We are thrown into a predetermined set of familial, and more broadly, cultural norms that drive and define us. For most of our waken time, we act and do what we are told without question. We follow in our parent's foot steps and when we astray we are redirected back to the norm by modeling and conditioning.
As children we learn about ethics and morals. We learn to internalize what is right and what is wrong and how we should act, think and behave in different situations. Even before we are born, we have a name, a demarcation that already has significance and affects who we will become. We fear making a mistake; be it getting a "D" in school, not getting into the right college, choosing the right spouse, finding the right profession, raising your kids properly or saving enough in your 401k.
We live our lives propelled forward -- looking backwards only to remember where we came from, who we are, and the the ideals that guide us to who we become. Fredrick Nietzsche called it the "Herd," Martin Heidegger called it the "They," Sigmund Freud called it the "Super Ego," and Jacque Lacan called it the "the Symbolic." While these thinkers might not agree on all aspects of their philosophical presuppositions, their basic premise share a similar significance.
We are born into a historical world, with a language, ideology and common sensibility. Like in a familiar game or sport, we learn the rules so well, we are able to play our assigned roles so naturally, without even a moment of hesitation. Be it the language we speak, the activities we do, the popular styles or fashion we follow, how we communicate, feel or related to others. This human "belongingness" to a collective symbolic order is best illustrated in today's obsession with social media. In today's world, the toddler, before she can master walking, knows how to surf the World Wide Web. We live in a society where we communicate by text, are always "connected" and are absorbed in 24/7 media and news. Ask any parent about the panic that occurs when you try to take a child's I Phone away. The 'Internet Of Things" has become the the iconic symbol of our generation's alienation from our own subjectivity -- a constant connectivity to avoid self-reflection. This avoidance to be with one's own self has reached epidemic proportions in our current society; as manifested in the abundance of obsessions, compulsions and addictions to drugs, social media, video games and internet pornography.
For many of us, we are so absorbed living our lives we have no time to think about or question the very nature of our existence. It is only when we are jolted by a specific event or perhaps a developmental crisis, we find ourselves thrown into self reflection and ridden with existential doubt and anxiety. For many this existential crisis manifests in the form of psychological symptoms, be it panic attacks, insomnia, obsessions or compulsions, feelings of helplessness, a sense of directionless, lack of pleasure or molase. For many it is arises in the form of a mid-life crisis" or confronted by an illness or older age.
In my practice, I often here people say: it felt as if one day I awoken out of a deep sleep and found myself entangled into a strange life, surrounded by people I don't know and working a meaningless job I don't like. How did I get here? is a question many people ask when we meet for the first time in my office. Why did we turn out way we did? What were the underlining reasons that caused us to be who we are? How did our lives end up the way it did? How did things turn out so different from one's expectations?
Be it the 75 year old man who does not recognize his own reflection in the mirror. Where did the time go? When he looked in the mirror, the image looked more like his father than he. How about the couple who met in high school and fell in love at first sight. They were soulmates, best friends and always had each other's back. Now they find themselves married twenty years with two kids and they can barely look at each other without a conflict. A man who dreamt of fame an fortunate as a child, now counts the days to retirement and his government pension. How could a man with such promise end up working such a personally meaningless job? How does a child of the sixties, who fought for freedom and equality, find herself working for a hedge fund helping the top one percent become even wealthier? Or, the man faced with illness, question the purpose of his very existence.
How did we get here? is the question that arises when the self takes a step back and reflects upon its own historical relevance. What is the purpose of my life? It is also the question that unhingers the deeper existential questions of self-identity, free will, meaninglessness and personal finitude.
There is such a contradiction to the human condition. We take ourselves very seriously. Who we are, how we want to be perceived, the importance and consequence of our actions, what we look like, what we achieved, our physical health, our relationships, who we want to become. Yet, when we sit back and reflect upon the greater existential questions, our sense of self-importance can shrink to utter confusion and meaninglessness. Are we not all "bipolar" -- faced with one's own finitude, we race to achieve what we were meant to be, yet why bother, if in the grand scheme of thing, what we do does not matter.
This is the human dilemma. Faced with a life crisis, getting older and an awareness of one's finitude, cracks begin to form in the foundation of one's everyday identity, purpose and significance. Panic sets in unleashing powerful waves of existential doubt and anxiety. Reflecting upon one's personal history, like a literary critic analyzing a narrative, the individual begins the process of self discovery and understanding the thematic motives upon which their lives and self identity were constructed.
Personal freedom can be both a blessing and a curse. While you are free to choose your own destiny, this freedom comes with a price, an awareness of the ultimate groundlesssness of your existence. To face death, is both freeing in terms of the anxiety associated with stress of everyday decisions and concerns, yet existentially wounding and anxiety provoking when confronted with one's temporality and ultimate lack of permanency and significance.
Perhaps the question "How did we get here?" naturally leads us to the question "How do we get out of here? I will let Bob Dylan have the final words.
"There must be some way out of here" said the joker to the thief
"There's too much confusion", I can't get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.
"No reason to get excited", the thief he kindly spoke
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late".
Copyright, Feb. 2017, Martin Klein, Ph.D
Dr. Martin Klein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport and Branford CT. He works with children, adults and couples.