(Existential Suffering)

Colin Butler


“Tomorrow, with more experience and insight, I shall possibly understand it differently, and consequently reconstruct my past in a different way.”

I like the thought of that.  Learn from the past, someone once said.  History repeats itself.  But both past and history are organic, constantly changing reflections of our views regarding them. 

I take a different view on the past than most people.  Whereas many would assert that the past is solid, static and stagnant, I would say that it is an ever flowing current, fueled by our projections, speculations, and reflections.  The past doesn’t sit idly, allowing us to glimpse and recollect it with an authoritative truthfulness.  The past, like all things, changes and grows.  Of course, one would argue that what happened in the past cannot be changed; what happened is forever etched in the history of the world, carved in granite and inflexible.  

When I was in sixth grade, I became completely engrossed with tectonic plates.  For some reason, the idea of the earth as a constantly moving, constantly fluxing, breathing being excited me.  The titanic forces of the earth’s core shifting slabs of rock, forcing them to collide with one another on a monstrous scale; the ballet of geological study.  I wrote a paper on it, too.  If you were to ask me then, I would have told you that it was the best researched, most heartfelt, moving piece of literature to ever grace this plain of existence.  That’s what I thought.  That’s how reality looked to me then.

What do I say now?  Something completely different.  Yet, the instant did not change.  I extract my old scrapbook from its forlorn hiding place under my nightstand, and sweep away the daddy-long-leg that had been doing an awkward rendition of the jitter-bug on its cover.  The essay is there, somewhat lacking its former glory, seemingly.  The feeling that I had, the sense of accomplishment and pride was sincere surely.  Though, as I read through, I note the grammar errors, the awkward phrases, the vague assertions. 

I can see my mind, like putty, repositioning its self. 


* * *


“Changing perception of the past is literally changing the past itself, together with the memory of it. Reality is held by awareness. One thing in memory is associated with another. When you change your perception of something about the past, you will change everything else that is associated with it.”

If what we perceive our self to be is merely a juxtaposition of a bunch of memories, then in fact these memories are subject to change.  We insert our own perceptions on what we experience; the sadness of loss, of severance from one you love, can serve to distort your recollection of past times you once held dear.  The darkness of sorrow can forever alter your conception; seep into your mind and stain it like a blot of spilt ink; the deep black mingling with pink tissue.  What was once bliss can become stagnant gray.
I wonder, then, how I should think of her.  The fondness of nostalgia is sometimes lost, even though I can still remember vividly the happiest times of my life; times I spent with her.  Logically, I know that those moments remain frozen, inalterably rigid; nothing could change what did or did not take place, and how I felt when I held her close to me.  The shadow of an overcast sun, setting behind a wall of evergreens, stretched across her face, near that chicken-pox scar. 

The only thing that changes is perception.  I have to tell myself more times than once these days, because the bitterness I carry with me now tries to seep upward, defying gravity, compelled by anger to reach my brain.  It wants to implant on that remembered image, the Marilyn Monroe beauty mark and stray kitten pets, a portrait of a complete and utter bitch.  It’s easier that way. 

I want my memory intact and unfiltered.  That’s the thing.  I think of people I know who have been described as very inside of their own heads.  This makes sense.  False realities are built in the mind.  Psychologists readily use the term denial in describing the state of patients who have been subjected to loss or horrors, and are distorting their memories as a coping mechanism.

The thing is, though, that I don’t want to cope.  Time heals all wounds…though to do so is agonizing; the healing process slows while infection spreads readily.  The wound is reoccurring, and does not vanish willingly.  It will consume you if you let it, turning its severed flesh lips upon your mind. 

I want to cut the tainted mind-matter away by severing myself from the cancerous memories that I built to cope, but which now just cast a shadow on a time in my life where I was actually happy.  People can’t say that often; I’ve learned that now.  Fond memories are like a nut found by a squirrel in fall; grab them when you can and save them.  Savor them.  There will be long winters ahead with fewer and fewer nuts, and everyone needs some form of sentimental sustenance to sustain.  The present may not always provide. 

 Resentment can fade; I see now, it should have never stayed.


* * *


My roommate and close friend Adam is a psychology student, and one night after copious amounts of whiskey intake he began relaying to me a smattering of the knowledge regarding false memory that he had picked up during his courses. 


“More of our memories are false memories than we realize.  Like, a shit-ton of our memories.”  It was eloquently stated, and provoked the response that one would expect from someone intrigued with the idea, but completely devoid of any concrete knowledge regarding it.  I replied, “Now, what exactly do you…hic…fucking mean by false?”


This memory, as I relay it, has grown fuzzy in my mind.  I wonder if it is that combination of hops and alcohol, mixed with a little ole Irish, that has served to cloud my recollection, or if it is some malfunction of cognition on my part. 


Not satisfied with the amount of intelligible-fruit yielded from this conversation, I felt compelled to do a little psychological reading of my own.  In so doing, I came across quite possibly the greatest word to ever grace the lips of the medical community; confabulation.  I just like to say it. Confabulation.  It refers to “the spontaneous narrative report of events that never happened.”  I want to use it like a verb.  I may have just confabulated a memory.  I love confabulating. 


There are multiple kinds, I learned; the kind that comes from neurological or psychological dysfunction and the kind that happens when memories merge with imagination.  I imagine a large basin teaming with the fantastical daydreams we all play through, like a film in our mind for our viewing pleasure only, on a daily basis, mixing with memories founded in reality and those that we wish were so.


 Just the other day, as I sat through an Easter Vigil mass with my family, I couldn’t help but let my mind wander in such a way.  At Merrytown, a perpetual shrine of worship built to impress the Pope in 1926, the walls began playing with my mind.  Pictures of angels, strewn about the ceiling, keeping at bay the devil and all his minions, was to tantalizing a day dream to resist.  I put my mind on auto-pilot and sat back, let the current of imagination flowing through my synapses take the reins.  Suddenly, I’m the most magnificent archangel, and green envy sneaks into Michael’s veins; his sword of righteousness no longer is able to compensate for his lack of genitalia, devices used only by humans in fell deeds, in establishing his alpha-dominance.


I wonder how many of these times, unbeknownst to us, actually penetrate into the department where “real” memories are stored.  I suppose that it isn’t so much the absolutely fictitious imaginary occurrences that have the power to find their way into the melting-pot of memory so much as our own imaginary assertions on real situations.


* * *


The Phenomenologist once said “The transcendence of the instants of time is both the ground of, and the impediment to, the rationality of my personal history; the ground because it opens a totally new future to me in which I shall be able to reflect upon the element of opacity in my present, a source of danger in so far as I shall never manage to seize the present through which I live with apodictic certainty,and since the lived is thus never entirely comprehensible, what I understood never quite tallies with my living experience, in short, I am never quite at one with myself.”

I guess that it all has to do with focus. If I am presented with a cigarette in a given situation, I will be drawn to that cigarette.  I will center my eye on it, behold its outline, and mark the impression that it has made in my mind.  I’ll relate that image of the cigarette with my past experiences regarding those delicious, poison ridden sticks which I use to interiorly decorate my respiratory system with stylish blotches of black-brown tar.  But what of the hand that is giving me the smoky-treat?  Will my gaze be too fixated upon my vice to dwell upon the cracked ridges of dry skin accumulating on the knuckles, or notice the stained yellow fingernails?  When I recollect that moment, will I draw forth from the caverns of my conscious a complete, full depiction of all within my field of vision, or merely what it was that drew my gaze?

I suppose you could say the same thing about my knowledge regarding my entire life. The forest of my life’s experience, my memories, will be imperfect in my minds depiction.  If I look back on it now, will I see laid out before me a beautiful forest with every leaf, no matter how insignificant, drawn to precise dimensions; every tiny vein represented in their tributary outlay?  Or, will I see that fractions have been extracted; will I see that where there was in reality a large oak, there now lays a coating of blotched black soot, remnants of the controlled burn that my mind executed?    There are many metaphysical questions regarding “this” (life) that I hope to answer before I die.  If not for anyone else, then at least for myself.  How can any assertion that I make in this regard be anything but speculation?  How can it claim to have authority?  It is like writing a book review on a book which has had pages torn out, rearranged, and rewritten.

Life is like a puzzle, I suspect.  We acquire pieces through experience; through trials and tribulations.  I want to take all of them and piece them together.  Paint a full picture of all that has transpired in my life, take a step back, look at it for all of it in its entirety and say “Aha!  That’s what it is!”  I know I will never be able to.  I know that, no matter how I might try to juxtapose and arrange my memories, I can never get them all back, can never refurbish them to their prior untainted state, and never really paint the picture like it was meant to be; complete.


* * *


Each individual life is like a story.  When we are children, our parents explain life to us as such.  How else can you reinforce to a toddler that if they were to pull the hair of the girl who sat in front of them in class, they would suffer consequences?  There is a cause and effect to our actions.  There is a linear relationship between what we do in the present and what outcome shall manifest in the future.  Like a story; plot development, character development, sequence of events, etc.  I like to think of it as my life’s narrative. 


But, I’m trying to write what could potentially be the climax.  Do I have enough rising action?  I can’t quite tell, because I can’t recall all the shit that has lead up to this point in my life.  I think of writing theory, and how you can’t just pull a character out of mid air, thrust them into a situation, and expect them to act accordingly.  You must build a back story; the decisions the character makes must be grounded in what has been established as their persona. 


If I can’t get those memories back, study the person that I used to be and the progression that has lead me to the point in life that I am at, how can I be expected to act within what life has dictated to be my character?


“Determinism:  This is the thesis that, at any moment, there is precisely one physically possible future, given the laws of physics and antecedent events.  There are no open alternative pathways of action if determinism is true.” 


This ontology operates under certain assumptions; mainly that everything is interdependently originated, an idea a Buddhist would tell you is called pratitya samutpada, though it has a few different connotations.  Ultimately, everything comes to being of something else, and is connected through a series of casual relationships that are, predominately, beyond the scope of human conception.  When I spit on the ground, I know nothing of the reaction that may be provoked in someone watching me across the street, and subsequently have no idea what chain of events might come forth from their saying “That’s gross.  Some people have no manners.” Similarly, when I was told once that I was a cynical bastard, the speaker couldn’t have had any idea the sort of self-introspection that that caused me to enact.


Interdependent origination of the mind seems to make sense.  What you have encountered adds to the pool of knowledge resting within the depths of your cortexes.  My ability to write, to speak or construct language in a coherent form, was an ability which I established due to a series of event processes that are beyond my spectrum of thought; when I read a word, I don’t dwell on the first time I came across that word and use the meaning I derived from it then.  I just merely pull the definition swiftly from its resting place.  Knowledge works like a scaffold; it builds and builds upon itself.


“Our whole life is based on action which is driven by our thoughts which again is based on knowledge. Knowledge acquired either by study, research, through experience, exchange, interaction, doing something or out of action (meaning you do something without thinking and then learn out of it) and all of which are accumulated over time.”


There must be some place in the mind where this is stored.  Is it lost forever to my conscious self?


* * *


Some answers may lay in the subconscious; that gray area of the mind, where no one is quite sure what is going on.  But, despite Freud’s best attempts, I find that a nearly incomprehensible phenomena.  Solace lies in other avenues, at least for one who has extinguished their inquisitive urge; looked and found not answers but more questions.  I wish someone would have told me not to peer under the hood, because the intricate workings of the engine of life and the mind are beyond me; beyond most any of us.   

Hume said; “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain of pleasure.  I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.”

Even so, there is contentment to be found in the thought that we will never be as much with ourselves in this instant as we are in this instant.  I will never know the self in the present more perfectly than I do whilst I live it; each moment has a singular unity, an inherent connection between world and thought.  Though I may never grasp it all in its entirety, I can still as yet take some comfort in this moment in which I live, and I am, and I exist, for that is all that I am; moments strung together piecemeal, the significance of semblance a problem which we may never understand.  I’m not sure now that I care to.

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