As far as I remember, ever since the moment I became aware of my own consciousness I began to question the existence of other minds obsessively. For me as a toddler, self consciousness came hand in hand with moderate dread, an unpleasant feeling that fluctuated in terms of severity depending on what distractions were available.
Fast forward to my last year in primary school, the subject of my anxieties extended from worrying that I was one isolated mind looking into to a world of unreality, to notions of death, morality and infinity.
I recall losing sleep over contemplating where the edge of the universe was, and feeling helpless when I found myself unable to conceptualize a line that was infinitely long.I also remember agonizing over the idea that we were all going to die, though I am not sure precisely when I began understanding this idea. I had a grandmother whom I loved very much; and I guess it was instinctual for me to assume that of all people I cared about, she was naturally going to die first. Despite being aware of the presence of doctors and advances in medical technology, it was never unclear to me that eventual death is inevitable for everyone and that there is nothing I can do to change the fact. This frustrated me to no end and often put me on the verge of going berserk. At times I felt like jumping out of the building to just “get it over with”, as though death was another one of those unavoidable, menial tasks much like homework. I saw it as an irrirating, impending threat that I can never get away from; it was the ultimate dreadful task.
I was generally good at hiding these thoughts. Perhaps I did not want to touch upon this sensitive subject with loved ones who, in my eyes at the time, were likely to be closer to death than I. One day however, in the midst of another (regular) spontaneous bout of existential angst, I nudged a 6th grade classmate of mine in the queue of some activity in P.E. class, and asked
“Did you know that you are going to die one day?”
“Um, yeah” , she just shrugged and turned around.
Somewhat dissatisfied with this disinterested response (in retrospect, I do not know what I was expecting), I turned to another girl and repeated the question.
“Yeah, but so what?”
I gave up very quickly upon realizing that asking questions like this any further will only result in me being given undesirable names of all sorts in school. Although I desperately wanted to share my thoughts to somebody, it was difficult to find a suitable target. I was confused. Am I particularly stupid? Why am I bothered by things that other people don’t give a second thought to? I did not understand how people, particularly old people, were able to move around, enjoying their tea and other ephemeral activities whilst knowing that they are going to die.
Now, to avoid confusion, I am not afraid of death per se. As Epicurus said, “If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not”. Of course I am mindful to the refutability of this claim, given that I, as a living person, do not have access to the afterlife nor any means to observe it… but let’s not dwell on this for now. The point is that not being afraid of death does not exempt me from the anxiety driven by the implications that death has on everyday life. The fact that I will have to vanish no matter what I do or how successful I become disturbs me. The fact that regardless of how many people I get to love or gets to love me, or how much I contribute to society I will still cease to exist, makes me feel that I am no more than an insignificant speck of dust in the infinite horizon of time. And again, there is nothing I can do to change that.
One might think that I may actually use these thoughts to my advantage if I took the insignificance of being as a way to become ecstatically relaxed about everything. Indeed, I have tried to drive myself in this direction, only to realize that I am no candidate for Buddhahood. Being brought up in modern society, with Christian parents who put in great effort to put me through school, provide me with the opportunity to participate in multiple extracurricular activities, there was no way I could just let go of all my daily concerns. I had to be good. I had to get distinctions for all my piano exams. I had to get good grades and more importantly I could never disappoint my family.
Why? Because I loved them very much.
And this point created another problem for me. As a mind constantly traumatized by the possibility of solipsism and often falling into actual brain-in-vat moments, to love people existing outside my own mind appeared to be a contradiction, a contradiction that I was unable to resist clinging on to. But as a logical human being, I found contradictory beliefs intolerable and fundamentally uncomfortable.
I fail to convince myself that other people definitely exist, yet I cannot help myself from genuinely caring about them. One might ask, why does it matter if they exist or not, if you can never discern the real situation anyway? My first response to this question would be that if it didn’t matter, I might as well become a full-blown solipsistic sociopath. If whether other minds exist is truly irrelevant to how I should behave, it would imply that
1. I can act as though other people exist even when they really don’t, which would not affect the “normal” arrangements of life but ALSO vice versa, that
2. I can act as though other people do not exist even when they really do, which means I can insult or hurt anybody spontaneously because at the end of the day whether they exist or not doesn’t even matter.
Further, imagine falling deeply in love with somebody only to find out that they were a zombie. It may be easy for some to say that it doesn’t matter as long as you never find out, but the idea that it is possible should be enough for a perspective on how little meaning there would be in a hypothetical relationship where one side is in fact a spiritless robot.
All thoughts above manifest not only in my mind, but also in my way of life. I began losing interest in doing many things, particularly things that I had to work for, such as studying. It is likely that on the surface I looked like a typical pre-teen becoming lazy and rebellious during adolescence, but I knew for sure that this wasn’t the case. I found difficulty in pursuing anything requiring the slightest bit of energy because I was always struggling to choose between putting effort in my work in order to keep up with social expectations, and letting go of earthly desires for things such as academic success. I alternated between the options and often felt guilty for not trying my best, because deep down I knew that I wanted to do well.
At one point I tried to find another aspect of life to let go of, so that I can concentrate on studying and feel that I was not grasping too much onto the superficiality of daily life. The most ridiculous thing I experimented with was probably air. I understand that I should not have included air as one of the things I should attempt to give up as it is a necessity for survival; even Buddha would not have identified it as an element of “superficiality” or human grasping. But like I said, I was going berserk over these ideas. Anyhow, as expected, it took me only a few seconds to give up my attempt to eliminate air as a necessity in my life. It was idiotic. The only reason I tried it was that, underlying all the stupidity I have always been dissatisfied with myself for being a human being who needed mundane things like air. I felt needy and wondered why God had to make me this way. I felt victimized by being created and again, started losing more and more interest in life.
It was tough to keep myself in good spirits infront of other people. Throughout the years following the P.E. class incident, I did try to communicate my ideas with a few close friends, even my parents and people in my family. It would be a lie to say that I never came across anyone interesting. One girl I talked to expressed similar concerns over the problem of other minds. This was on a day when a group of us were doing stretches, trying to touch our toes. This girl was not capable of reaching down as far as another girl did, although she was trying her best to keep up. I noticed familiarity in her thought when she said “the problem is, I have no clue whether Kiki is feeling the same pain as I am when her head touches her knees, or if I am just not trying enough”. Immediately I jumped into a small philosophical conversation with her. It didn’t last long, nor did it get particularly deep, but what I realized was that, despite my solipsistic tendencies I found a bit of comfort in finding another person who acknowledged one of my concerns. Perhaps that was me being insecure about being “particularly stupid”. Indeed I was aware that most people have pondered questions like “Is my red her blue?”, but very few drilled on these impractical, “unnecessary” questions the way I did. I did not understand how people managed to shrug these fundamental questions off and felt extremely lonely and isolated most of the time.
I began living a double life. I behaved like a normal student most of the time, not minding when teachers thought that I was just being “bad” when I slept in class, giving me “debits” in my diary, when in fact it was only because I had been awake all night thinking and overthinking uncontrollably. I stopped trying to express my innermost concerns to friends and family because I learnt that being misunderstood would only exacerbate my feelings of isolation. So at around 14 I turned to online philosophy forums. I started reading philosophical books and writing questions mostly in the metaphysics and epistemology sections of sparknotes.com. (LOL) It was thrilling to receive responses from people who, unlike my peers at the time, appeared to spend significant amounts of time thinking about questions that I thought about. I eventually got addicted to frequenting the forum and this added to my struggle in prioritizing school work over achieving nirvana.
and I do not even know who I am writing this blog to.
taking this negativity away with a yummy cookie 😀