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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #44, 12/11/2006

Existential Enlightenment

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Each of us is an alien. We arrived on this earth alone and were inserted into unfamiliar bodies. Then we were abandoned here to figure things out on our own.

This is the basic existential position—the fundamental facts of life. How we got here is unknown and unknowable, and life has no inherent meaning apart from solving the problems in front of us. Like it or not, we're stuck here, in this alien body on this alien planet, and all we can do is try to make the best of it.

It is a pretty simple position but terribly difficult for most people to accept. They want there to be more, and since birth their heads have been filled with all sorts of nonsense about what life is supposed to be.

Some people find it convenient to believe that there is a God or gods pushing things around. If so, these gods aren't relevant, because our fundamental alien experience is still the same. People think that life has to have some sort of cosmic "meaning," but it really only has whatever meaning we choose to give it. Apart from the mystery of consciousness itself, there is nothing magical here: We've just been plunked down in a strange place and have to adapt.

Wisdom lies in your own recognition of your alien position in the world. I call this existential enlightenment. It's not rocket science, and it doesn't require a journey to the top of any mountaintop. You just realize: "I don't belong here, but I'm going manage this calamity as best I can."

Everyone around us is in the same boat. They also got inserted into strange bodies: male or female, big or little, healthy or barely functioning. Existential enlightenment involves recognizing the dilemma of others as well as our own. We know how difficult adjusting to this planet can be, so we have sympathy for other victims.

The opposite of enlightenment is role entrenchment. The social structure that surrounds us is a theatrical production and requires a certain amount of acting from each of us. Role entrenchment is when we accept our role completely and fail to recognize that we are acting. Blindly playing a role is not wisdom; it is dumb compliance.

Our theatrical social structures were invented by aliens like us who were trying to deal with the conditions they found when they were dropped here. Law is theatre. Business is theatre. Sexual relations are theatre. Even a family, in the bulk of its activities, is a kind of artificial soap opera. None of it is "real"; these are just the made-up structures that people have created for themselves to deal with the complexities of the world.

That doesn't mean that the drama is always meaningless. Both family and work can be meaningful, but only as a medium for exploring something deeper than the surface activities. Theatre provides a means of communication between people that might not happen otherwise. It doesn't matter, for example, how a family lives, what they buy or where they take their vacation. What matters is how they connect with each other—helping each other deal with the essential quandaries of life.

By virtue of landing on this planet, you have to play a role in many of these dramas. You are going to have to serve an economic function (i.e. "get a job"), and you are going to have to interact with others using a common language and a common set of hokey customs (Christmas, presidential elections, team sports, etc.) Everybody has to be an actor to a certain extent. To be accepted in any social setting (and get paid), you have to speak your lines at the appropriate times, like "How are you today?" or "Would you like fries with that?"

To survive on this planet, you have to be willing to play temporary social roles: waiter, store clerk, band member, husband, mother, lawyer, judge. One thing you don't need to do, however, is believe in those roles. You don't have to believe in anything to do good in the world. You only have to accept that people feel pain and that you should work to prevent it.

Role entrenchment is when you fully believe the theatrical role you have been assigned. Your identity merges with that role and you are unable to separate yourself from it or see its long-term effects. You forget that you are an alien. You come to think you belong here and that your role must be good simply because you are doing it.

This is a dangerous position to fall into, because you lose perspective. When you get caught up in a role, then you begin to see only its petty rules and conflicts, and you often miss the big picture of who is getting hurt.

It is like playing chess or Scrabble or any of the video games that young people get addicted to: If you play it long enough, it stops being a game; it becomes your life. Other experiences beyond the game may be lost to you, much to your impoverishment.

Existential enlightenment is when you see that it is all just a game. The only things that are real are your own existence and the existence of others. (Actually, these things are "presumed"—because it could all be a dream—but they are the best reality that we have right now.)

Enlightenment recognizes that other people exist and feel pain. When we look at someone in difficult circumstances, we automatically feel empathy for them, because we could be them. If not for an accident of fate (we assume), we could have been inserted into that body and be facing the same stresses they are.

Enlightenment can potentially expose you to a huge amount of personal stress, because you lose the artificial theatrical structures that separate you from others. If there are seven billion people on the planet, and four billion of those are suffering, then enlightenment lets you know it. You may not be psychically experiencing the pain of every person on earth, but you have to know that the pain exists and that it could have been you experiencing it. This is a humbling realization that encourages you to be restrained and thoughtful in your actions, not euphoric or flamboyant.

Someone who is entrenched in their role doesn't see the suffering of others unless it is right in front of them. They shut out the rest of the world (except as experienced through television). They go to work, play the game and fully believe in what they are doing. Then they come home, watch TV and avoid all random thinking. If you ask them why they live as they do, they will probably give you a shallow and self-serving explanation. "I need the money," they might say. Well, yes, but do you need that much money? Often the justification for their current role comes down to some article of blind faith, like, "Because that's what my parents did," or "Because God told me so."

If you are entrenched in a role, then you will eventually sacrifice the welfare of others to support it. Every role, from policeman to lawyer to roadway engineer, relies on a certain set of assumptions which are appropriate in some cases by not all.

Someone trapped in a role is going to respond to any problem with the standard solutions attached to that role. If you break the law, the policeman will arrest you, the lawyer will represent you and the engineer will build a road. Someone who is more detached from his role can see beyond the standard solutions. An enlightened policeman might choose not to arrest someone even when a law has been broken, recognizing that a greater social good might being served by an alternative solution.

It is okay to play a role as long as you recognize it as such. You can pretend to be a policeman, lawyer or Family Court philosopher, but you know it's a charade. You are merely playing a temporary theatrical role because it is practical to do so. Who you really are, in spite of your uniform, is a little lost alien, cruelly left behind on this primitive planet.

You can play a role for now, but you shouldn't let it interfere with your independent alien judgment.

—G.C.




Reader Comments

“wow” —A little lost alien. 1/21/08 (rating=5)

“Poorly rationalized and diluted. Read Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus"” — 8/12/08 (rating=1)

“When you say:My body? you admit of using IT. lol.” —Mr. Carol 3/22/09 (rating=5)

“I would add that we should work to ameliorate the suffering of all sentient beings, not just that of humans, even though they play no self imposed 'roles'.” —Dan 11/22/09 (rating=4)

“A very lusid description of the conscious experience of being in this human form but not of this human form.” —Matt 2/20/10 (rating=4)

“aardvark akubar!” —The Almighty 11/29/10 (rating=4)

“So true.” —J.V. 3/23/11 (rating=5)

Ratings so far: 2 3 4 5 1 5 4 4 4 5 (Average=3.7)

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