Cartesian Doubt and Despair: Finding the Center
Imagine if you could send yourself a single message, at any point in your past. For the sake of argument, say it had to be less than one hundred words.
What would you want to send yourself? What would you tell your past self?
Something like “It gets easier” or “Hold on, you’ll find something incredible” would be nice. But what if you told yourself, “Look for Jenny”? Maybe you would alter the past. Maybe you would change the network of events that led to you meeting Jenny.
Imagine, then, that you’ve chosen to send yourself something that would be comforting in a hard time. It might not change any decisions you made, but at least it would make you have an easier time of it.
The message I wish I could have sent myself was, “Everything you are going through right now is a cocoon. You are going to be paying in suffering and pain, but you will at the end of it come out as the man you have wanted to be”.
Anyone who has ever tried to psych themselves up, inspire themselves, knows how difficult it can be to find something that holds true. Our words seem to just echo with no effect, bouncing off of the defenses of our negativity. We seem to be speaking with hollowness, resonating into the air.
It is staggeringly hard to find truth that sticks to our bones.
There’s an idea in psychology called “metacognition”. Basically, it’s thoughts about our thoughts. If you think, “I want a cheeseburger”, that’s just a regular ol’ cognition. It’s based on memories that you have of good cheeseburgers, social signals about how a cheeseburger is a good meal, and a feeling of hunger. It may even be based on wanting to eat for comfort. Now, if you think, “Why do I want a cheeseburger?”, that’s a metacognition. You’re asking a question about your feelings or thoughts.
We can’t control what we feel at the most immediate level, not perfectly. We can choose how we react. And it is at the level of our feelings about our feelings that we tend to do the most damage to ourselves.
I wasn’t just that I was suffering in those past moments. It was that I was resentful of that suffering. I didn’t see the point of it. I often take a cosmic perspective, and from that perspective I wonder why it is just that we were made this way, born to have an experience we found unpleasant. One can say that it’s the way the universe is, or point to evolution, but that is an explanation of fact not of justice. It’s possible to understand the universe and resent it.
That’s why that wisdom would have resonated with me. I knew intellectually it’d get better. I knew intellectually I would likely eventually get what I wanted. But it’d have been nice, at the time, to understand that I had to go through those moments to become what I wanted. In retrospect, I would have endured three times more of those moments to be where I am now.
There are two philosophers who faced uncertainty and pain in their lives that we can draw inspiration from, not just philosophically but psychologically. They are Socrates and Rene Descartes.
Both Socrates and Descartes traveled, and found that their understanding of the world was altered. They began to hear about phenomena in life that made them wonder about the nature of reality in general. Descartes in particular found phantom limb syndrome, the experience amputees will have of still feeling sensations from a long-gone limb, to show very interesting things about the mind.
Both these men went through a period of extreme doubt. Socrates had a voice in his head, what he called a “daemon” or spirit (and what many people today think may have been schizophrenia), that told him only what was wrong, never what was right. Meanwhile, Descartes wanted so badly to put his philosophy on a firm footing of certainty that he decided to adopt a position like Socrates of absolute doubt.
Descartes at the end of this process, doubting everything and assuming that a demon was out to trick and hurt him, found one of the most important philosophical concepts ever: Cogito ergo sum, or “I think; therefore, I am”. This idea is elegant in its simplicity and wide-reaching in its implications. It means that if you ever wonder if you exist, the very fact that you are wondering means you have to be. It’s absolute. It’s utterly logical. It’s inarguable. Arguing against it is literally absurd. Maybe we’re brains in jars, maybe we’re all in the Matrix, but we certainly exist in some form.
From this basic concept, Descartes created a philosophical system. Many of the aspects of it have been rejected, but for him, he had found something that would hold. The cogito was a pinion for him: It let him know that his mind and his thoughts would always matter.
I bring these men up not for their philosophy, nor even for Socrates’ great moral wisdom. I bring them up because they experienced doubt and they both found a way of looking at things that survived their own brains.
We inherit so many ideas, just like Descartes and Socrates, that are inaccurate from our society and from our lived experience. Quantum physics alone shows us that the basic way that we view reality is wrong. We intuitively feel that if we look at a rock that we are doing nothing, but at the subatomic level, any observation will actually change that which is being observed.
We assume that capitalism is just, or democracy is the best form of government. But why? Many other people lived perfectly happy lives under different systems, and many people are miserable under our present forms of government.
Many of us assume that God exists. Why? For many, it’s because they were told so. It’s not just that they think that there is a God, but that that God is named Yahweh or Allah, that it has the specific forms that it may seem to have in the Bible. This is a belief based on faith, of course, but it’s also a remarkably specific insight. Why would it have happened exactly that specific way? It absolutely could have, but it absolutely could not have. We better have some kind of experience of God or interaction with the divine, some kind of indication that the beliefs that we hold onto actually help us, before we can be confident in them.
To be absolutely clear: For the purposes of this wisdom, I’m not saying whether these insights are right, wrong, philosophically defensible, empirically valid, or anything of the sort. I am saying that we have assumptions that we inherit. Capitalism and democracy may very well be good things (I’m sold on democracy and want more of it, not so much on the capitalism), but if they are then it should be because of concrete advantages we can point to, ones based in values that are as universal as possible.
These assumptions go deep. Why is murder wrong? Why is theft wrong? Why is rape and sexual assault wrong? There are coherent answers to these questions, but psychology has taught us that many people will never ask the questions to any real extent in the first place, trapped in conventional thinking and socialized assumptions.
To anyone going through pain, especially changemakers despairing that they may be able to reach out and make a difference, I always try to say this:
Try to make this a time of Cartesian doubt. Challenge everything you believe.
In the depths of despair, we can discard illusions. We can get rid of things that don’t hold. It takes work and its takes us focusing, but we can seek out answers and get rid of unsatisfactory responses.
It’s rather like Michelangelo with the statue of David. We are working away at the marble of our selves until we make the person we want to be.
This is an active process. Despair is the chisel, hope can be the hammer.
Because whatever you hold onto, that’s going to be the pinion that holds you to reality.
For me, the things that I kept coming back to were a few simple ideas. Heroes matter. Peoples’ suffering matters. It is possible to aid others with suffering, even as we are flawed ourselves. This world matters. And I wanted to be a hero.
Once I realized that, I was willing to discard everything that impeded me from the goals that followed from those cognitions.
Who do you want to be? What do you want to think? What do you want to believe in? No one can decide that but you. And finding out is a wonderful process. It can be painful, but it is like preparing to run a marathon: Something you have to put sweat into in order to get out what you want. And it’s okay if it takes you some time. Everyone’s path is different. I wish you the best of luck in finding out.