Existential crises are as awkward to talk about as bowel movements. In a milieu that celebrates irony more than sincerity, any attempt to be philosophical is either going to make me resemble an overeager, emo teenager, or an indecipherable, pompous intellectual, and I’m not sure which I’ll end up sounding like in this column. And I’m not sure which I’d rather be.
My latest existential crisis took place in a movie theatre. Now, the success of any movie-going experience requires that you devote your full attention to the screen. But once in a while, my eyes drift from the aural and visual show transpiring before me. I notice how ridiculous the neighbour to my left looks with his mouth hanging open like a broken hinge. Soon enough, a small crack appears in the illusion this film has been trying to create.
But worse, sometimes this brief moment of distraction dumps me into an existential pit where I find myself cozying up to the remains of angsty poems. For me, it’s the realization that my neighbour, as silly as he looks holding popcorn between his fingertips like delicate offerings, has a whole interior world to which I don’t have access. I realize I have no idea how his circuit of optic nerves are mapping images on his mind. And I realize he has no awareness of my mind. I feel both lonely and independent and start wondering if they’re the same thing.
I have similar existential crises after films that mesmerize me, that make me think – inspired slightly by Liz Lemon – “this movie is the thang.” The way light splashes across the white, nondescript screen. The way the crescendo of music matches the rise and fall of my heartbeat. A story that fulfills fantasies, characters who feel things the way I’ve felt them. In the movie theatre, in the darkness, in the show of light and color, packaged in celluloid filigree: oneness!
But then the film ends. Friends and acquaintances gather outside the theatre and make necessary visits to the loo. Then, someone who I will either end up despising or adoring asks, “What did you think?” The words I offer in reply are flat compared to what I have just experienced, but I mean them, and I insist that I mean them, and to ensure that there has been no confusion, I bust out that prefacing wonder, “I know it’s a cliché but…”
My friend looks perplexed. He’s unable to comprehend what could have drawn such a passionate response out of my usual placidity. A familiar throb of despair brings me down. Distance emerges between me and this person who I had felt close to before the film began. I can tell he has already forgotten what it was like to sit in that theatre, the way people forget what it’s like to sit on a toilet.
And when this happens, I become aware of an existential tragedy: my inability to project onto someone else experiences that have wound themselves into the ‘essence’ of me. With that also comes the thrill of privacy and secrecy, the seductive idea that I am not entirely discoverable, and that no one will ever know the beauty I have known. So lately, I’ve been thinking about how unknowable I am to myself and how unknowable others are to me, and yet, despite this, the confusing fact that I’m still chasing desperately after understanding and intimacy.
This type of philosophical meandering only puts you on a draining search for a resolution that doesn’t exist. But maybe we’d manage our existential crises better if our discussions of philosophy hadn’t been chucked from our daily lives and left to go stale in the Humanities departments of universities. Or, in high school corridors bursting with hormonal urgency. Meanwhile, I could use a hiatus from introspection. 30 Rock, here I come.
Mahak Jain is the Tribune’s newest columnist. You can reach her at [email protected] We are still accepting applications for columnists. If you want to appear alongside Mahak every other week, send a cover letter and two sample columns to [email protected]