Shifting Sand

It’s amazing the extent to which human beings attempt to rationalise the random, unpredictable and amoral universe in which we find ourselves. It’s a tendency that’s written all over; our labelling of the days, mapping of the earth, the advance of science, the teachings of religion. Somebody with more schooling in psychology than me could probably say it better, but we essentially we create a mental model, and we then rationalise our experiences with respect to that model.

To put it more simply, we see what we expect to see. A great example of this is in an ad being shown in London cinemas to promote awareness of cyclists; you’re shown a clip of two teams passing basketballs, and you’re asked to count how many times the team dressed in white make a pass. It’s fairly easy to get this right, but then the ad asks you if you spotted the moonwalking bear. Sure enough, when they replay the clip, a person in a bear costume does indeed moonwalk right across the shot.

I think it’s interesting the ways in which our mental models of life constrain us, mould our ways of thinking. The model becomes the framework of our lives. It shapes our subjective experiences of objective events, maps a rough outline of our future. The model makes sense of the past, and makes sense of the future.

I suppose that what’s most painful about a life-changing event, like a break-up or a death, is not the event itself, but the dislocation of the change forced on our mental model.

For a while, the insulating blanket of the rational model is ripped away, and you’re exposed to the full dizzying, vertiginous, inexplicable randomness of life, and the intense pain of living in a world where you truly have freedom of action – where any course of action is possible. The past is no longer what you thought it was, and the future once again becomes a true unknown, and what’s more painful, it’s not just unknown, but unknowable. The idea that what we perceive as reality is just a subjective interpretation is nauseating when you fully realise it – when you feel reality shifting like sand under your feet.

I don’t know about anyone else, but as much as I wouldn’t like to admit it, I find the idea of a truly unknowable future terrifying – the freedom of action is paralysing, not liberating. I guess this is why reading existential literature makes me feel better at these kinds of moments – it’s rather like having a support group for my otherwise rather private insanity.

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