I have this memory —

I was a tiny kid, lying in bed and trying to fall asleep, and I started thinking about death and nonexistence, and I thought about how one day I wouldn’t exist any more, that there wouldn’t be a me thinking my thoughts and perceiving my perspective, and suddenly I was terrified.

I got up and knocked on my parents’ bedroom door and asked them about this. Maybe. Or maybe I didn’t because the fear was less crippling than the social awkwardness of randomly knocking on my parents’ door in the middle of the night to ask them a question like that; I don’t remember. It was a long time ago, okay?

This approximate topic is something I think and blog about now and then, rarely but consistently. Mortality was the light-hearted rambling one; Thoughts at Midnight was the dark philosophically-unhinged one. There are many even older posts, from before I told anybody about this blog. I’m not going to find them and you shouldn’t either. They’re probably terrible.

It inevitably feels weird writing about them because I rarely feel these feelings and roughly never talk to anybody about them. As I said before, it’s just not a popular conversation topic. But when they happen, they happen, except now I don’t think there’s anybody whose door I can knock on, not just because I’m far too old for this stuff and living away from family, but because I’ve thought so much about these things that I doubt I know anybody who could give me a convincing and satisfying answer. I know there is too much we don’t know.

I am not having these feelings right now. There might have been a few minutes in the last week, but otherwise nothing for a month or so. (Remember, my blog drafts go back years…) For whatever reason, I had an especially vivid, and relatively realistically-grounded, moment like that for a few minutes on the flight home.

I was sad about the fact that I was going to die. That life is fleeting, and nothing lasts forever. I was sad about the days I had spent with my precious family and friends that had passed, and the limited supply I had left, and how I didn’t know the proper way to use them, how I felt like my future self would inevitably regret some choices no matter how hard I tried.

I was sad about the long future, that I wasn’t optimistic about living a long and happy life with all the uncertainties and x-risks and how humanity is still so terrible at cooperating, despite the growing capacity of a few lone defectors to ruin things for everybody. Global warming or environmental issues in general, a particularly bad strain of virus or a biological or chemical attack, and who knows what’ll happen with artificial intelligence.

I was sad that even if we got everything right, the future probably wouldn’t need me. Everything I was learning or would learn, everything the world valued in me, everything I valued in myself — there would probably be some possibly non-human entity out there that did it better. And yet in some other way, that seemed desirable, because some of those things would benefit a lot of people if they were done better by anybody at all. I was sad that I couldn’t tell what I wanted, that my big-picture desires conflicted with each other and didn’t make any sense. That even if I had a benevolent genie, I wouldn’t know what to tell it. That I’m trying to keep an eye on changing the world for the better, but a little bit reluctant to think too hard and too precisely about what the moonshot optimal world I was ultimately aiming for because I might not like it.

That’s as much as I can express what’s it’s like. But the details don’t matter, right? The point is the same. These things are faraway and there are no good answers, so thinking about them is unhelpful, so I should stop. Right?

(Sometimes it works. Sometimes I can’t call up the same emotional weight of those thoughts even if I tried. They just collapse into sentences, words in a relation dictated by syntax. My Amazon package is going to arrive in the next one or two weeks; the Earth is going to rotate about its axis over the next 24 hours; I am going to die. Facts. Boring.)

On one hand, focusing on the present — seizing the day, living without regrets — helps me make myself actually do things instead of think in circles about ungrounded ideas. On the other hand, not looking at the big picture of life makes it easy to let days slip away without having done anything meaningful. When I suppress these philosophical thoughts, am I suppressing an unproductive side of me, or am I suppressing the side of me that would actually be able to experience life the most deeply?

(Or both?)


One thought on “Pangs

  1. I was also terrified by the exact thing when I was in elementary school. I can still be terrified, but I just “conceal, don’t feel”.

    On the other hand, I’m demotivated because whatever I do *is* meaningless. I have to push myself by setting arbitrary goals and say “I’m going to get it; no reason needed” (e.g. ACM ICPC).

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