Making Sense of Things: The Irresolution of Existing

Cloud Farm by  Cynthia Decker

Cloud Farm by Cynthia Decker

In this life we find ourselves as in a strange country. Ortega y Gasset once remarked that ‘life is fired at us point-blank’. We cannot say: ‘Hold it! I am not quite ready. Wait until I have sorted things out.’
— E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed

Each of us are set down here at some point or another, bewildered, greeted by the eerie feeling that things are already sorted out, that sense has already been made of life, and it’s us who aren’t yet acclimated. This sensation often eludes questioning until we’ve already, unwittingly and subconsciously, conformed to the supposed sense of things. The problem, of course, is that nonsense prevails. 

This is a rather uncontested position among well-informed circles, that we do not quite understand what’s going on here, existentially. A quick look into either a telescope or our brains confirms this to us. As does, recently, an unfortunate glance at the news. Socrates’ now trite phrase, “the only thing I know is that I know nothing”, even has its own Wikipedia page. And yet, oddly, we withhold this information from children. We put on a show, masquerading as if we aren’t still sorting things out ourselves, on the fly. 

Why is it fashionable to cloister one’s perplexity? It’s anything but harmless, especially to children. Consider Scottish psychiatrist Maurice Nicoll’s account of when he first realized that adults do not, in fact, possess some ultimate, fixed knowledge about life’s durable questions:

“Once, in the Greek New Testament class on Sundays, taken by the Head Master, I dared to ask, in spite of my stammering, what some parable meant. The answer was so confused that I actually experienced my first moment of consciousness — that is, I suddenly realised that no one knew anything ... and from that moment I began to think for myself, or rather knew that I could ... This was my first inner liberation from the power of external life.”

(Psychological Commentaries)

The point isn’t to encourage children to wonder, to be original and creative and form their own ideas about existence, this is old news on which institutional education is merely slow on the take-up. Dewey and Montessori education models figured this out by the turn of the 20th century. 

The point is each human life repeats this collision between a subjectivity stretching to make sense of things and a culture whose surface tells them things are already figured out. It’s this oscillation between living under cultural pretenses and rising above them to take a personal view of the landscape that I’m interested in.  

This traversing back and forth from cognition to metacognition gives rise to and stabilizes a self-consciousness, not insecurity per se but consciousness-of-self, that Annie Dillard describes as leading to “a life of concentration”: 

“Who could ever tire of this heart-stopping transition, of this breakthrough shift…between being and knowing you be? It drives you to a life of concentration, it does, a life in which effort draws you down so very deep that when you surface you twist up exhilarated with a yelp and a gasp…Who could ever tire of this radiant transition, this surfacing to awareness and this deliberate plunging to oblivion…”

(An American Childhood)

But is such motion, these ‘breakthrough shifts of awareness’, the exception or the rule? ‘The power of external life’ exerts a gravitational pull; breaking through to that inaugural moment, Nicoll’s ‘first moment of consciousness’ when we realize, starkly, that all manners of existing are still nothing more than best guesses, requires considerable force. Like a strong punch in the gut, followed by that first, frenzied, exultant gasp of air. Surely, there are better guesses than others, though where to find a rubric for scoring them is beyond me. But I suppose any worthwhile guess must begin, and perhaps remain, as with Socrates, in uncertainty and concentration. 

Without the breakthrough to uncertainty, without realizing nobody’s got existence pinned down and fleshed out to the bone, without facing up to the bewilderment that propels us into orbit beyond the oblivion of secondhand knowledge, our lives remain impoverished, in straitjackets, our souls dormant. 

But this, too, is old news. That we each need a first-hand view of things was already bellowed by Emerson, 182 years ago: 

“The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”


The point is simple enough: existence is an irresolute affair. I agree with myself here, perhaps you also nod, but to live this through and through takes grit mostly foreign to me. If we are honest with each other, and pry either our wonder or angst — however perplexity manifests — from personal enclosures and greet each other with them in the street, we find that we’re not alone in our scrambling to sort things out. Each of us have been fired upon, point-blank, by the same gun. 

What I’ve found, my manner of sorting all this out on the fly, is not to hide from, but to stoke the perplexity. To always give it audience. Give it a pen and paper, canvas and paint, give it voice, or dance, give it a craft through which to express itself. This may be the artist’s prejudice, but creation seems always a constructive dialogue with the unknown

It’s startling to find ourselves here, frenzied by the short time we have, unsure whether to marvel at the possibilities before us or those we can’t see, loaded with questions. Anne Waldman concludes: “We’re here to disappear, therefore let’s be as vivid and generous as we can.” I’d like to add, with Dillard, concentration upon that never-tiring transition between living and knowing I live, searching for something yet unknown between these two loci of consciousness, maybe to amplify my aliveness to each moment. I’ll square up to what startles me, and return fire.