aNewDomain — Consider this clip from the movie “Contact.”
After years of work, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds herself traveling through wormholes in deep space.
Around her is mysterious beauty. She has lost contact with Earth and become untethered.
She is alone in the midst of mystery.
This is what the beginning point of existential thought looks like. It’s awe and wonderment, and recognition of the uncanny all around us.
As she begins transit through a second wormhole, her craft begins to vibrate. She is strapped into a seat bolted to a bulkhead.
Earlier in the film, we see her arguing about building in that seat: it was not in the specifications sent by the aliens who designed the machine. Nobody understands the machine and they build in the seat for safety.
Now the seat has become dangerous.
Ellie carries with her a memento from her mother – a pendant. It floats free into the microgravity of deep space, hovering calmly in front of her while she shakes in the seat.
It is peaceful, nearly still. But she is anchored to shaky ground in a seat that never should’ve been put there.
This is the next step into existential thought.
Nothing can be known and, therefore, all ground is shaky.
We want definite answers about the universe. We want to know. Why are we here? What is it all for? Where did I come from? What will happen to me after I die?
But there are no definite answers, none are possible. We do the best we can.
We need a place to stand, even if it is on shaky ground.
Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Did you vote for a candidate you found distasteful? Confronted with no perfect options, did you do the best you could with what you had? I accept your responses in good faith.
Maybe yes, maybe no; and maybe you reject the idea that your candidate had any faults. You stand on the ground you have chosen and refuse to feel the vibrations.
The existentialist has noticed that the ground is shaky. She has seen the memento floating free – a clue that there is something else but shaky ground. That there is something like groundlessness.
Out in the mysterious beauty of space, Ellie Arroway unfastens her harness and floats free of her restraints. Free of her seat. Free of the safety apparatus that humans built into a machine they did not understand.
As she floats free, the seat collapses. If she had stayed tethered to safety, it would have killed her.
Here we are now, in this beautiful world, utterly certain of our convictions. We have a hard time seeing how shaky is the ground on which we stand. Reminded, we grow ever more convicted, more certain rather than less. We grip the armrests and try to ride it out.
Sometimes, though, we get a view of Ellie’s amulet floating free before us.
Sometimes, we let go.
Politics, religion and even much of science are ways to search for ground to stand on. Supporting a candidate, we do mental work to accept them no matter how much we don’t like them. We drive away our families, friends, network connections.
Indulging in fundamentalism, we focus on an imagined beauty while looking away from the real. In search of answers, we miss thrilling questions. In explaining the universe, we can fail to be knocked down by it, to have the breath knocked out of us. To be flabbergasted.
Here it is. All around us, the universe. Beautiful, majestic, terrifying. To feel the awe with no comfort, to wonder without attempting to explain, is to unfasten the safety harness and float free.
To put it another way, have a look at this clip from “Enter the Dragon” (1973). Here we see Bruce Lee as the existentialist – directing us to the experience, unfiltered through mind and prejudice.
Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly beauty.
p.s. If you like these sorts of reflections on what it means to be a human in a meaningless world, consider reading my novel, For Love of Their Children, available now from Amazon.