Unexpected Existentialism

There’s a bit of loneliness in the world, I think.

But not the kind we’ve all come to recognize. Not the feeling that we are alone, unknowable, or otherwise separated from our peers. It’s something I never expected to encounter, and yet that’s exactly what makes it so penetrating. It’s a kind of emotional nostalgia, and the realization that the novelty of life itself is fleeting. I used to wonder what adults thought to themselves as they watched us play and grow, forever discovering, always surprised and delighted or perturbed. Now that it’s been about 20 years since I graduated from high school, I think I know.

It’s a kind of sad envy. Once we’ve accumulated a few years and all of the new and unpredictable has long since become practiced and deciphered. Once we finally understand that there’s nothing new under the sun. No longer children ourselves, we can only live vicariously through those who still are. We nod in understanding to their plight, as we’ve been there before. We tell them: this too, shall pass. We know that one day, even terrible experiences of youth will pale to the looming specter of knowledge.

I can’t speak for anyone else in this, but I still feel like the teenager I once was. It’s as if I’ve awoken 20 years later, shocked by the time that’s passed. Yet I also remember going to my first Anime Iowa in 2000 when I was 23. While an incomprehensible whirlwind of events, I did indeed get married in 2008. Then I finished Rabbit Rue. Then I wrote a Postgres Book. With each of these, my impostor syndrome grew. The more experienced and accomplished at being alive I become, the less real everything seems.

Yet the truth is inescapable. I remember all of those things and the myriad of occasions in-between because it all happened. I did those things, and many more besides. It was all new then, but no longer. There will be no more crying over skinned knees. No more crab-walking while staring at the ceiling and giggling at how weird everything looked. No timid apprehension of a first kiss. Gone are the days of adolescent self-discovery. No more immaturity.

We’ve all heard the refrain: if only I could go back and do it all over again. But that’s an empty conceit, isn’t it? Even assuming that were possible, what could we do “again”? The same things, but re-experience the magic of naiveté? How would we know we were repeating old experiences, then? Different things, armed with the knowledge we now wield and the implications that brings? Playing life in God Mode would be an amusing diversion, but it would hardly replicate the feeling of newness simply because we were young again.

Because that part of us is gone forever. It’s something I miss quite distinctly now that I’ve noticed it’s missing. Yet more than that, it reminds me of how I occasionally wonder about the lives of others. What was the first movie he saw? Did she cry the first time she saw a dead animal? Billions of people with their own perspective on life and all the events that contributed to its formation. A universe of firsts, evolving through time as fads and technology flavor them to something only tangentially recognizable to previous generations.

And we all look back in contemplation, fond or otherwise. Maybe we wish we could recapture the spark of a first love, or the trepidation of the first day of school. In the back of my mind, it’s always been there. A wish that I could do something again, knowing I never could, and then feeling a deep and inexplicable sadness. Kids of today will never feel the thrill of opening a Michael Jackson single on vinyl, just as I’ll never know what it’s like to be born into a world where instantaneous lookup of any information via a tiny pocket computer is a reality.

Though I wish I could. Our humanity is so profoundly limiting, I no longer question why we embrace a consumer culture. We can never truly relate to one another, so we distract ourselves with widgets and geegaws, entertainment of all description, and every little scandal and noble cause du jour. Then maybe, just maybe, we can forget for a little longer, that we’re mildly more jaded than we were the day before. That we’re always a little lonely because there’s nobody that’s really like us, despite how much we have in common.

Of course, I could just be projecting. I’ve never denied the fact I don’t relate to the world or anyone in it, and never really have. But there’s always something new to me just over the horizon. None will never really carry the impact of those earlier experiences, but I’d never trade them for anything. Still, not a day goes by that I don’t wish Andy Weir’s The Egg was more than just a short story. We could be so much more if we didn’t each reside in our own tiny microcosm, separated even from our own past.