Daily Reflection 002: Is Consciousness a Curse?

Today’s quote comes from the same work as the previous Daily Reflection: The Trouble With Being Born by Emil Cioran. He is, in my view, one of the most profound thinkers of the last one hundred years — drawing out, aphorism by aphorism, why the human condition is not one to take lightly… or too seriously. Rather, it is one unequivocally filled with boredom, terror, meaninglessness, absurdity, suffering, and death.

This may sound a bit melodramatic, but I am sure anyone who takes even a moment to ruminate over their own life and the plights of others will see that these descriptors are self-evident.

Cioran writes in the third section of the book:

When I happen to be busy, I never give a moment’s thought to the “meaning” of anything, particularly of whatever it is I am doing. A proof that the secret of everything is in action and not in abstention, that fatal cause of consciousness.

The fundamental problem for Cioran was that of consciousness — the mechanism by which we become aware of reality, however one may describe the term. It is with consciousness that we perceive everything: good or bad, pleasure or pain, euphoria or suffering. For Cioran — and many other thinkers throughout the centuries — the human condition tends to bring with it more bad than good.

Short of suicide, there are not many options one can take in order to circumvent the suffocating feeling that often accompanies consciousness. To put a finer point on it, the realization that we will all die one day. This was another problem Cioran had with consciousness: We are well aware of our own mortality — a privilege not delegated to any other species on the planet. In other words, he viewed consciousness as a curse, in part, because we have knowledge of our own eventual destruction.

This is a scary thing.

I am sure the majority of us have engaged with this terror, this fright. It is typically what precedes an existential crisis.

Cioran, however, provides a glimmer of hope in the quote mentioned above. His suggestion is that to avoid the existential angst that so often engulfs us, we must keep busy with tasks in our day-to-day lives. In other words, we must commit to action instead of being overcome by reflection. (The irony of my writing a reflection about not reflecting too much is not lost on me, dear reader.)

I experience the same thing Cioran describes when he says that he does not reflect upon the meaning of the world — or anything at all — when he is in the process of completing a task. When one is hard at work on something, existential angst almost completely dissipates, making it possible to work, study, or take a vacation without a deep feeling of dread.

The issue arises when human beings are given too much time to reflect on the world and their place in it. I am sure if you are reading this right now, you have spent a fair amount of time in reflection — whether that be about what career you want to cultivate for yourself or the kind of philosophy that best describes your own predispositions.

One of the primary ingredients in consciousness which typically exists upstream from existential angst is boredom. The concept and consequence of boredom has been covered by some of the greatest minds throughout history.

The 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkagaard, said of boredom:

Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion.

The 18th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, said of boredom:

Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.

And again:

Boredom is certainly not an evil to be taken lightly: it will ultimately etch lines of true despair onto a face. It makes beings with as little love for each other as humans nonetheless seek each other with such intensity, and in this way becomes the source of sociability.

Cioran would perhaps suggest that we keep busy in whatever staves off boredom and our existential search for meaning. This means stepping away from mindlessly scrolling through social media or spending too much time in silence without actually doing anything. Though many self-help gurus out there suggest that we create quiet time throughout our daily lives, it could, paradoxically, backfire — fanning the flames of a mind all too ready to descend into despair and anguish.

This is precisely what Cioran was attempting to get at with his suggestion that we stop searching for meaning in a meaningless worry — something which so often creates the perfect storm of depression and frustration — and instead invest our time in completing tasks by staying busy.

Challenge yourself to cultivate a lifestyle where reflection is downstream from action.

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