Descartes’ Demon – Andrew Davie
October 8, 2021
The Astronaut’s Wife is a film with Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron. Theron plays the titular role. I have never seen the movie, but I have seen the trailer, and I believe it’s about Depp’s character, an astronaut, who either becomes possessed or impersonated by an alien during a routine mission. As the movie proceeds, Theron, who portrays the astronaut’s wife from the title, begins to suspect there’s something wrong with her husband since he’s not acting like himself. There’s no need for a spoiler alert because I have no idea whether or not any of the details are accurate.
During the later stage of my recovery from a ruptured brain aneurysm and subarachnoid hemorrhage, my mother confided in me that my brother’s biggest fear was that if I was able to survive, which would be a miracle in its own right, that I wouldn’t be myself. He was concerned my personality might be gone or at least different; essentially, the older brother he had grown up with would have vanished. Naturally, I compared the situation to the plot of The Astronaut’s Wife. However, as I began my recovery, I later discovered my role would be different. I’d be playing the part of the astronaut’s wife. While I was able to retain my personality, it took me a long time to adjust.
Thankfully, most of my physical ailments continue to be nuisances rather than problems, and I’ve incorporated the changes into my daily routine. For example, my vision needs time to settle when I move my head; that’s just a part of life now, and again, fortunately, I don’t get nauseated. The emotional recovery has taken a lot longer, and it has been magnified by the pandemic. Uncertainty with what the future holds for me is sometimes overwhelming. The goals I’d had before the aneurysm either seem unattainable or no longer worthwhile. Therefore it is difficult to be consistently motivated. For example, I had always assumed I would get married or start a family. The recovery has forced me to re-examine this since I have difficulty making emotional connections now. I may or may not be able to have a relationship with someone, and part of the reason it had been difficult to adjust is that there seemed to be little else to make life worth living. Most of the time, I would measure everything against a quotation from the film Into the Wild.
“Happiness is only real when shared.”
At some point, I thought, before the aneurysm, I would meet the right person and be able to truly fulfill the tenet of that quotation. There had been a few serious relationships along the way, but nothing that lasted. I’ve stayed in touch with a few of my former girlfriends; others I haven’t. The other day I tried to find my high school girlfriend, but since she has the same name as the victim in a famous murder case, all the search results pointed me in the wrong direction.
Over time, as I continued to heal, I began to feel more comfortable with uncertainty and remaining open to the idea that there could be an opportunity in the future to make me feel life would be worth living even if it didn’t include any of my previous goals.
However, before I felt comfortable with uncertainty, I looked for answers. As I continued to read philosophy, I learned about The I Ching, The Book of Changes. Wisdom is gleaned from the book through a type of divination, cleromancy, in which the value of tossed coins is added up to create a hexagram. The Hexagram corresponds to a specific section of the book. Essentially you can ask an open-ended question and through the above-mentioned process consult the book for answers. This experience led me to read about the concept of synchronicity. Aside from being the title of a song and an album by the band The Police, it’s also “the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.” For example, the other day I was discussing the song “Funky Cold Medina” with a friend and former colleague via text, and a random person with the Twitter handle Funky Cold Moderna retweeted a tweet in which I’d been mentioned. It had to be more than just a coincidence, right? Jung had been a proponent of the concept of Synchronicity and had written about his experiences consulting The I Ching, so I began to read more of his work. Much of Jung’s work addresses dream interpretation, but I don’t remember 99% of my dreams. It still didn’t stop me from questioning whether the timing and variables involved with my aneurysm had been ordained. The Aneurysm happened while I was on the jetway about to board a plane. Had it occured during any other time that day, I probably wouldn’t have lived. Unfortunately, I can only speculate and examine various probabilities, which, of course, did not stop me from descending this particular rabbit hole.
Once I’d exhausted thinking about the likelihood of everything, I started to question the very fabric of reality. Rene Descartes had, at one point, posited the world as we all know it, is a carefully orchestrated illusion concocted by a malicious demon. I never subscribed to this theory, but I did give it more consideration than I should have. I also questioned whether I was like the character Bruce Willis portrayed in Unbreakable, but I was dissuaded from trying to prove whether that was accurate.
Eventually, I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl about his experiences surviving four concentration camps during World War Two. He suggested meaning in life can be found in multiple ways and reading his book gave me the terminology I had been conscious of but hadn’t identified. It was revelatory and marked a new phase of my recovery. For the first time in a little over three years, I’d felt the closest to myself I had felt since the aneurysm. Uncertainty continues to loom, but it’s not as overwhelming as it had been. To quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost, before had seemed as if there was “no light, but rather darkness visible” whereas now, to quote the band Timbuk 3, “The future’s so bright I’ve gotta wear shades.”