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Can Anybody Tell Me...

Posted on 15 Jan | 1 comment
Photo by Nickolai Kashirin.
Photo by Nickolai Kashirin.

80 times a day, or a hundred, or more. Seemed like a million, by the end of a shift. The man with Korsakoff's syndrome repeats the same question over and over, each time forgetting whatever answer he has obtained usually within a few seconds.

Can anybody tell me where I'm at and why I'm here?

We try to be patient with him. Those of us with any patience left, that is. But that same question: can anybody tell me.... Minute after minute, day after day, week after week, month after month. And no ability to learn from experience, to process an answer.

Sometimes we'd try to redirect him. Sometimes we'd try to tell him the ugly truth about the things he'd done, his responsibility. Sometimes we'd tell him what he would have to do to leave and go home. Sometimes we would have to ignore him completely—the ward was busy and other people had needs, too. But answering this one question seemed, at times, everyone's full-time job.

This moment, now, here in this place. This is the ideal for much humanistic, interpersonal, and existential practice. Here was a person with no past and no future, lost in a sea of disconnected moments, each moment the same. The same thought, the same question, the same worry, the same pain. Joy in the moment requires that the moment sometimes change, that there is something to experience in the here and now that will stay with us. Events we can learn from, and the capacity for that learning.

Can anybody tell me...

Like the rest of us, he'd get angry if you reflected that question back. Nobody can tell you where you are. Where do you think you are? Nobody can tell you why you're here (although some folks have some ideas and are eager to share them with you). Why do you think you are here? He doesn't mean the question this way. No deep philosophic pondering for him, not when each new moment is so confusing, disjointed.

Yalom, citing Nietzsche, likes to wonder how you would respond if some entity told you that you would have to relive the same life, unchanged, over and over again for eternity. He wishes you would live a life that would make this sentence a blessing, and he knows for many of us it would be a curse. What if that whole repeated life were thrown out, lost, forgotten? What if you awoke to just one moment—the present moment—time after time, with no memory of how you got there?

In a real sense, this was a person with no identity. To a large extent, who we are is what we remember. we learn operantly, classically, socially, cognitively, intrinsically, autobiographically, and all these memories make up the neural pathways and networks that are us. These are our thoughts and feelings, intuitions and instincts. When we ask ourselves why we are here, we can reflect on the question and remember that reflection, grow into the question without needing an answer. Our memory helps us adapt to the current situation. Context makes it comprehensible.

…where I'm at and why I'm here?

Sometimes he can be coaxed into listening to his Walkman. We give him tapes from the times he can remember, music he knows, and he calms down for a while. It's the Eagles, Night Ranger, Rush. Now he knows something. He still does not know why he is here, how he came to be here, where here is—but these no longer seem like pressing questions. He has found some degree of flow.

The meaning of life is not always in the answers to questions (why?) but often found merely in a life that is meaningful. Playing with my kid, reading him stories, fishing, a good hamburger, teaching a class—these are all things I can get lost in for a time. The meaning of my life? I don't know. What makes my life —meaningful? That's easier to answer. Is that a fitting answer to the question? He couldn't comprehend such an answer, but he could sit quietly and listen to some old rock-and-roll when all else had failed him.

-- Jason Dias

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Comments and Discussions

Nice face-off: Korsakoff

Nice face-off: Korsakoff versus Zen. Seekers of “the now” reject the “illusory” past and future in favor of an idyllic present moment. Yet, as you suggest, without context the present moment may be more disorienting and frightening than enlightening. Perhaps enlightenment is not a temporal destination as much as a state of mind in which worries and regrets fade and appreciation for life’s flow grows. Very enjoyable post.

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