Today I went to pick up a new pair of eyeglasses. Every time I have ever worn a new pair of specs, something very interesting happens, regardless of whether my prescription changes. I put the glasses on, and everything looks clearer, at first. Then I get up to walk away, and the world appears slightly out of proportion. The clarity is still apparent, but I have not made the adjustment yet.
In addition, I struggle to find the frames that I believe are either most flattering or representative of my true nature. It took me a good hour to choose the two frames I did (one set of frames was free with the coupon I had). Due to the limitations of availability for the free set of frames, I was frustrated and finally settled on the recent, thick-framed retro glasses that are so popular these days. My other frames were more understated, just how I like it. Still, I wore the thick frames home to see if I could get used to the new look. It’s not that the glasses looked bad on me. It’s what they represented: the conforming to noncomformity trend that I’ve evaded since I was 19 and joined a punk rock band. I was criticized by one of my bandmates for not dressing “punk rock” enough, and I somehow felt that my hippy broom skirt and little white Keds were more true to my individuality than any fire engine red hair dye would be. That’s not what punk rock meant to me. On a more contemporary note, it is the “hipster” trend I am avoiding. Today, I changed my frames and wondered if this would change “me.” I looked in the mirror one final time, and the secret hipster inside of me let out a Tom Slick “yayyyyyyyy,” fecund with snarky indifference. I was not enthusiastic. But maybe a little more honest with myself? Could I have an inner hipster? I did just quote Tom Slick.
I proceeded to walk out of the eyeglasses shop down a stone, spiral staircase towards the parking lot. The curves and angles of the stairs looked crooked. I felt as if I were Alice in Wonderland (and oddly, my mother told me when I was young that Alice was my avatar—one of the rare instances when she was on to something). Colors were more vivid, the delineation of objects was so seemingly “exact,” and I recalled the first time I wore glasses when a good friend of mine said: “you will suddenly notice every leaf on every tree.” Once again today, I did notice every leaf on every tree, and yet the world still felt “warped.” Funny thing is, this was a new and improved prescription. So why did I feel like I was on a mild acid trip?
How does this all relate to crisis? This experience today reminded me of something I noticed in early September after a recent crisis ensued in my life. A very important relationship changed in a way that created bereavement, and thus, I embarked on a trip to Burning Man with one of my dearest friends who I’d known since high school, grieving, confused, and yet determined to glean some value from my experience in the desert with tens of thousands of other people who forge into unfamiliar and challenging living conditions. Collectively, people allow the lines to become less delineated. Paradoxically, things somehow become clearer for many of us, and we try to take that feeling back to what we call our “default world.”
While there in the midst of loss, my extremely dynamic range of emotions was congruent with the dynamic range of experiences I had on my excursion. I felt great joy at times, deep and cathartic sorrow, outrage, fear, sexual attraction and playfulness, and the unpredicated curiosity that transformed into the verb of my present life. My sight was challenged. One evening, my friend and I walked back from the temple through a white-out storm to our tent, and at one point, I thought I may have to crawl, eyes spotting with confused disorientation. My brain could not fill in the blanks. Still, my friend and I filled in the blanks in our tent. Due to limited space and horrible weather conditions that persisted throughout the night, we turned on the radio and had a “torso rave.” It was fun as hell.
On my last day there, as I was riding my bike about and looking for people to say goodbye to, I noticed the same phenomenon that I had described in the context of putting on my new eyeglasses today. Now, I know what some may be thinking (she’s at Burning Man), but I assure you that no hallucinogenic drugs were ingested. Still, I was in a very new place in my personal life. Something and someone familiar had been removed, and suddenly I was forced to experience the world in a new way. Everything felt slightly warped, vivid, delineated, and vibrated more apparently on a micro and macro level. I felt as if somebody had crawled through my ear, all over my brain, down my spine and into my nerve endings with their little hammers, and they were pounding out the dents, spray-painting the walls with graffiti, and polishing the dust off the furniture of my interior world. It was drastically affecting my experience of the exterior world. I literally thought, “My reality has changed so much this week. Could it be that my nervous system is currently rewiring itself to make space for a new paradigm, i.e., a new way of experiencing life? Perhaps an experience that is a little bit closer to the inaccessible truth than I was previously?” I think I may have made my way a little bit further down Plato’s Cave, closer to the shadows, but also closer to the light.
I then realized that this is not the first time I’ve felt this way. I’ve had many crises in my life, and each time, I had this uncanny experience in which a certain layer of existence emerged that I did not previously have access to. I remember after high school, I decided to give up alcohol completely. I noticed that the world felt brighter and more invigorating, akin to jumping into a cold river. I also remember after the 9/11 attacks, going to see Caroline Casey give a talk in Fairfax, and in the midst of that my immense fear at hearing a plane fly overhead, I also looked around at the flowers and lamplight, and thought the world to be so remarkably beautiful. After my divorce, one day I took a break from a work-related drive and sat by the bay in Sausalito, staring down in wonder through the rocks at the crabs. The world had opened itself up to me a little more with each giving up, loss, or threat. With each exposure to fear and pain, my exposure to beauty and peace was also exponentially increased.
It is this very kind of feeling that gathered me into a love for existentialism. I was reading Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and taking a serious inventory of the way I was living my life. Becker is noteworthy for his remarkable exploration of death anxiety and our avoidance of this, as well as what happens when we allow ourselves to come so close to the concept of our own mortality, and the wonder that ensues from that humility. Imagine reading this while thousands have just died as a result of planes being deliberately flown into skyscrapers by religious zealots. I was terrified. Still, by allowing the severity of my pain in, I was also allowing my vision to clear more. The oddity of seeing more beauty by allowing myself to see the danger and heinousness of the world also deepened me. If visceral experience had eyes, I had come that much closer to 20-20 vision.
Putting on a new pair of eyeglasses is a result of eyes that are damaged. Adversely, it is the so-called damage done to our psyches that does just the opposite, if we let it. Perhaps our way of seeing is more like kittens who are born with their eyelids sealed shut. Could we be like kittens, spending our entire lives slowly opening our eyes, trying to increase our external and internal visibility beyond the illusions that hold us back, most likely, the illusions of who we are and what is possible for us, but also who we think other people are and what the world is like? Maybe we become like geckos, our vision taking on a panoramic view. As we begin to see a more whole picture that includes a more whole world and cosmos, we become more whole because we are allowing this in. I suspect that everything is a ghost limb, to some degree, felt because it is missed, but energetically right there. After all, how separate is all of this from our “self,” really? Perhaps this is one of the lovely results of tragedy. We are not exempt of this world. Crisis can remind us that we are a part of everything, and that “insight” is beautiful.
Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: The Free Press.
— Candice Hershman