Big Bend is one of the darkest places in the nation. Deep in the bowels of west Texas, the national park’s unique lack of light pollution results in breathtaking night skies. It’s rare that we escape civilization for the sake of indulging in nature’s artwork “” part of this is probably due to culturally embedded Fear of Missing Out, and the consequential risks involved with leaving town for a weekend “” but it’s mostly because we’ve been raised in artificial lighting to the extent that we don’t really appreciate the soul-striking power of a star-filled sky.
A true night sky, untainted by man’s progress, can create an interesting sensory fusion of solitude and connection. This fusion’s existence within American individuals is approaching extinction due to our increasingly solipsistic culture. We have become too easily attracted to the idea that we are the center of the universe, a concept that may have a perpetually platitudinous effect at this juncture due to its incessant commonality. It’s something we’ve heard from parents, coaches, professors and politicians since we were old enough to retain it. But, like most clichés, its seemingly empty propagation from these frustrated parties doesn’t make it any less significant. We simply need to make a real effort to better understand the implications a solipsistic mindset has on our lives and our society’s well being.
How can we understand that solipsism is an issue if it becomes too firmly entrenched as our reality “” as a natural function of being a human person? That is something we must be conscious of as we seek to define the term. In philosophical realms, solipsism is considered to be the view that there exists only oneself. In our society, this philosophy, once thought of as a potential means for ascertaining a transcendent truth, has been relegated to the unnamed director lying beneath our day-to-day actions, including in the way we treat our fellow man. Millennials especially exist in this self-designed cocoon of what psychologists call “grandiose narcissism,” where we cannot help but to see other human beings in one of two ways: as a vehicle to the place you want to go, or an obstacle between you and that place. Typically that place is one we believe can fulfill us, through the greater absorbing of pleasure and power, and therefore happiness and purpose.
It’s interesting to reflect on how this could be some sort of gross distortion of the now hackneyed American dream. It was once a beloved idea based on our original countrymen’s hopeful usurpation of the centuries-old worldwide norm that freedom from controlling elites was simply not a part of this life. It was an idealistic aspiration, that in this land, inhabitants could pursue a life fully separated from corrupt elites, while in the presence of a loving, giving community dedicated to humanity’s flourishing. That is, in order for this dream to work for everyone, a purpose of equal prominence to your own search for free happiness need be admitted “” the free happiness of your fellows. This part of the deal seems to have gradually been etched out of the American mindset, replaced with an upgraded dream of self-fulfillment. David Foster Wallace said this:
“It may sound reactionary, I know. But we can all feel it. We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries “” we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie.”
Why exactly have we transitioned over time from being a people able to comprehend the sheer magnitude of the realization that we share this life with men and women who wake up each morning with incredibly similar hopes, dreams, faiths and desires as our own? When did we begin choosing to honor ourselves most intentionally, and develop the coping mechanism of self-worship? Perhaps it was somewhere along the path where we decided we didn’t need a creator in order to explain our purpose. The random jumble of atoms you see in the mirror could thusly become its own master. Perhaps, then, seeing others for what they are “” tools we can use to mold our own worlds where we alone reign supreme “” is merely the next step in evolution.
Most of us who struggle with solipsism can see it for what it is. It’s easier than truly knowing and loving others, and at the end of the day we believe it makes us feel better. But the apathetic monster it creates is inevitably revealed beneath the outwardly beautiful, competent mask. The weight of loneliness and shame can crush this narrowed perspective, although some are more resilient to their moral conscience than others (see: Donald Trump). Inevitably, the crumbling mass of self-doubt and hopelessness, complimented by a lack of true connection to others, is made evident.
Many of the kings and queens of solipsism, men and women Americans look up to, provide textbook examples of this phenomenon’s existence that can be followed in the New York Times, on Facebook or in one of those ridiculous magazines you see in the checkout line at H-E-B. Those so concerned with filling themselves up mistake lust for love, pleasure for meaning and superiority for influence. I’m sure there are several names that come to mind. An escape back to reality will seem more and more impossible, as it risks exposing our true selves to a world we’ve only exploited, but never quite understood.
The Lumineers popularized a compelling lyric in their 2012 album: “The opposite of love’s indifference.” When I first heard it, my mind jumped to the juvenile conclusion that their main point is to illustrate that “hate” is not as polarized from love as one may assume “” especially with regards to romantic relationships.
“Wow, how insightful,” I thought, patting myself on the back for choosing such a deep band to listen to on that particular road trip. Maybe that was their main point. But considering how indifferent solipsism makes us to the search for universal truths, truths we can share across national, socioeconomic and cultural boundaries, we are confronted with the disheartening idea that a self-first culture without communal and relational obligations is one no longer concerned with really loving truth or the people around us. It is frightening how indifferent we have become, sacrificing solitude and connection for self-fulfillment.
Markham Sigler is a senior Chinese studies and international studies double major. He’s also the sports editor for the Trinitonian.