Published on 2023-12-31

There was this moment that stood out to me from back when I was a teenager. I don't really remember all the circumstances around it; those have been lost to time. But I do remember that after it happened, I framed it as "the moment I fully internalized that nothing's real."

"Nothing's real" does feel a lot like a teenager thing to think, or that thing the annoying philosophy student tells you at a party, but I don't think that's literally what I thought at the time. I feel like it was a pretty formative shift in understanding for me, but again, it was a while ago, and I didn't keep good journals at the time. It's hard to say what I was "literally" thinking.

But I think it went something like this:

At the time my major special interest was, like, postmodernism? Or at least the postmodernism I had the stamina to read and understand at the time. Those people really like their big words.

One thing I thought I understood as a core idea of postmodernism, though, was subjectivity. Things were very circumstantial, relative to a particular person. Objectivity is not practical or realistic. This was a huge break from the way I was used to thinking. I mean, if there is a red apple sitting on the table in front of you, as you have perceived it with your eyes, why should you have any reason to doubt that the apple is red? Wouldn't that be the more impractical way of knowing?

Well, the thing is, due to various circumstances in my life, I often find myself surrounded by people telling me that the apple is in fact blue. They too are apparently using their senses to deduce the colour of the apple, but nonetheless, we still can't come to the same conclusion.

Less metaphorically, and more central to what lead me to this shift in understanding, was that I started to realize how I had this conception of myself that few, if anyone at all, shared. The image of who I am as it exists in my head differed in some seriously fundamental ways from that of all the other people in my life. When I tried to tell people "no, actually, that's not who I am; this is!", they didn't believe me. I was stunned. How do you think you know better who I am, than me?

So, what does it mean to be real? To be "objective?"

I don't think I can fully develop that question here, but one way I often like to think about it is that being real means existing outside your own head. But importantly, there's a big difference between "I'm real," as said to myself, and "you're real," as said by someone else to me. The version of me other people experience does in fact exist outside my own head; the version of me that exists in my own head usually does not.

For the lucky, those two "people" are similar enough to one another that it doesn't really matter. For me, it causes a lot of headaches.

I guess you'd call this "anti-solipsism." But I wasn't immune to solipsistic thinking at the time (or today either, all things considered), and I found myself using a similar train of thought to fail to see the "objectivity" of a lot of things I encounter in life. The coalescence of these two problems must have been what drove me to the conclusion that "nothing's real."

But I did want to be real; more than anything.

For a while it was enough to surround myself with people who also believed that I'm real, but that seemed to only make existing in the wider world more difficult. If I was to truly escape the "derealization," then I'd either need to change the circumstances of my life such that most people would think I'm real automatically, or I'd need to find some internal engine of "realness" that'd sustain me on my own. Maybe a bit of both. Probably a bit of both.

I don't think I've resolved that contradiction yet, but I do feel like I've come a long way since then, and I'm a lot happier because of it.

Respond to this article

If you have thoughts you'd like to share, send me an email!

See here for ways to reach out