Photography, Essays, Poetry and Video by Grant Wei, Copyright 2018
CIGARETTES AFTER SEX
I met her on Tinder. An artificial construct in a sea of other artificial constructs.
Her expression carries an air of reticence, but not because of any recent tragic events in her life. Expressions defining human qualities such as a love, happiness, sadness and despair have no meaning to her. An illusion of purpose, created with the sole purpose of generating a distraction from the overwhelming emptiness underpinning our existence. She derives more meaning from sex and drugs, represented through condoms and cigarettes.
Overwhelmed with a sense of existential angst, we must ask ourselves a simple question:
What is the point of it all?
What justifies the simple act of living when our existence is devoid of any inherent meaning that gives us purpose? If our existence driven by external validators dependent on factors largely outside of our control, are we even living at all? Are we not just acting on instinct?
Drugs and sex, igniting the flames of our existence at the expense of our vitality, create a sense of freedom. Acting as short distractions from a void of emptiness, the pursuits of simple pleasures give her an illusion of purpose to an otherwise purposeless existence. And sometimes, an illusion is all we want.
The emotions intertwine with each other, as one does not exist without the others. Happiness decays into sadness in the face of a series of stochastic circumstantial events, and vice versa. Love constantly suspends at the border between obsession and infatuation. And despair…exists, constantly.
To live is to struggle with questions of existence. But sometime, we can derive some solace in the absurd. The shoe on the hand, the backwards cigarettes, a diary filled with condoms — how quaint. A sense of incongruity defiant against a seemingly deterministic universe.
“I shall go on shining as a brilliantly meaningless figure in a meaningless world.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned
do tell —
shimmering like a
oh, you did?
i’m happy for you
i was doing
i didn’t ask
if you liked
i need air
i forgot my
External validation. How cute.
A sense of profound bitterness derived from some intrinsic human nature to resent. It’s human, along with the other negative aspects of personality that make humans, humans. It comes with angst and passion, intermingled together in a disgusting amalgamation to hide the sense of hallow consternation behind the red curtain of living with purpose. A journey with no end. Life defined as an endless stream of goals with no foreseeable end. One goal leading to another goal leading to another goal leading to another goal. A sense of direction to distract from the empty reality that is devoid of some concept of innate meaning or purpose.
Things work out for some people. Things don’t work out for others. A sharp dichotomy that splits the world between the people who have it and the people who don’t. A series of stochastic illogical givens in the world that catalyze a series of actions and reactions to propel us through a desolate existence to a desolate conclusion devoid of any greater significance. Some people are born with a natural predisposition to depression. Some people are born with loving parents and a warm home. Some people are born with a sense of purpose and direction. Some people are born. Some are not.
I wonder where I would fall on that spectrum. I wonder if my problems are even considered to be problems at all. In so many ways, I have been privileged to have what so many people would only dream to have. I go to college, where I can take time out of my day to ponder useless questions that most people would consider a waste of time. I can, with exceptions, buy most of the clothes and food and accessories that I want without significant financial hardship. I have loving friends and inspiring professors and the absence of any sort of traumatic event in my life. But, despite everything that I have, I constantly wonder if it means anything.
Because it’s not funny. It’s so not funny that I laugh at how not funny it is. Because there’s nothing I would otherwise do with my life. What am I doing with my life, anyway? Existing? Trying to occupy my time as much as possible distract myself from the emptiness underpinning my existence? What a funny thought.
What’s the point in doing anything if nothing matters in the end? To live and progenate? To maximize my own personal happiness? To make an impact on others? Maybe, I guess. What else should I live for other than to conform to societal expectations of productivity and purpose? I mean, I can’t spend all day laughing at how pointless everything is.
I wonder if anything in my life is real. And, if so, what is worth fighting for. If I lost it all, would I even mind? What does it even mean when I say that I exist? What about me, actually exists? Why am I so sure that there is something about me that makes me distinctly me? I could argue that my life is just a series of predetermined life events which are the result of other life events. Isn’t that a normal way to think?
When I read an article about a convicted murderer with a violent upbringing, I oftentimes am overwhelmed with a sense of pity, as opposed to contempt. Sure, their upbringing doesn’t excuse their actions. Murder isn’t one of those things that can be excused the same way a child can be excused for taking a cookie out of the cookie jar. But like a child helping themselves to a gelatinous globule of warm cookie dough. But how much choice did they really have? It’s all just one event leading to the next event leading to the next event. A series of vague inclinations that propel actions leading to other actions into more vague inclinations. And so it goes.
What we consider living is really just instinct. A series of feelings and emotions to guide us to the next set of feelings and emotions. We create a distinction between humans and animals, but are we really different from the beasts we argue act on instinct? Critical thinking, allegedly, is what separates humans from their animalistic counterparts. But what does that really even mean? That we think? Yes, we think. We think about more than simply finding food or water. We think about what types of romantic partners we want or what careers to dedicate our lives to. We think about what it means to live and reflect on our past. But does that make our lives more meaningful than that of an animal?
Like animals, we are guided by one action to the next. If a lion is hungry, it will go out to hunt. And while a meaty gazelle could satisfy its hunger for a few hours, it will, once again, go out to hunt when it is hungry again. Likewise, if we are hungry, we check the fridge for hot pockets. And we will keep on checking the fridge for hot pockets until one day, we discover that we have run out of hot pockets. Once we run out of hot pockets, we will wander into a nearby Fresh Grocer in search for more hot pockets. And repeat. While a lion may never contemplate its existence relative to the universe, it is still guided by the same instinctual drives caused by a series of arbitrary enzymes in the body that also drive us to live day by day.
What about me — my personality, my accomplishments, my friends — is actually the result of my efforts? Which parts of me are actually the result of my existence as opposed to me, once again, succumbing to the whims of my feelings and desires? I could pinpoint a series of three events in my life that have caused me to become the person I am today. Three rejections in my life that I consider to have developed a vast majority of my personality. Three arbitrary events due to decisions largely outside of my own control to dictate the person I will become. Some of those events have made me into a better person. Some haven’t. But my question is, where do I fit into my own life?
Where do I get a conscious choice to decide the personality that I want to have or the friends I want to spend time with or the interests I want to pursue? There is nothing about my personality that I consciously created. Except as aggregate collection of my experiences and thoughts, my personality does not mean anything at all. When am I free from the instinct and external validators that seem to guide me from one action to the next action to the next action? Where, in my own life, am I living?
Even my preferences are reflective of a series of circumstantial life events that elicit some sort of permanent response. My love for writing comes from a quote found on the internet. Start a journal, said some stranger in some random internet forum. And so I did. I opened a Google Docs and scribbled down some undeveloped thoughts because I was curious how I would reflect on my life 10 years down the line. And that’s how my journal started. Somewhere along the line, my 12th grade AP Literature teacher said she liked my writing. External validation. Some things happened in between. And now, I’m an English major. All from a quote on the internet, followed by a series of circumstantial life events.
And that’s just something I can trace. Most of my personality, I can’t.
My friends are largely the result of people I spend my time with. Sometimes, I consciously create opportunities to see people in my life through lunch or studying or something. Sometimes, I just walk into my ECON class without needing to plan anything. And the cycle repeats. One class here. Another dinner there. The more time I spend with people, the more intimate I become with them. And then, sometime along the way, I stop considering them to be strangers and incorporate their existences into my monthly routine of actions and reactions. And then, further along, their existence becomes tied to my identity. And while I would consider some my friends to be the result of my choices (and some of my friends to be circumstantial), I can never say that any of my choices are conscious choices.
Nothing lasts. Not friends, not memories, not accomplishments. Everything I treasure right now will disappear in a couple of years. My friends and I will move to different cities and go on living our separate lives. We would promise to never lose touch, fervently asserting the connectivity we have been afforded by our readily available technology. We would start by FaceTiming weekly, always with a new update in our lives. New friends. New lovers. We would visit each other annually to feel each other’s warm embrace once again. Nothing that could quite replace the intimacy that we knew to be irreplaceable.
But then, those weekly FaceTime sessions would turn into monthly phone calls, usually spurred by a sense of boredom on the commute back from work. Still casual. Then, in some unknown moment in the future, the contents of the phone call stop being about casual life events like wild dates and aggravating coworkers but more about catching up. We would still joke about those wild nights we had in college, but even those memories would fade eventually. Our friendship, we would claim, would be impervious to distance and time, as if a couple years of circumstantial events could create something resistance to the whims of time and space. But even that, in time, will fade.
The time between the phone calls vary. Sometimes, it would be a couple of weeks. After all, we had lives outside our monthly phone calls. We still went on dates with people we wanted to spend time with. We still watched the next season of Stranger Things in a mutual friend’s living room surrounded by Lay’s sour cream chips and a pitcher of distilled water. We still spent time looking up at our bedroom ceilings pondering the what ifs in our lives. But then, sometime later, “a couple of weeks” would be an inadequate phrase to describe the time between our phone calls. We would make new friends, new lovers, and we would spend all of our time with them as opposed to a voice on the other end of an invisible line.
After some more time, those phone calls we prided ourselves to be the cornerstone of our long-distance friendship would stop being something we thought about. Our lives would move on; college, in its entirety, would just be a distant memory. In fact, the only time we would ever think of each other is when we see a life event on Facebook, assuming that Facebook would still be a thing of the future. A marriage, perhaps. We would call, once again, and act as if things were just the same when we were two insecure teenagers living recklessly in college. Things would be different, but that would be okay. It’s natural. It’s what everyone experiences, so it must be okay.
Then, one day, one of those yearly phone calls would be the last phone call. We would laugh, together, at our stupid college selves before clicking the red phone icon located, wherever it would be 30 or 40 years from now, one last time. From then on, no new memories would be created. The only glue holding the tenuous connection of intimacy and loyalty derives from a set of fading memories. Some thoughts that wander into consciousness here and there. Maybe, we would reminisce the summer trip we took to somewhere far away when we drop off our kids at summer camp. Maybe, we would remember our first friends in college when we help our kids through the college application process. Maybe, we would think about our friends even when we stop talking.
But then we die, and the memories stop.
Once again, we fade back into nothingness. Any memory of us will fade. All of our accomplishments, all of the cherished memories that we had created, all aspects of our identity will return to the nothingness that incepted our existence. And then, when our existence is finally extinguished, will we know the true meaning of impermanence.
About The Author: Grant Wei is a Sophomore enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020.