Philosophy Meets Real Life

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by Marc Piane

I used to think of philosophy as calisthenics for the brain muscle. Kind of like jumping jacks are good for your heart. Doing rhetorical donuts in the proverbial parking lot. You don’t really get anywhere, but you have fun and make a lot of noise while you’re doing it. It used to be a sport for me to go to a class or discussion and argue the devil’s advocate position, just because. I can bullshit with the best of them. Then something happened. On Feb. 28, 2003 I was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required emergency surgery. It was a Friday afternoon. I had a gig. It is the only gig I have ever missed. I was immediately put into neuro ICU after a CT scan revealed the news. The surgery was scheduled for Monday, March 3. In the next couple days I had a lot of time to think. I was 28 at the time so I was still invincible, but I was being confronted with my own mortality. An interesting thing happens when forced like this. It makes you evaluate whether you really believe all the shit that has been coming out of your mouth.

As I’ve said before, I am allergic to -isms or probably more accurately, dogma. For this reason identifying with any particular school of thought or religion is impossible for me to do. In my mind religion, philosophy, mysticism, etc. are, at the core, the same thing dressed in different clothes. For that reason, I’ve always been more drawn to philosophies that entertain modes of inquiry rather than absolutes. Basically investigating methods of HOW to think rather than concrete ideas of WHAT to think. My general axiom is that knowledge is based on experience and that it is our mission to test that knowledge with more experience. By that, any of the aforementioned knowledge is subject to constant revision through critical thinking. I like to think about the essential structures of experience for me, but realize that any attempt to use them to seek the meaning of life is a futile endeavor. In the words of Camus, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” We each make our own meaning. I like to try to reframe all of my thought through the lens of E-prime, a formulation of language that attempts to remove “is” and acknowledges the subjective nature of perception. I also try to live my most authentic life and strongly believe that our existence precedes our essence and we are constantly building who we are.

I’m sure you read all of that and caught the inherent contradiction in my allergy. The irony is not lost on me. The overarching concept that this all filters through in my mind is called generalized agnosticism, the belief that nothing is truly knowable and everything is up for debate. An anti-ism -ism? I believe our buddy Socrates was onto something a couple thousand years ago when he said, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.” When put in a situation where the outcome truly isn’t knowable, it tests that belief. In talking to the surgeon I was told the possible outcomes. They were widely varied and had many degrees of severity. They were all maybes. Since nothing is truly knowable, that idea was about to be tested.

Then I started to think empirically and pragmatically. What do I know? Well, I knew I was in a good hospital and under the care of a doctor that specialized in the surgery I needed. I knew I had the support and love of my amazing family and friends. I knew that recovery would take work, but I was fit and strong. The pragmatist in me also told me that I had to trust in these things. I needed a surgery and I was in the best possible local hospital for the procedure. Statistics were on my side. A key part of trying to think pragmatically is that conceptions have to be tested in human experience. I guess I was a pragmatist’s test subject.

I’ve always believed that our life choices in some way influence where we end up. But how had my life choices brought me to emergency brain surgery? It was difficult to see how my life choices manifested in an actual tumor. It was the classic ’why me?’ that I had poo-pooed as a pointless question in the past. More wheel spinning. Now it was in my head. Y’all can discuss that part if you want. What I knew was this. My choices had me living miles from one of the best hospitals around. My Greek friend said that if I was living in Greece I’d have to fly to London for the same surgery. I knew that the choices I had made surrounded me with amazing friends and family. I knew that the surgeon had made choices in his life that brought him to Chicago and made him one of the most respected in his field. I also believed that existence precedes essence and my essence had turned into quite the stubborn ass. If I didn’t die, I knew I could ‘fuck you’ my way back to health.

I don’t think I ever really had an idea of heaven as sitting on a fluffy cloud playing the lyre. I was raised religious, but also as a critical thinker. In my college years an agnosticism made more sense to me. It is a personal journey for everyone and I suppose some people might have had a ‘come to religion’ moment when confronted with their own mortality. Because of the things I mentioned above my agnosticism turned generalized. My mind also decided that the ‘what if’ part wasn’t important. I was here and there was work to be done. This really had nothing to do with a notion of god, gods, or lack thereof. This had to do with me putting trust in the people around me and keeping a positive mindset.

I remember staying pretty upbeat in the 2 days that preceded the actual surgery. They were full of tests and prep, but I managed to keep an air of wonder as I got an angiogram and watched the veins in my head light up on a screen. I remember thinking how cool MRI technology was as I watched my doctor zoom through a digital image of my brain with his mouse. I remember feeling reassured by the calm and business-like manner of the surgeon. I remember the love and support of my friends and family. I was trying to stay in the moment and keep my mind off the ‘what if’ thoughts. The only time I cried prior to surgery was one night, when everyone had gone home, my mind had a moment to really process the vast amounts of stimulus coming at me in a very short period of time. It just became too over-whelming and no amount of rationalizing helped. It was time for a visceral surrender. It was also a transformational moment.

The surgery was very early in the morning. I remember feeling anxious, but my family was with me and soon I was given medication to relax me. The strange thing about anesthesia is that apparently one of the drugs they give you makes you forget. The surgery was 15 hours and I can’t even imagine the eternity that felt like to people in the waiting room. For me it was instantaneous. I was counting down from ten with a mask over my face and then I was awake. It later made me think about the chemistry set that is our brain, but that’s a topic of another essay.

When I woke up from the surgery I was in a haze. I knew that I woke up, which I was grateful for, but I was on a blurry morphine induced cloud. I remember my wife and parents squeezing my hand. I remember choking on an intubation tube. I remember a line of staples in the back of my head. I remember the whir of the MRI machine. I remember the nurse putting on smooth jazz and my dad telling her to turn it off. I remember being in pain. I remember not being able to move.

For the next couple weeks I lie in a hospital bed. Many of my amazing friends and my loving family were there. I had a picture of my infant daughter taped to my bed because she was too young to come visit. Soon I came home. Recovery was hard and took years. Right out of surgery I couldn’t walk. I had to relearn balance. I was now one vestibular nerve short (we have 2) as a result of the surgery. It started with a short walk down the hall. Then around the block. Then around the neighborhood. I laughed and I cried as I started to find my new normal. But an interesting thing happened. Those mental calisthenics. They stopped being just jumping in place. Having my world view and how I fit into it challenged put a whole new perspective on what I believe. All of this as accumulation of experience, of building my reality tunnel, of thinking about how that tunnel had intersected with so many other people’s tunnels, of creating my essence, of living authentically…

It’s not to say there were not challenges, and I’m not talking about just physical challenges. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to do things for myself. This was a real test for me because I had to rely on other people for help. Turns out it is harder ‘fuck you-ing’ your way back to health without help. I just tried to keep my mind focused on the journey, not the destination. I guess it helped that I don’t think the destination is truly knowable. There were so many things that I learned from this experience and so many scary and wonderful moments. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I might just have to write a book. For now I write this essay in honor of 15 years since the surgery.

This experience can definitely be easily framed as a negative, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If the goal in life is to accumulate experience, this was an epic fact finding mission. There was something visceral that I couldn’t put my finger on however. Something that I didn’t have the words to describe until last year when I read Self Comes To Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio. One of the contentions that he makes in the book is that the conventional wisdom that, in order to think rationally you have to suppress emotion, is flawed. He says that, in fact, emotion is an essential part of decision making. How something makes us feel, our gut, aids us in creating our perception of our reality and acts as a compass for self preservation. To me this made so much sense because it got to one of the essential structures of perception that had alluded me. Philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, existence, truth, navel contemplation, a way to end a conversation at a party; but it is almost necessarily an academic endeavor. Something that resides mostly in our head. All of this taught me that there is a visceral understanding of self, other, reality, existence, knowledge, and meaning that no amount of words can describe. Something that resides in the body. Emotion, intuition, our gut, and our visceral understanding of existence acts as a GPS of sorts so that philosophy is no longer about doing rhetorical donuts in the proverbial parking lot, but can be about guiding us down the highway that we each individually are paving every day. (Phew, I wasn’t sure I could pull that metaphor off). Body and mind working together. We each have it. We are all philosophers, even if we choose not to scare people away at parties with our bullshit.

Oh, and I’ll leave with the words of one of my favorite philosophers, Robert Anton Wilson, “Don’t believe fully in anyone else’s B.S. (bullshit/belief system)… and don’t believe totally in your own B.S.”

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