Existential Thought

The Makings of a Spiritual Agnostic

Existential Thought

Ever since I was very young I can recall being exhaustingly contemplative. I seemed to always be wondering about things that didn’t concern most other kids my own age. I felt the need to know the nature of our maker and our role in the universe. Was God just lonely and, on a whim, decided to create the universe, all of the stuff floating in it, and us just so that he would have some companionship? With an infinite imagination the size of God’s, couldn’t he think up something better than us with all of our imperfections and self-righteous biases?

These thoughts led me away from a very religious childhood that was full of Sunday morning and evening worship services and Wednesday evening Bible studies. My family were Pentecostals and they were very much a group of Bible literalists. To them, if the Bible said it, it happened! The Bible was the absolute word of God and, to dispute it was tantamount to blasphemy! To think as I did... to inquire about things that they considered answered by the His holy word was a treasonous act that was placed into my mind by the father of all lies... none other than the Devil!!! Prayers were often whispered to myself for God to get the devil out of my mind and, instead, to think as God wanted me to.

Although my existential thoughts continued and matured into my adolescence, I still remained a spiritual person. I wouldn’t say religious by any stretch but certainly spiritual. I personally prefer the tag of agnostic over atheist. I’ve always found atheism to be just as arrogant and annoying as religious zealousness!! I still prayed and I still do to this day. Now, in my teens, I began to experiment with psychedelics to see if they could somehow become a key to expand my spiritual knowledge of the universe that I occupy. At this stage, I started feeling more alienated from my peers because I felt deeply that thinking and obsessing over the nature of being was a part of who we all should be, while everyone else just seemed to want to simply be. They were all getting high for a good time but I was on a journey to find God and ask the tough questions. I started to create philosophical thought experiments that I started sharing with my friends. I would think up scenarios such as imagining myself as just a static point within the endlessly vast vacuum of space. I would imagine that there was no other matter to use as a point of reference to judge my own size within this infinite and never-ending, empty vacuum. Then I would think of how large I must be... or was it infinitely small... wait! ... it would have to be both, right? In this thought experiment, I came to the conclusion that I would be infinitely small and infinitely large at exactly the same time since there would be no other point of reference. I then, logically, applied that same thought experiment to all matter since it is also finite just like me and is also a static point floating in the nothing. This meant that everything that exists in space has no definite size and is infinite on both of the scales of largeness and infinite smallness. This thought experiment is completely useless to living a normal life and yet it thoroughly interested me... enveloped me. To some of my friends, I had become a guru of existential thought and it was a role that I enjoyed. Without continuing further down that rabbit hole, you can imagine where all of this contemplative, existential thought can lead. I spent more time being high and being internal and now drinking on top of it than I did being social and girls, for the most part, just didn’t get it. Finally, I found my wife...or did she find me... I don’t know but either way I was found and glad to be distracted from my self torture. Now I could torture someone else!

I can recall a time, after my wife and I had our first half-decent apartment and our girls were just toddlers, where I was home alone and went back to sit on our rear patio facing the wooded hill behind the complex. I began thinking about the process of thinking and about how I can hear my own voice in my own head. Keep in mind that, at this stage in life, I’m no longer taking LSD so this is just an average Tuesday. Anyway, I started concentrating on the premise of self awareness and what that meant to me. The question arose in my mind... “How do we unequivocally know that we really exist?” I know what you’re probably thinking....We feel, we think, we hurt, we smell things... I get it. Well... that thought left my head and then I started pondering seeing through my eyes. I started really concentrating on thinking in the first person. I started to feel like I was imprisoned in my body. I felt as though I should be able to be in all things and that being contained within this vessel of flesh and bone, with the knowledge that I’ll never be anything physically more than this, began to overwhelm me. I found it to be unnatural that I was seeing through my eyes. It felt very strange suddenly that I couldn’t see myself in the third person. I suddenly found that I wasn’t breathing and was beginning to have an anxiety attack. I was causing myself real anxiety now and began to realize that it’s perfectly fine to just exist sometimes without the constant search for the ultimate truth. It’s also okay to think and ponder as long as you’re not driving yourself crazy...and I was doing just that.

Mortality... Could this be why I’ve always thought like this?

Now, in my middle age, I’m able to put things into more perspective. You see... my mother and father separated and divorced when I was six years old and my sister would have been eight. We didn’t see much of my dad after he left with my stepmother when he was supposed to be headed to a prayer meeting (disillusionment with religion much?). Those details are for another story. After mom and dad were divorced, my sister and I would stay with my grandparents on my father’s side sometimes during the summers so they would have time to see us. My earliest memories were of my grandparents as caretakers of a funeral home in rural West Virginia. I was always surrounded by the dead. I would go to work with my grandfather and there would be bodies laid out in the four parlor rooms. The place was palatial and I could roam around on my own after all of the mourners had gone home before locking up. I pushed the boundaries of my fear of the dead there while also coming to the very stark realization that I would, unavoidably, be one of them some day. I think that this and my experience with religion in it’s fatalistic nature may have planted the seeds of my journey in existentialism. I’ve come to recognize that we have finite time to exist here and nobody, as much as they’d love to tell you that they do, has the answers. The one thing, besides death, that we all have in common is our inability to ever know the answer to the question “why?”. I would hope that this fact would somehow bring us closer together. The thought that we all know the same amount about how or why we’re here certainly should but our egos keep that from happening and, as I said earlier, you would think that God would have had a better imagination.

Russ Burchell pictured above

Fast-forward to today and I’m still very much the same, philosophically, minus the stress. I have my wife and three teenage girls that tend to keep me too busy to have my head in the clouds. My family keeps me healthily grounded and, I’m at peace with where I am in our wonderful and miraculous universe. I just want to enjoy it with the people and pets that I love while I’m here, instead of always dissecting it to only be assaulted with more internal questions. I hope that some of what I’ve written here can help someone else to let it be a little more and to balance the thoughts with our current reality. Live, love, and be happy.

Russ Burchell
Russ Burchell
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Russ Burchell

I’m a father, a husband, a guitarist, and a unified communications technologist... I would like to think that I am all of those things in that specific order. Now I’m trying freelance writing and just writing about what I know.

See all posts by Russ Burchell