The Infinite Loop and the Authentic Self

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In 2020, if you heard someone mention “Groundhog Day,” it was probably in reference to the movie rather than the bizarre annual tradition the movie was named after. Particularly for those of us who were stuck working from home for most of the year, there was a very Groundhog Day quality to waking up day in and day out to the same routine and having little to no in-person contact with the outside world. But beyond the soul-crushing grind of feeling like one was living the same day over and over again, there was the way it forced some of us–or at the very least myself–to confront the ways in which we were living our lives.

Ultimately, that’s the theme of Groundhog Day and some of the imitators it has spawned, including 2020’s Palm Springs, which was easily my favorite movie of the year despite its reliance on a formula that has become so ubiquitous: when the movie’s protagonist is faced with the Sisyphusian prospect of living the same day over and over again for what may very well be an eternity, it forces him to confront how he has spent his time in the more finite reality outside the loop he has found himself stuck in. When he returns to linear reality outside of that loop, he does so having learned a valuable lesson about himself and what really matters to him.

But that doesn’t happen until the movie’s third act, of course. Before then, there’s the fall. For both Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day and Andy Samberg’s character in Palm Springs, that means a period of unrestrained hedonism followed by equally unrestrained nihilism. With the knowledge that there are no long-term consequences for their actions–after all, all of reality resets at the end of the day–they are free to do whatever they want, up to and including lying, cheating, stealing, casual (and in Samberg’s case, experimental) sex, and light murder. For a while, that freedom is liberating and fun. Eventually, though, the novelty wears off and the nihilism sets in. As a result, both characters repeatedly attempt suicide in increasingly novel and graphic ways, only to wake up again the next day to the same numb, banal existence of living the same day over and over.

Over the past year, I had a somewhat similar experience, although it was far less dramatic than the aforementioned movies. With no one else around most of the time, nowhere to go, and not much to do beyond work, I did what a lot of people have done over the course of the pandemic: I played a ridiculous amount of video games. How much? Well, look at this handy graphic Nintendo sent me showing the difference in playtime on my Switch between 2019 and 2020:

Ouch. And that’s just for the Switch. I also played games on my PlayStation 4 and PC for at least a couple hundred hours each in 2020. I don’t regret it. It’s what I had to do to get through the year. But it certainly doesn’t feel like time well spent. And like the protagonists’ periods of hedonism in Groundhog Day and Palm Springs, it just stopped being fun after a while.

I wasn’t about to give suicide a try. I have little doubt it would have been more permanent in my case. So after spending some time wallowing in depression and a sense of soul-crushing boredom that was no doubt greatly enhanced by my ADHD, I skipped past the self-destruction bit and went straight to the third act revelation: I was ultimately unhappy because I had not been living my authentic self. The things I was spending my time on didn’t make me happy, and I had to figure out what would make me happy. It wasn’t having endless free time to play video games. It wasn’t being able to roll out of my bed in my pajamas and then stay in my pajamas all day while I worked from my couch, free from a grinding commute and the tedium of office life. But what was it? I couldn’t wait until I escaped from the loop to figure it out, because for all I knew, the loop might never end. I had to focus on doing it now.

Eventually, I did figure it out. I came to a realization about what made me happy and what didn’t make me happy. I won’t get into what those revelations were in this post; I’ll save that for a future one. Instead, I’m going to share a quote from Nietzsche:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine?'”

Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Gay Science

I came to a decision about what kind of life I would want to live once more and innumerable times more, and I acted on it. It will take some time to reach the goals I made for myself as a result, but that’s OK. I’ve still got time, as wibbledy-wobbledy as the past year may have made it.

Ask yourself the same question, and if you find that the life you’re living day in and day out is not the one you would choose for yourself, do something to change it. Learn the piano, become an expert in quantum physics, or just strive to make yourself a better person. Don’t stop until you find yourself living days that you could spend an eternity in and still be happy.

Author: Jeremy

I read and write for fun but I only arithmetic out of necessity.

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