Picture Guinan from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Moana, and Mrs. Maisel (the marvelous one) sitting in a cave and staring at a wall. That, in a nutshell, illustrates our battle with existential motion sickness.
Bear with me.
In philosophy, Plato’s cave analogy is used to show the challenges inherent in how people perceive the world. (We are all into Philosophy now thanks to the Good Place, right? In fact, throw Eleanor from the Good Place in with the others in the cave.) In Plato’s cave, people are facing a wall with a fire behind them. They see shadows of movement on the wall and try to deduce the meaning of what they see. He used it to show how flawed the interpretations of the uneducated can be. It’s an apt apology in general, however, because however much education we have, we still remain vastly ignorant about (let’s face it) almost everything.
Guinan, Moana, Mrs. Maisel, and Eleanor are all sitting in my cave analogy of Plato’s cave analogy not because they are ignorant, but rather because they know a little too much. They, like us, have been stuck where they are limited in movement, but perceptive in mind. There’s a disconnect between what they can do and what they think they know.
In Psychology, that’s known as Cognitive Dissonance, or a mental discomfort caused when a person’s beliefs are contradicted by what they see or experience. In response, people either reinterpret what they’ve been exposed to or they change their beliefs. Of course, the former is much easier (and probably more common).
This occurs at the more primal level of Biology, too. Motion sickness occurs when our senses are conflicted. Our eyes take in one stimulus that seems to be different than what our inner ears are experiencing, and the body objects in what seems to be the only way it knows how; nausea and headaches and general agony.
In examining this phenomenon of inner/outer discord, our stories can give us insight beyond philosophy, psychology, and biology (of course, that’s the English major in me talking).
Guinan, Moana, Mrs. Maisel, and Eleanor are among those in our stories that are presented with a world that doesn’t seem right. Key elements feel wrong. The shadows they are seeing don’t line up with they feel sure is really behind them.
In Guinan’s case, she senses that the crew is in alternate dimension gone wrong in the episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” Moana feels her people’s destiny is the ocean despite being told they do not venture beyond land. Mrs. Maisel must help her husband’s mediocre career as a comic when she knows how clever she is and how much she has to say. Eleanor senses the very nature of her environment has been completely misconstrued.
We, too, can feel a sort of queasy, abstract discomfort when things don’t line up in our lives – when our feelings don’t match what is expected of us, or when we are told one thing but know it can’t be true. This discomfort can be as vague and fleeting as the shadows on the wall, and just a tricky to pin down. It’s well worth identifying, however, whatever school subject area you care to use to describe it. Such sensations are valid and important and crucial to our personal development.
Fortunately for Guinan, Moana, Mrs. Maisel, and Eleanor, they ended up being correct in their mindset and eventually managed to fix things so what they experienced matched what they thought. From them, we learn to trust our instincts, be creative, and persevere. These are excellent lessons and good advice – although we outside of fictional narrative have the disadvantage of possibly not being totally correct. We sometimes have to admit that our mindset must be adjusted, not the world around us. Maybe we need to evolve ourselves, like the lobster changing shells.
Deciding how to treat our existential motion sickness is a constant struggle, but remembering that we are deep enough creatures to come up with caves and characters and diagnoses can help. Given a little help, I believe humanity is up to the task of sorting out the shadows.