My kitchen island has served as a place where time gets lost in long hours of insightful conversation. Now, when time seems to stand still and daily discussions don’t steer far from the all-consuming, mind-numbing coronavirus pandemic, I often reminisce to one of my last conversations with my college friends. 

We’d landed on my favorite discussion of all time: the simulation argument. The argument juggles the capacity of technological advancement with the probability that we are living in a matrix. While it’s intriguing to momentarily entertain such questions, philosophers have studied these kinds of thought experiments for centuries. The real-world implications of working through these purely imaginative exercises have been heavily debated in philosophy and science, but one thing many thinkers can agree on is their importance. By limiting an existing realm to either be a matrix or to be a technologically lagging society, thought experiments, like the simulation argument, yield clear intuition that can be translated into real-world dilemmas. While life is messier than a carefully crafted hypothetical, popular culture offers a medium in which we can further consider philosophical questions through movies, TV shows and books. The actual challenge, however, is actively engaging in the intelligent participation this kind of content calls for — and allowing any existential epiphanies to shape our perception and way of life.

Existentialism has existed as a prevalent theme in books and movies, taking the form of dystopian futures, dangerous diseases and exaggerations of reality, but these conversations often circle back to the same conclusion: “That’s just a big ‘what if,’ though.” Well, what if we didn’t take these interpretations lightly? Instead, in times like these, we should indulge in the uncertainty of existence. 

Among all the chaos it has already caused, a global pandemic serves as yet another reminder of the frailty of human nature, and as Albert Camus, author of the commonly revisited novel “The Plague,” suggests, the absurdity of life. Written post-World War II when existentialism began gaining popularity, Camus’s classic novel eerily mimics the current crisis and, subsequently, the potential lessons to be learned from it, as many have already connected. While Camus’ philosophies seemed purely educational when plowing through the 320-page book for an elective class, its relevance and truth feel unsettling in our current context. It’s as if hypotheticals in popular culture have some truth behind them — as if we just may be living in our own twisted episode of “Black Mirror.”

From 1999’s “The Matrix” to contemporary Netflix originals like “The Society,” TV shows and movies have encouraged us to question reality and contemplate our own purpose, though it’s not as if we’ve ever really needed this push. Feelings of existential dread, or intense feelings of indifference triggered by external stimuli, are common among college students, especially when the sleepless nights of studying never seem to be enough and successes are questioned at the first stumble. This abundance of decisions and freedom is conducive to high rates of depression, as well as anxiety and hopelessness. But this dull sense of panic never truly goes away after college and it rears its ugly head again in the form of quarter- and mid-life crises. In the predicament of finding purpose, it feels like you’re left treading water in what seems to be a pool of Olympic swimmers. However, as long as we’re considering “what-ifs,” what if the finish line of the pool ceased to exist? And instead of a pool, we were quite literally in the middle of an unpredictable and inexplicable crisis? 

Currently, when life seems to take a turn for the worst, resulting in even more freedom and choice, we are inconveniently left to our own thoughts. An existential crisis may be likely, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Existentialism is the theory that a person defines meaning in his or her life, and thus must choose to resolve the crisis of existence themselves. The trouble stems from questioning the daunting agency we possess in shaping our lives. As college students, our careers have just begun, and our futures await us. When caught up in busy schedules, it’s easy to ignore the lingering anxieties of daily life — to keep pushing forward without introspectively checking in. To pretend that the episode of “Black Mirror” you stayed up way too late to watch doesn’t strike a chord in your subconscious. This phenomenon of avoidance coping becomes harder to maintain at home when everything that keeps you busy is canceled in an effort to “flatten the curve.” Life is on pause for a little bit, and the opportunity presents itself for those existential questions to take over.

To that, I say let them. Allow yourself to entertain these thoughts because as meditative practices suggest, it’s not about stopping the thoughts, it’s about observing this thinking and developing self-awareness. Take the time to step back and contemplate goals and desires. Ponder the absurdities of daily life. Seek insight from movies that seem far too abstract to even resemble reality. Engage in kitchen table conversation that leaves you with an altered perception of the world. Because even though the college experience is on hold, the deliberation of existence never ends.

Easheta Shah can be reached at shaheash@umich.edu.

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