Where Did I Come From?

Before the Big Bang, or How to Clear a Room

“Hostesses look into telescope” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1935–1945.

Whenever I want to experience a pulsing pressure in the left lobe of my brain, I imagine the moment just before the Big Bang. (I’ll get to why later.) Theoretical physicists spend entire careers toiling away in windowless rooms, scrawling equations and crude diagrams on whiteboards in pursuit of just a small clue to our origins. A few glasses of cheap whiskey into an otherwise pleasant night and I’m convinced I can figure it out.

The prevalent theories about the origins of the universe are speculative. At least, as near as I can tell. I am, after all, just a layperson. Then again, when it comes to being human, aren’t we all laypeople?

Let’s start from the beginning (as it were): The Big Bang. Even the most devoted apostles of the Creation Museum or Holy Land Experience could describe this theory if waterboarded. But the question that befuddles both physicists and stoners alike is what happened before the bang heard ‘round the universe.

There are a number of ideas floating out there, literally. Just for some context, I’ll focus on two. (N.B.: Like any of these theorists, I don’t really know what I’m talking about.) In one, a cyclical model, our universe is the result of the collapse of a previous universe. Imagine a star becoming a black hole—but on the order of the entire shebang. This collapses, forms a singularity, and then explodes. Hence, Big Bang™.

Another concept is even more difficult to visualize: the multiverse (that is, unless you watch “Rick & Morty”). In this model, our universe is one of many in a larger system, each governed by its own independent physical laws. This allows for discrepancies that have bedeviled better, smarter, and more dedicated men and women than I.

These theories help explain the origins of our early existence, but none really explain why or how any of this exists in the first place. (Cue surveying my apartment and rapping gently on the desk with my fist.) It brings to mind the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who wrote in the first century BCE (i.e., BC) that “nothing can be created out of nothing.” Perhaps this explains why some 100 years later, people were looking for the Messiah.

What’s the point?

I guess that’s the primary question. The other day I was thinking about, you know, the unknown source of the 1.5×10^53 kilograms of stuff that makes up the observable universe. It happened hours into a booze-addled night with some friends. I’m still not sure why this came to mind or why I ruined the evening by bringing it up. Long story short: I questioned where anything comes from, one left because he “didn’t want to think about this shit,” and the other claimed to be too stoned to talk about it. (And that’s saying something.)

They left me pondering the void—slumped on the couch, empty glass in hand—convinced that some day I was going to find an answer. Instead, I just found myself alone.

Then again, aren’t we all?

The next morning I had to laugh at myself. It’s a rare occurrence when I clear a room. But, seriously, why would you think about this shit? Two cups of coffee later, I had the thought that there might be something in psychoanalysis that could help me come up with an answer.

We don’t talk enough about a life without answers.

For many, it’s impossible to conceive of a world beyond the Big Bang or the book of Genesis. Imagine a vacuum of nothingness becoming the totality of all existence. The appropriate response is to feel anxious, insignificant, and unmoored.

Earlier this year, I was preoccupied with an idea about the brutality of certainty. The nascent Trump presidency proved that the “courage of conviction” was enough smokescreen for a lack of experience and generally despicable behavior. The president won, in part, because he was so damn sure of himself. That kind of confidence is intoxicating. And our political dialogue is dominated by an authoritarian grip on truth—across party lines.

When it comes to faith in religion, believers often operate with a similar unshakeable certainty. Answers are a blanket on a cold night; they shut out the stark realities of the world around us. A total belief in God isn’t just about being grounded in the present but also having a connection to the past and finding purpose in the future. In other words, it can be difficult to focus on today if you have no idea why you’re here in the first place.

But what’s a nonbeliever to do? Faith in science might offer as much consolation. Perhaps that’s why some atheists share an equally dogmatic belief in the nonexistence of God. I often lean on scientific theory in a way that the religious might interpret their own faith—by accepting givens and trusting people smarter than me.

But asking why we’re here usually stops at the personal. And the discourse about our origins—whether physical or metaphysical—tends to focus more on finding answers than on asking questions. The Big Bang is an answer. The quantum multiverse is an answer. The Annunciation is an answer.

But what’s the right question?

In moments like this, it might be best to turn to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Instead, I turn to psychoanalysis—not for an answer but as a means to better think about the right questions. That’s because it, like science or religion (some say psychoanalysis is both, others say neither), is a sort of map. It helps you reach your destination—if you know how to read it. But maps can’t tell you what that destination should be, what it might look like along the way, or how you might feel once you get there.

Critics and pragmatists alike often call psychoanalysis a “pseudoscience.” The label is meant to be pejorative. But as an analyst-in-training, I happen to agree. It is a system of beliefs and practices that are virtually unverifiable—one where theory almost necessarily must be developed outside of a systematic process. If science is about repeating outcomes, psychoanalysis is about breaking repetitions. The two are, at least metaphorically, entirely contradictory.

When it comes to working with real people on an unconscious level, much of the process is unseen. A cardiologist doesn’t need to crack open your chest to know you have a heart; she can take your pulse or use a stethoscope. Therapists can’t point to the unconscious, but we can perceive your feelings and listen to your words. And whether or not the unconscious exists, we can all agree that we have a lot more to learn about consciousness. As Scientific American puts it, “it’s not that we use 10 percent of our brains, merely that we only understand about 10 percent of how it functions.”

Psychoanalysis is about asking questions and looking for meaning. Its theories are helpful to frame these questions and interpret data, but they do almost nothing when you’re in the room with a client. Essentially, the practice is a collection of interesting ideas that amount to a metaphor for understanding how to live better. And like science or religion, it provides a frame of reference.

One of its major contributions is grappling with the intimate Big Bang of our personhood: birth. Theoretical psychoanalysts confront the impact of the birthing process and early weeks of life on the psychological development of infants. If the theory of gravitational waves helps scientists understand what might have happened at the beginning of time, then the theories of Freud, Klein, or Winnicott (to name a few) help us visualize an infant’s early apperception. After all, a brain scan might show activity, but it can’t reveal subjective experience.

But analysts also explore what happened before our individual universes were created. Our parents provide both the material and emotional substrate for our existence—just as their parents did for them. This trans-generational history, trauma, or even epigenetic inheritance implies that our self precedes our existence.

In other words, we didn’t spring from nothing.

We enter life preprogrammed, in part, by our DNA. But we also existed as an idea in our parents’ minds long before we’re born. We might have been the product of a loving relationship imbued with the hopes and expectations for our future. We might have been the unintended result of a single night—and in the months leading up to our births, the constant reminder of that evening. We might have been conceived in a lab, the product of uncertainty, frustration, and self-incrimination. Our selfhood is as much a journey of discovery as it is a reckoning with the present and futures written for us.

The Big Bang, in theory, suggests this—as the mysteries that preceded it (or whatever happened) continue to reverberate and shape our search for the truth. And the point is less about finding the answer for how we got here and more about how to best be here now.

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