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How can I find what I'm looking for when I don't know what it is?
November 10, 2009 4:14 PM   Subscribe

I am always on the precipice of an epiphany, or so I think...

I've had this lingering feeling for a long time, now; as if there's one last key to turn before the bounty. It's something that I haven't really learned to cope with, and its strength seems to ebb and flow in a direct relationship to my concentration. Like the Atlantic, the tide may seem to shallow its depth, but its mass is ever-present.

It's certainly a motivating factor in my life. I've pursued its nagging for hours at a time, but the promised payoff is always elusive. The impetus behind it is abstract and therefore frustrating, and when I inevitably turn up empty-handed, I feel a deep defeat. Hence the coping.

A few examples of this drive that some of you might relate to:

Broad: It's the feeling that, if I just find that one bit of information out there in the overwhelming stream of data, most everything will 'click'.

Specific: The knowing that if I work on this chorus a little more that the song will finally be the one I've been trying to write since I set out to capture it.

Personal: The insistence by my inner-self that when I stumble upon the right thought through free-association, I'll understand myself.


I consider it a gift; an affliction; a curse.

What is it, really?
posted by pedmands to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Your post - it blooms with the fragrance of a of summer's poem. Alas, it blooms so fragrantly that I cannot sniff out your actual question.

What exactly are you looking for that you can't find?
posted by katillathehun at 4:43 PM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

What is it?
posted by greta simone at 4:50 PM on November 10, 2009

Not to get all obvious, but you basically just summed up one of the basic and original struggles of man. Remember The Odyssey?

Yeah... That.

I can't really be specific since your question was so vague, but basically it seems like you haven't caught onto the fact that there is no such thing as an epiphany or some great one bit of information. Really the only true epiphany is that there is no such thing as epiphanies. (And honestly, if there is, it's often a little bit of a put on by the individual). And grasping that is what allows us to make actual progress on the journey of live and embrace the transient nature of information and "knowing things"

Honestly your "gift/affliction/curse" comment makes me think you're having a go at us.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 5:00 PM on November 10, 2009

What is it, really?

A common variant of the presque vu, or "tip of the tongue" feeling; instead of a word or concept feeling just out of reach, it's a vaguer sense of meaning/presence/purpose.
posted by Drastic at 5:05 PM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Believe me when I say that I phrased this Q in earnest. I added a bit of style to elicit a variety of answers without too much guidance, and in doing so may have shot myself in the foot.

In retrospect, it is probably too vague of a prompt. What I was hoping for when mefites described their own understanding of what this phenomenon may be, that some sort of hive-mosaic of something tangible would arise independent of any individual effort.

So far, though, I'm pleased with the intelligent variety.
posted by pedmands at 5:16 PM on November 10, 2009

The animal brain is wired to perceive the world as a not-quite-complete gestalt. It's what keeps us going.

It's something like the way in which a 7th chord contains the longing for the major chord resolution inside of it. It's the tension that makes music interesting.

I suspect that even perfumes work in a similar way. The scent of a good perfume (or flower) always feels like something amazingly beautiful that is almost completely there ... and it keeps drawing you in, for that one last note.

Sometimes we do reach that perfect note, that perfect balance. So don't be discouraged.
posted by dacoit at 5:26 PM on November 10, 2009 [10 favorites]

Yeah, Drastic's comment about presque vu is the psychological answer I would point to. I don't have much familiarity with it rather than a brief summary in some psyche classes, but if this is truly a persistent feeling, some investigation into those with a high quantity of presque vu may be worth it.* My answer was the more ethereal philosophical point (if not blunt one, sorry I was more reacting to the language not the problem).

* one thing about my understanding of presque vu, is that it's often applied to something you never really learned and not something you forgot. There's a definite distinction, you may be familiar with some parts of the subject, but not the specific answer you're concerned with answering. Keep in mind this sort of analysis was usually observed to things like "who sings the song playing on the radio" and not deeper philosophical matters.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 5:27 PM on November 10, 2009

I feel this to varying degrees most of the time (unless I'm particularly upset or depressed). I'll agree that it's closely tied to the 'optimism of the will' I try to cultivate, but I feel that, at least to me, it's a lot more that just optimism.

I'm not sure exactly what it is, but I love it. The feeling that I'm really close to something big, that I'm about to crack the case, and figure this motha' out.

I don't usually get upset when the feeling wanes for two reasons. First, I don't really expect everything to come together in some sort of Nirvana-esque revelation (when I was 15 or 16, I was pretty convinced that enlightenment was just around the corner, but these days I realize that thinking like that was some super cocky "look at me I read an Alan Watts book" ego trip. I don't think I'd want to transcend the material world if I could, anyway). Second, I'm confident that it will return in due time. It usually doesn't stay away for longer than a month, and if it does, I try to take a long hard look at my life and see if I've been fuckin' up somewhere.

I just use it as a motivating force, and while I don't go around having peak experiences every other day, I definitely find that if I work my ass off when the feeling is upon me, I sometimes get rewarded with a little mini-epiphany (usually a highly specific one, pertinent to a smaller facet of the larger problem I think I'm close to solving).

That feeling helps me generate good ideas, and I like to think of it as an old friend. I know people who got too wrapped up in it, and some of them went bugshit and some of them just became raging assholes. I hope neither of these happen (or has already happened) to me.

Use it to the best of your ability, because you're damn right that it's a gift.

Disclaimer: Psychedelics can sometimes induce or magnify this feeling. A lot of trippin' folks think they're on the verge of something huge, and then get let down when it doesn't solidify nicely. I have done more than my share of that type of voyage, but I experienced this feeling regularly well before I encountered psychedelics, and while they can provide a healthy reminder, I think the feeling itself is more than just a drug borne delusion. Then again, I may well just be a brain-fried acid-head.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:33 PM on November 10, 2009

Some say that the ultimate question, and perhaps the answer/question you are looking for, is "who am I?" Google self-inquiry if interested.
posted by Wordwoman at 5:50 PM on November 10, 2009

Evolution. We evolved as problem solving creatures. From the beginning, the creature had to find food, a mate, safety. If the creature was not successful, if it didn't solve the problem, it died, and had no further impact on the gene pool. We are at the end of a long chain of problem solving creatures. That's how our brains are wired. We look for patterns in the chaos of data. We look for that one piece of data that will give us an edge in solving problems. We look for the "tell" - that's what we are optimized for. Our brains never really rest - we constantly, consciously, semi-consciously and subconsciously look for patterns, important clues, telling signs. We are constantly processing data - even in our sleep.

As with any process, things can go slightly off track. Perhaps this urge to "seek" and "solve" has come a bit closer to your consciousness than for most people. Most people do the seeking and solving without the process itself coming in for examination. What you are experiencing, is a louder hum of this universal human brain activity. Enjoy it, and use it if you can.
posted by VikingSword at 6:23 PM on November 10, 2009

I know exactly what you're talking about. I'm unable to go into any more detail (I've been trying), sorry.
posted by clorox at 7:02 PM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Really great replies so far*, thank you. I particularly like the dichotomy of philosophy and biology. Perhaps reaching any logical, universal answer to this one is a bit like hitting a hammer with its own head.

*Except clorox. Sorry, but that one just reeks of snark. Shake the impulse to appear clever and try again.
posted by pedmands at 7:21 PM on November 10, 2009

I was being serious; I didn't mean to sound snarky at all.
posted by clorox at 7:43 PM on November 10, 2009

Clorox- I was presumptuous, I apologize.

It seems that we're at the same stalemate with this. Don't be sorry.
posted by pedmands at 8:00 PM on November 10, 2009

One interesting interpretation: Some philosophers would suggest that there is good reason to affirm that universals exist (akin to Plato's forms), and that there is something that underlies physical reality that ties similar yet materially different things together in sets and family relationships; and we get hints of that, even though we can't always express it in propositional form. One possible interpretation would be that you are detecting the "one" that exists in the "problem of the one and the many," or the feeling that lead people to propose the need for a solution to it in the first place. It's the same feeling that lead Plato to assert that immaterial forms exist that unify things together, ultimately in the Good; and also leads Stephen King to say in earnest that when he writes stories, he actually discovers them, he doesn't create them.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:05 PM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Careful. It could possibly be related to Brain Crack.
posted by nímwunnan at 9:34 PM on November 10, 2009

It's called drive. Use it. Imagine how empty your world would be if you got "it" and had nothing left to piece together.
posted by cmoj at 10:22 AM on November 11, 2009

cmoj.... I don't think "drive" is what pedmands is referring to here. (if I may be so bold as to assume I understand what pedmands is describing - as I often feel it myself). Drive is pretty easy to define. It's the ambition and single-purposed focus to be really good at something. Whether that something is cooking or finishing college or being the best Indy car driver or professional blacksmith. I have plenty of drive in trying to be the best person I can be in whatever I do....and I have success in some of those things... but the "epiphany" still remains elusive.

...but this uncatchable epiphany that pedmands describes is something different. It's like knowing you have a "third-eye".. but not knowing how to open it. It's like being told you have a super-power, but no one will tell you what it is. (and no matter how hard you try a million different things - you always seem agonizingly close to discovering what it is, but never do). It's the feeling of day after day, absorbing a variety of different information (TV, newspaper, internet, personal experiences) and knowing, KNOWING that somewhere in the deluge of stuff, is the answer. THE ANSWER. If only you could arrange the puzzle pieces in the right order. It's that frustrating feeling that you keep digging and observing and straining to perceive... but don't seem to be making any progress, but that one time you are exhausted and relax your eyes for a second, a shapeless form appears in your peripheral vision (but as soon as you try to focus .. it disappears). It's that constant unshakable feeling no matter where you are that something really magical and mind-blowing is just beyond your perception/just around the next corner.. but never seems to materialize.

It drives me crazy. (literally some days it drives me to mental instability)... but it never stops. As I get older.. I believe I get better at sensing subtlety and nuance which seems to help fill in more of the tiny details.. but the epiphany is still out there... taunting me.
posted by jmnugent at 11:09 AM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry for the double-comment.. but I just had some thoughts in the shower, and wanted to add them in hopes of better understanding this.... thing.

I'd be inclined to believe that maybe it has roots somehow in our technological generation. That we're inundated with teachings and representations of data (both large and small).. so we tend to look for data (and meaning) in even the smallest of things - hoping to find some larger pattern (what i refer to as the "fractal effect")

I also wonder if it has something to do with the history of human discoveries, and that the further and deeper our discoveries go into complex systems.. the more evidence we find that things we previously thought were unimportant show up as playing a role we hadnt expected. (example: junk dna) ... so upon witnessing this trend, our collective consciousness tends to lean towards the belief that even the little things are important, and play a part in the overall answer... so it becomes our "mission" to find that big overall "ANSWER".

I also personally hold a belief that, due to our technological power, we (humanity) are now in a time of accelerated discoveries. .. but thats not the important part. The important part is that technology creates an environment where cross-fertilization can more easily occur (a discovery in nanotechnology can influence a discovery in architecture which can spark a discovery in computational science,etc) .. and that pace is increasing. The fact that this dynamic is going on - might contribute to our overall "sense" that some great epiphany is always "just around the corner". (the availability of instant-information/internet probably also contributes to this. Previous generations made lots of discoveries.. but it took longer for them to percolate down to a wider awareness)
posted by jmnugent at 11:50 AM on November 11, 2009

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