Ever feel like everything is more or less okay in your life but there's always something missing? Facing the big questions of life can be scary. It helps to talk to someone about those big questions. This can include things such as the meaning of life, what it means to be human, what should I do with my life, and concerns relating to death.
Another way that people sometimes face the harder side of life is through spiritual experiences and growth. The following links may help you identify if this is what is happening for you. Edwin understands this way of seeing the world as well. It can help you on your journey to connect with someone else who is also on that journey.
Existential Angst Blog (in reverse order- see below for older posts)
Existential Angst: Part 4- Responsibility Responsibility goes hand in hand with freedom. Freedom may seem a strange thing to be anxious about, but when you consider that each action/choice on your part results in an outcome, it makes more sense. Responsibility in this sense is not the kind of thing you parents may have asked you to be. It's not about taking responsibility or choosing to be a responsible person. The fact of life is simply this, you will be responsible.
A few examples. If you put your hand into the fire, you will get burned. That is you being held responsible by the universe, nature, laws of science, God, whatever. If you leave a relationship, you will be alone (in some ways). If you waste your tuition on partying, you will have to pay for it later or pay again to finish your degree. In each way you are responsible.
The anxiety stems from the fact that you will be held responsible for something in the future for what you have done in the past. If you lay awake at night thinking of the sins of your past and how they might make you pay in the future, then you are aware of how responsibility can be anxiety inducing.
In part 6 I will go through responses to existential angst. For now I will just make a few comments on responsibility, like I have done for the previous two givens of life. How to deal with responsibility: The simplest thing to consider, is that every action by you has a consequence. If you are okay with the consequence, then the actions is okay. If you are not okay with the consequence then the action is not okay. This is of course not a universal good vs. bad calculator. It is personal and it is relative. Sometimes the least bad consequence is as good as it gets. for example, I may need to pay 1,000 dollars for dental work today (bad consequence, because I loose money, it's going to hurt, and it might be scary) vs. rotten teeth and more extensive work next year at 3,000 dollars (even worse consequence). Both consequences are bad, but I would rather face option 1 than 2, so therefore option 1 is the best one for me.
The temptation is to procrastinate decision making/action or to not choose/act at all. Because responsibility is a given of life, though, neither option is any good. The only time either procrastination or ignorance are any good is if the consequence doesn't matter either way. If I don't vacuum the house today, it makes no difference to having to vacuum later, other than it will take time tomorrow. Sometimes the idea, "if it doesn't need to be done today, leave it until to tomorrow" does make sense. But, it only makes sense if the consequence of leaving it off till tomorrow makes little-to-no significant difference to you. If it impacts your time, relationships, resources, or health, then it does matter.
A few tips: 1. Scheduling- If something needs to get done, and you can do it within 5 minutes, do it right away. Else, schedule it. 2. It is tempting to not do things for fear of doing them wrong. Just remember, not doing anything is probably just as bad or worse. It is important to engage with the world around you and to accept the things you can't change. Disappointment is no reason for inaction. Very few older adults regret what they did, most often they regret what they didn't do. 3. Take care of yourself and be gentle and gracious with yourself. Life is hard and it gets messy; you don't need any more judgment on yourself than you already have. Be sincere, not serious.
Now go out there and do something crazy, something that scares you, the consequences of which you are willing to accept.
Existential Angst: Part 3- Freedom It may seem strange to think that freedom is a fact of life and that it contributes to anxiety. But, you may have had those moments when you realized you could do whatever you want (within limits), and it scared you. Maybe you quit or almost quit a job. Maybe you applied for a job way out of your comfort zone or skill level. Yes. You can do it. Whatever it is, you are free to act.
Most of us don't really believe this. We think we are bound in more ways than are true. You truly are free, but most of us are too uncomfortable with this. People often tell me that they don't have a choice, for example, in work, or bills or relationships. THIS IS FALSE. You do have a choice. You may just be too scared to accept that. When you do realize it, though, it can be anxiety inducing. When you realize you can walk away from something it can scare you. That's why its tempting to believe you can't walk away; that way you don't have to be responsible for making that choice. Of course, not walking away is a choice in itself, and you are free to make that choice as well (and you will be responsible for that as well- more on that next time).
So basically, you are free to choose and to act in the world. That opens up a lot of options. That puts a lot of pressure on a person. That means you could make a 'wrong' choice. It also means that not choosing can be the 'wrong' choice as well. Yikes! Anxious much?
If you are at the point where you realize all of this you can probably relate to the fact that it can make you anxious. If you can't relate you are probably not reading this, you may have created your own prison and are pretending you are stuck.
What to do? Firstly, I'm not a fan of harping on people's ability to choose and pressuring them into making choices. I dislike cliches like, 'you must choose happiness'. Life isn't that simple. Yet, the fact remains that there are options. Freedom can be viewed as a positive thing when you realize you have options. You don't have to stay where you are. You don't have to keep doing things the way you are doing them. You don't have to be in relationship with people if it is not good for you. You can even leave good relationships! You don't have to stay in debt. You can get further in debt! You don't have to buy things you don't need to impress people you don't care about.
Secondly, not doing anything about your situation is a choice in itself, which you are free to make. Acknowledging this is healthy. Self deception is generally not advised. The truth will set you free. Ignorance does not free you.
Lastly, freedom can provide hope. Life is meant to be lived. If you are worried about choosing wrong, the following may help. When talking to older adults, you will learn that people most regret the things they didn't do, not the things they tried and failed at. Taking a step in the right direction is worth it. Not taking any step is probably regrettable.
Disclaimer: the next post will be about responsibility. The third given in life is that you will be responsible. This actually ties into freedom directly, but I prefer discussing it separately. The disclaimer is this: you are free, but you are also responsible. Responsibility will put a damper on freedom, so don't go out and do anything crazy.
Existential Angst- Part 2: Death In part 1 I highlighted the 5 givens of life- Death, Freedom, Responsibility, Isolation, and Meaninglessness. Some of these are more obvious than others, but I will run through each one and flesh it out. Sometimes our anxiety is based on one of these 5, but we can't see it clearly. Part 2 is intended to help recognize and come face to face with the truth. Although this may seem counter-intuitive or more anxiety inducing, it is the way forward. As Joseph Campbell said, "Within the cave we fear to tread, lies the treasure that we seek." So, into the cave we go...
Death/Mortality- the most obvious given of life is death (or death and taxes as some older folks like to say.) Our anxiety about death usually starts in early childhood when we come to the realization that Mommy can get sick, or auntie was in the hospital, or grandma died. At some point, usually not to far into life we realize that life has a termination point. The fog of adolescence usually gives us a break, when we think we are invincible, but then early adulthood sobers us up and again we may struggle with our inevitable demise.
The fact of death may result in various anxieties. First is death itself. Then there is our health. WebMD anyone? And then there is the passing of time and the fears associated with that. For example, fear of missing out, fear that we have already missed out, the guilt and shame for not having done enough up to this point, the time crunch to meet our goals, etc.
How to face this then? A few ideas. 1. Death gives life meaning. In a way it is not only good, it is necessary. If you never died then things wouldn't matter. You could fail forever because you never die. It means you don't have to try. At least not now, because there is always later. What if there is no later. Facing this time/death fear can help define your values and give you direction. You may have heard of the '6 months to live' exercise or the 'write your own obituary" exercise. If you only had 6 months to live, what would you do, who would you visit, what would you say, where would your money and your time go, etc. Think about it. Your response will help you identify what is most important. Write down what you value most. Are you doing that now? How can you do more of that. 2. Practice mindfulness. If you live in the moment then the future isn't a problem. It seems much more practical to live in the here and now than to obsess or worry about the future. In fact, once you realize how useless worrying is, it becomes easier to let that worry go and return to the present. Your entire life is lived in the present. 3. Talk about it. One way to face our fears and the truth, is to talk about it. Have conversations. Be vulnerable and share with those who love what it is you are struggling with. There is immense healing in relating. We live in an insanely isolated and lonely time (especially in the western world). 4. Accept it. Somehow. One way to start is to say to yourself (or aloud) "I accept that I will die." Or if that is too much, "I am willing to accept that one day I will die." Or if it is still too much "I am willing to consider accepting that I will die." And then commit to what really matters in life.
Existential Angst- PART 1: When life itself causes anxiety. There are 5 givens of life that contribute to existential angst. 5 things you can't get around or away from. Here they are: 1. Mortality - you are going to die one day. This ties into health anxiety and also the fear that you haven't become what you could have and now it's too late. Kind of like FOMO (fear of missing out). 2. Freedom- you are free to choose, basically anything (within physical limits). This can be scary and leads to worry about having made the wrong choice or worry you won't make a good choice. Choice is actually a large contributor to unhappiness because of this. Weird right? But true. There have been clever research experiments that showed that prize winners that could choice their prize (a poster) were less happy with their prize than those who were given one (without choice). 3. Responsibility- any action you take (or don't take) has a consequence, and you will deal with that consequence. No other way around that one. This existential given (or fact) ties directly into the freedom given. If you are free to choose, then you are also going to be responsible for that choice. Notice that I didn't say you will be held, responsible. No one is necessarily doing it to you. Life just works that way. If you choose to eat too much candy your teeth will rot. That is the consequence. That is how you are responsible. 4. You are alone - no matter how you spin it, you are alone. You experience life from only your perspective and no matter how close someone is to you, you are still separate from them and alone. Sir Francis Bacon said "For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love." And then Edwin says, even if there is love, you will still experience it as you, alone. Often you aren't understood fully or accepted fully. There is always that sense of isolation in life. That is not to say that relationships are useless. Absolutely not. The point is simply this; even in relationship there is a sense of isolation. That is just a fact of life. 5. Meaninglessness - life doesn't seem to mean anything in itself, by itself. It doesn't really make a lot of sense. What does it mean to live, what is the purpose, is there a purpose, how do I tell. Even those with great faith struggle with ultimate purpose.
Coming soon- more on each topic and some suggestions for how to deal with this kind of anxiety.