The past 11 posts have summarized Existential Angst and the way that we tend to deal with it. Hopefully it gave you some food for thought and possibly gave you ideas to deal with your anxiety in a more productive manner. To a large extent, acceptance and adaptation are key elements to dealing with anxiety. Creating meaning for yourself is another way to make life productive and purposeful.
I hope to organize these posts in the resource section of the website over the next months.
Existential Angst: Part 11- Responding to Existential Angst- 5. Searching
Searching- Some of us are seekers. That is what we do. We are always looking for an explanation, seeking an answer, trying to learn, or working on growth. Seeking in and of itself is a way of dealing with existential problems. Really get into it. Lean into it. Feel it. Scour the earth for an answer, a method, a solution. This approach includes talking about your anxiety, discussion with others, reading books, trying new methods of being, experimenting with new ideas, writing out your thoughts, creating theories, etc.
Expression- one way that many creative people work through their existential angst is by actively expressing themselves. Music, art, drama, literature, poetry, and the like can be used to express existential issues. The energy of the anxiety is lessened and the expression of the anxiety becomes the solution to the anxiety. It's kind of like how talking about being sad helps us heal in times when we are grieving. Instead of turning away from the discomfort, turn towards it. Examples in this category include story writing/telling, creating visual art, writing songs, playing music, writing in a journal, writing poetry, and even acting/singing.
Existential Angst: Part 9- Responding to Existential Angst- 3.Devotion
3. Devotion- Another way you might deal with life anxiety, is to put your focus onto an object of devotion. By focusing on one object, and devoting your life to that object, you can resolve the need to figure it all out on your own because a lot of the hard work of life is explained and outlined for you.
For example, religion is a common way to make sense of life, know how to act; it gives meaning to things that are hard to understand, outlines values and principles for life, etc. Taking Christianity (and similar faiths) as an example, the basics are like this: If I believe in God, that God has a plan for my life, that after this life there is another life, and that if I follow the basic rules of being a good person I will go to the good place, then I probably have an answer to all of the givens of life. Death isn't the end, so death isn't as big of a threat. The point of life is to enjoy a relationship with God and follow his rules. Freedom and responsibility are a little tricky but there is a sense that I am somewhat free and responsible but not fully. There is a God backing it all up, so I have the comfort of knowing that its not all up to me and the grace of God can save me from any error I make. Also, I am never alone and can always talk to God. Sure, it gets a little sticky with the specifics, but for the most part faith in this case may give great comfort.
Religious texts can be objects of devotion. Spiritual rituals and beliefs, religious or not, as well. 'Non-religious' belief systems (if that is a thing) can also fall into this category. For example, social justice, the environment, solving poverty, a cure for a disease, etc. can all be objects of devotion. They each come with prescribed values and behaviours which in turn provide answers to the existential questions.
Sometimes a return to former beliefs can resolve some of the existential angst a person faces. Of course, if beliefs are not matched with vulnerability then there is a tendency towards fanaticism, which you may want to avoid. There is a lot to be said for humility as an antidote to extremism. Also, if one is to devote oneself to wrong belief, their anxiety may not be reduced but rather increased
2. Distraction- if you can keep yourself distracted, busy, running out of time, exhausted, etc., then you won't have the time or energy to worry about life stuff. You can get so absorbed into anything sufficiently that you won't worry about the meaning of life, or the fact that you are free to act in the world, or that you are going to die. If you are fully distracted, you will have (kind of) solved your problem. Favourites in this category include work, busy family life, social engagements, taking on multiple projects, relationships, and of course any addictive behaviour- gambling, drinking, gaming, shopping, social media, and drugs. Other distractions may include dreaming, fantasizing, playing sports, watching sports, or watching the news. You will know for yourself what it is you might be doing to distract yourself.
And if you are distracting yourself... is it good for you? Is it working? Is this the way to live your best life?
If you have gotten this far you probably can relate to existential anxiety and are wondering how to better deal with it. I have included a few ideas specific to each of the givens (realities) of life in each of the previous posts. This post will discuss broad and general responses to existential angst.
I am going to suggest that there are 5 basic ways what we deal with existential angst. I am not suggesting any is better or worse than the other, and I am not proposing that you must pick one and then everything will be better. Life really doesn't work that way. This is more of a discussion to get you to think about how you respond to the hard questions of life and maybe give you ideas on healthier ways to face some of the givens of life. As a reminder, the givens of life are death, loneliness, freedom, responsibility, and the apparent meaninglessness of life.
Responses to existential angst.
1. Ignorance- I love Allan Watts' pronunciation of ignorance. He calls it 'ignore'-ance. It's what we do when we actively choose to ignore something. Ignorance in today's age usually refers to unintentional lack of knowing . An ignorant person is seen as unintelligent and stupid. I believe ignorance is probably more intentional than we let on. By ignoring the question you may be able to relieve your anxiety. Whenever the thoughts of meaning or death come up, tell yourself to not think about it. This may seem hard for most people, but i have met people who simply tell me that they don't think about these things. I'm guessing they may be distracted or devoted (more on these later) enough to not have to think about it, but it is possible that some people simple choose to ignore the questions all together. If you are reading this then you will probably not be great at doing this or think there is a better option. Ignorance is bliss?
The last given of life is the fact that life seems meaningless. Just by itself, without any teaching, life doesn't seem to have any meaning to it. You live, you die. There is no inherent point to it. Without getting into any religious or traditional teaching about the meaning of life, lets take a look at this.
Some of us, at some point, have thought to ourselves, "what is IT all about?" And, we have done so, not just in a quick moment of rare quiet, but really intensely with much discussion and conversation. And it bothered us. People who have struggled with depression often struggle with this point. They say things like, 'there is no point', 'what's the point', 'I don't know what to do with my life'. These thoughts can be found in anxiety as well. If you feel like there is no point to life, it's hard to decide what to do with it, and that insecure and unattached feeling can be experienced as anxiety. It can also make it hard to decide that the life we are living is worth it, because we have no good ruler or guide against which to measure our life.
The meaningless of life problem is, in my opinion, mostly a result of a wealthy western lifestyle that affords us time and space to questions these types of things. It also stems to a large extent from the general move away from religion and tradition, and the rise of science and technology. Like Nietzsche said, "God is dead". I believe Nietzsche is misunderstood as just saying, "There is no God." What he was getting at was this. If the enlightenment resulted in the loss of a belief of God, then where does humanity turn to answer some of the hard questions? In a way, science, technology and the enlightenment have created the meaningless of life, and Nietzsche realized this could have dire consequence for humanity. And here we are.
How to address this then. The next post will get into general responses to all of the givens of life, but for now consider this. Modern psychology often deals with the meaninglessness of life by getting people to create their own meaning. If you find yourself in a position where you don't follow an overarching system of beliefs that gives you meaning, then you can create it for yourself.
Spend some time figuring out what you value in life, and then organize your life around those values. For example, lets say you value creativity, family, freedom, and responsibility you may decide to live near family, visit them weekly, spend time each day on a creative expression, spend weekends camping or hiking, and have a job so that you can pay the bills for a modest house for your own family. Alternatively if you value justice, equality, and fun you may decide to enter a demanding career as a police officer, volunteer for an organization that helps underprivileged children, and go on holidays every other month to a fun and exciting destination for a week.
It is surprising how many hours a person spends on something they they do not value. Some people work at a job they don't like, to earn money they then spend on things they don't need to impress people that they don't like.
Other ways to address meaningless may include the following: If you left a faith out of bitterness or hurt, you may be able to tap into that faith again, in a way that better matches you, now that you are older and more mature. Alternatively, you may never have looked into your family or people's traditional ways. There may be teachings there that can guide you.
In the next post I will cover some overarching responses to the 5 givens of life discussed so far. Stay tuned!
Another given of life is that you are alone. No matter how connected or related you may be, you are ultimately alone. No one has your experiences, no one know what it is like to be you, no one lived your life. So, no matter what, you are alone. This becomes most apparent in the face of death. You must die alone. No one can be with you. It can also become evident in adolescence. Adolescence is often the first time one experiences being surrounded by many and yet feeling alone.
That is not to say that you always feel alone or that relationships are a waste of time. Dr. Yalom quoted a patient of his who said “Even though you’re alone in your boat, it’s always comforting to see the lights of the other boats bobbing nearby.”
There is no solution. Relationships do not solve this existential problem, and those who think it does, will be sadly disappointed. Relationships and connecting are still very important and necessary for most of us. That is true. But it does not take away the fact that we are alone. It is not the same as being lonely. It is possible to be alone and not lonely. Most of the time that is probably the case. For those struggling with this reality it may be better to embrace this fact. Alone is not bad. It just is. If you find yourself chasing every kind of distraction and preoccupation I would suggest taking intentional steps towards quiet meditation and moving towards acceptance.
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.
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.
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.
https://medium.com/swlh/only-six-months-left-to-live-37c7fea071f0 One example of the 6 months to live exercise.
Existential angst refers to the problem humans get 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 can struggle with ultimate purpose.