I had my first Existential crisis when I was about ten. Lying next to my mother the sudden realisation of uncomfortable questions left me troubled so I gave myself the courage to ask her the question I had been fearing to because maybe the response would be one of uncertainty. Perhaps it would’ve been one I wouldn’t want to hear, “we’re all going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it”. Despite this, I opened my mouth and burst out my thoughts in the simplest way I could:
“What will happen when the world ends?”
She gave me the perfect answer which was that issues beyond my control should never be ones I should even attempt to fathom. This enabled a peaceful sleep for the first time after so many weeks because for once, I didn’t have to attend to a question I knew I would never be able to produce an answer for. This wasn’t my first Existential crisis and although I had sleepless nights questioning life and my existence, I have become grateful for such moments.
I’m not going to write a long essay on what Existentialism is because there are numerous writers who live and breathe the movement. Like almost every theory, philosophy, movement etc, there are numerous definitions and never one that is fixed. For this post, I will be using the five themes presented by Flynn (2006, p.8). Firstly, existence precedes essence, meaning “what you are (your essence) is a result of your choices (your existence). Essence becomes what you become of yourself, rather than a matter of destiny. Secondly, time is of the essence, meaning that we are time bound beings; lived experiences are qualitative thus “not yet”, “already” and other similar notions differ in meaning and value. Thirdly, Humanism is central to Existentialism. The movement is a person centered Philosophy focusing on the individuals Ideas about identity and meaning amidst the pressures that exist in mass society. The fourth theme explores the centrality of freedom/responsibility, and the fifth is that ethical considerations are paramount- although ethics are mirrored with ‘freedom’ for the Existentialist; there is also an underlying concern to invite us to examine the authenticity of our personal lives and of our society.
Now the reason I have brought my thoughts here is because as much as I hated my experiences of this crisis, I’ve become fearless and I want you to do so as well. Whether you question life and your existence on a regular basis, or haven’t yet, reading this can either prepare you or allow you to overcome the anxiety you encounter. I’ve been able to experience the good, from a few bad experiences. I stumbled on the theory of Existential Positive Psychology (EPP) defined by Wong (2010) as a representation of a natural amalgam between Positive Psychology and Existential Psychology. Questions such as “who am I?”, “how can I be happy?”, “how do I make the right choices?”, or “where do I belong?” become of interest. Following my Existential crisis, I noticed that my perception of life became negative. Instead of giving myself the option to live a more worthwhile lifestyle, I found myself thinking “well what’s the point if I’m going to die anyway?” or even when I was enjoying life my subconscious self still questioned whether this was all life had to offer. These moments destroyed me because I had no answer to any of these questions. EPP explains this process in detail and highlights that discontentment arises, distracting the individual from life’s satisfactions but also proving opportunity for personal growth. So readers, what I’m saying here is when you encounter your crisis, do not panic and look to healthy discontent. EPP recognises that discontentment is prominent to human nature but distinguishes the two. I will discuss healthy discontentment, which is presented by Existential philosophers and Psychologists who argue that authentic happiness rises from embracing suffering. The duality hypothesis states that positives and negatives are variables with a relationship and cannot exist separately. This makes a lot of sense to me, although personally I wouldn’t base the essence of my human condition on this hypothesis solely because I would like to think I don’t spend my life living negative experiences with an expectation of something positive arising from this. Your crisis should consider this hypothesis if/when you question matters of life and they happen to take you into a dark place. The negative variable is directly connected to a positive one and you must reap any positive actions to overcome the process. Tell yourself that your life should be lived to its fullest amount because you don’t know what will happen after you’re gone, prioritise the art of authenticity; being yourself and not being intimidated by the reality of your existence. Living in the moment, questioning how existence at that point in time is affecting your essence and bettering yourself. Part of your crisis is because our society is designed in a way that teaches us how we ought to be rather than focusing on how we are in that moment. Time has been constructed into a thing against us and because of that we encounter so much stress when we feel we are running out of it/ not doing what we are expected to be doing at certain points in our lives, leading us to ask what the point even is if we will soon turn into dust.
To conclude, if you ever find yourself questioning meaning, don’t panic yourself into depression, turn that moment around because positives can arise from negatives and lastly, live your lives authentically and enjoy. Time is your friend, not your enemy.
p.s I’ll leave you with a passage found in The Alchemist (A Fable about living your dream), about focusing on the present moments in life.
“Because I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. You’ll see that there is life in the desert, that there are stars in the heavens, and that tribesmen fight because they are part of the human race. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living now”.- Paulo Coelho
Wong, P. (2010). What is Existential Positive Psychology?. International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 3(1).
Flynn, T. (2006). Existentialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.