14 Oct How to cope with an existential crisis
via Psyche Magazine by Skye Cleary
Are you exhausted from rushing through life doing the same monotonous things over and over again? Perhaps those things that were once meaningful now seem vacuous, and the passion has burned out. Do you feel that pleasures are short-lived and ultimately disappointing, that your life is a series of fragments punctuated with occasional ecstasies that flare up and then, like a firework, fade into darkness and despair? Perhaps you are lonely or pine for past loves. Or you feel empty and lost in the world, or nauseous and sleep-deprived. Maybe you are still looking for a reason to live, or you have too many confused reasons, or you have forgotten what your reasons are. Congratulations – you’re having an existential crisis. Sometimes, the questions ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘What’s it all for?’ haunt you gently like a soft wingbeat with barely a whisper, but sometimes they can feel as if they are asphyxiating your entire being.
Whatever form your existential crisis takes, the problem, as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) saw it, was that living without passion amounts to not existing at all. And that’s bad for all of us because, without passion, rampant waves of negativity poison the world. Kierkegaard thought that one of the roots of this problem of a world without passion is that too many people – his contemporaries but, by extension, we too – are alienated from a society that overemphasises objectivity and ‘results’ (profits, productivity, outcomes, efficiency) at the expense of personal, passionate, subjective human experiences.
In his journal, Kierkegaard wrote: ‘What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know … the thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.’ Finding this truth, this passion, was what Kierkegaard thought could unite an existence, overcome melancholia, and help you to become more fulfilled. Kierkegaard had some ideas about how to harness the anguish of what we have come to think of as an existential crisis. Reading Kierkegaard won’t necessarily solve all problems, but it can help you understand some of the sources of your malaise and to see new possibilities for your life.
Sometimes, Kierkegaard is called the first existential philosopher because of his emphasis on the individual and subjective experience. Existential philosophers stress freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of your choices, and certainly one of the quintessential existentialist philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), found this vein of thinking in Kierkegaard’s writing. For existentialists, it’s up to you to decide the kind of person you want to be and how to live your life meaningfully. But these choices leaven despair because of the pressure that comes when you realise you’re free and responsible and have no one else to blame, no excuses for your behaviour. Anxiety, or despair, Kierkegaard wrote, is the ‘dizziness of freedom’. Despair is a kind of vertigo we get when overwhelmed with possibilities and choices. Kierkegaard described it as a similar feeling to standing on the edge of an abyss. You might be afraid of falling, but anxious when you realise that jumping is a possibility.
We are forced to make choices all the time, whether we like it or not. Consider toothpaste: there are so many types and it’s difficult to choose the one that’s best for your teeth. Whitening or stain-removal? Cavity protection, anti-plaque or enamel repair? What’s the difference? Why isn’t there one that does everything? It’s hard to know what the outcome of choosing one over the other will be. While choosing the wrong toothpaste probably won’t devastate your life, when you face more profound choices – such as what to study at college, whom to marry, whether to end a relationship, which career to pursue, whether to try to save someone who is drowning, if you should turn off a loved one’s life-support system – the closer you come to the edge of the abyss, the dizzier you will feel about your possibilities and responsibilities. Sometimes you live in ignorant bliss about your options but, once you become aware of them, wooziness is inevitable. As Kierkegaard wrote in The Concept of Anxiety (1844):
He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down.
Sometimes, the dizziness of your freedom is so overwhelming that you might feel compelled to step back, to shrink from making a choice. Making no choice, or letting someone else choose for you, can feel easier. The greater the stakes, the deeper the abyss, and the further you have to fall if you misstep. But your personal growth depends on your ability to handle big choices yourself and not to shirk them. For Kierkegaard, bravely facing up to our choices and learning to channel our anxiety in constructive ways is vital: ‘Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.’
During his lifetime, Kierkegaard made authorities nervous because he was an iconoclast who encouraged people to think for themselves. He challenged readers to break themselves free from the brainwashing of churches and community groups that preached what to do and what to believe, particularly the Lutheran Church of Denmark, with which he was at loggerheads for much of his later life. Kierkegaard also might have been deeply suspicious of today’s social media and advertising that tells us where to spend our money and time in the elusive pursuit of happiness. In a criticism that seems to have pre-empted online trolls, he proposed that ‘the crowd’ or the public is ‘untruth’ because it enables people to be anonymous, irresponsible, cowardly, and creates an impersonal atmosphere.
Kierkegaard was a Christian, ‘albeit a maverick Christian’, as the philosopher Gary Cox put it, because Kierkegaard emboldened people to develop a personal relationship with God instead of unreflectively assuming what the clergy sermonised. For Kierkegaard, living the truth is infinitely more important than objectively knowing it. At Kierkegaard’s funeral, the archdeacon who gave the eulogy told the huge crowd not to misunderstand or accept what Kierkegaard had written because he went too far and didn’t know it…
… keep reading the full & original article HERE