You may want to head to another blog today if you’re in the mood for feel-good inspiration. What I offer here is a contemplation of existential angst, also referred to as existential anxiety or dread. I do promise some relief if you read—or skip—to the end of the post.
One of the most distressing characteristics of existential dread (only slightly mitigated by the fact that Tylenol will alleviate it) is that it’s a chronic condition.
The first attack I remember occurred when I was about twelve. I had just watched the movie version of “West Side Story.” I went to bed and suddenly began crying uncontrollably. I wasn’t sure what I was crying about. Yes, the movie was sad, but what I felt was more than just garden-variety lamentation for star-crossed lovers.
The dread came and went through my teens and twenties. Sometimes I was able to put it at bay for months or even years. Sometimes it cropped up at predictable moments—as during some, shall we say, substance experimentation. Other times it appeared from nowhere, most upsettingly when I was physically surrounded by people I loved and cared about and who loved me. You can understand why the Sandra Bullock character in “Gravity” might feel utterly alone in the universe; it’s harder to fathom how a person could feel that way surrounded by family and friends.
Finding and marrying my soul mate helped a little. Having kids helped for a short time, mostly because I was so overwhelmingly consumed by the relentless task of keeping them alive when they were babies that I had little time for even a decent meal or a shower, let alone existential contemplation. The thought that my genetic material will continue beyond my time on earth is amusing, but hardly an antidote for the dread.
Both my parents died within a few years of each other when I was in my forties. There’s nothing like the death of a parent to really shift your place in the universe. Suddenly, a protective layer between you and nothingness is ripped away. You become that protective layer for younger generations. Not to mention the fact that mortality, which the young are so brilliantly able to ignore, begins to occupy your thoughts daily, if not hourly.
I wish I could say I believe in a deity whose benevolence bestows my existence with meaning, or a religious framework in which physical death is not the end. Such a belief would likely alleviate my dread and probably explains most of organized religion.
As I continue to experience the waxing and waning cycles of existential dread, I realize I’m like my mother in more ways than I might have imagined. I don’t remember ever talking with her about this, but I can imagine that her religion—physics and chemistry—gave her comfort. What meager comfort I manage to wrap myself in these days comes from the idea that although humans are infinitesimal in the scale of the universe, we are nonetheless a part of it, so much so the physicist Lawrence Krauss says “the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand.”
I still contemplate the extinguishment of my particular consciousness with trepidation, but I try to remind myself that the molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles that have come together for this brief, brief moment to form me will one day coalesce into something else, with a different form and purpose—and, I hope, less of a penchant for self-reflective hand-wringing.
Now, where’s the Tylenol?
Links to sites/posts along similar lines
- Angst and dread – the basics on About.com
- Tracy Moore on Jezebel – a soul sister!
- Philosophy Forums thread on existential anguish – yikes, anguish sounds worse than “dread”
- An earlier post of mine – on why I write
- Writing Beneath the Waves (presentsofmind.wordpress.com)
- Blocking existential unease… (shannonturlington.com)
- Death Don’t Have No Mercy (psychologytoday.com)
Uplifting links in case all this really got you down
What are your go-to distractions for existential anxieties?