Dread and the married girl

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.

Rehearsal photo for West Side Story

Rehearsal photo for West Side Story (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

A collage of four precursors of Existentialism...

We are not alone… in our aloneness. A collage of four precursors of Existentialism. From top-left clockwise: Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Public domain due to age of portrait/photography. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

English: Tate Lab of Physics at the University...

Church of a different kind. Tate Lab of Physics at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

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19 thoughts on “Dread and the married girl

  1. So good to know I’m not alone…
    Lately I’ve been so much consumed by anxiety that doing something as trivial as posting on my blog has just been out of the question. I’m glad you had the courage to post about this. You’ve captured the feeling very well.

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  2. Secular folks wrongly assume (possibly because they’ve been misled by some religious organization’s dogma) that ‘believers’ never suffer from fear of non-existence. While belief that our end is not necessarily the total winking out into nothingness of a nonbeliever, speaking for myself, death is still contemplated with trepidation. There’s the manner of it, to begin with. How will it occur? And then I think also there’s the concern with the individual ego’s desire to survive – even if one believes we enter the unity of universal spirit when we pass (as I do), the desire to grow and continue on is instilled in us all, and is the creative force behind everything we do, and we don’t like the thought of it ending.
    But yeah, we still get night terrors. Sure.

    I hope you don’t mind me commenting so late, Audrey. I thought about your post for a couple of days. The writing is so clear and you get your feeling across vividly. I didn’t want to give an off the cuff reply.

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    • I always welcome comments! And I hope I didn’t sound dismissive of the fears and angst of believers. We are all human and all blessed/cursed with awareness of our state of being and of our mortality, no matter what we believe comes afterwards.

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  3. Yes, Green Burial! it’s comforting for me to realize, yes, Audrey, we are a collection of energetic particles connected to Everything Else, all together and one. It is a mystery but accepting that concept into my psyche somehow makes it easier to digest everyday life. dread, yes, I know that feeling well and it is so mysterious why it creeps up when it does. great post, perfectly written and expressed. As usual.

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    • Thanks for commenting. I am a little surprised at the number and tone of the responses! I guess I have done a good job attracting kindred spirits to my blog. I am slowly learning to befriend the dread, and, when I can’t, learning new ways to ignore it.

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  4. I love the idea of our atoms and molecules shifting into a different entity, so much so that I told my husband a while back that I’d like a ‘green’ burial when I go. The kind where they bury you naturally, and your body becomes one with the earth. How’s that for morbid? (Hey, you started it… 😉 ) But seriously, that is often how I look at the process, probably because of the scientist and the pragmatist in me.

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  5. Sounds like something more than Tylenol might be in order!

    I get this malady too, and it’s all the more upsetting these days when we’re not just contemplating our own individual mortality, which will come sooner or later for us all, but the passing of the entire biosphere that we’ve grown up with…the monarch butterflies, the bats, the sugar maples, the polar bears…the list goes on and on.

    I do find that reminding myself of the cosmic scale of things helps. Yes, we are stardust…and our Earth is resilient, she will regenerate and come back again. And maybe we will too!

    You mention religion and I would like to hear more about that side of things. Even in a religion based on physics and chemistry, there is the potential for “life after death,” parallel universes, time travel, recombinations and regeneration. The afterlife seems to me to be the last great blank spot, the big enigma Western science has yet to crack.

    It would not surprise me to find out that you and I have known each other in previous lives. We did seem to recognize each other like old, dear friends, at the tender age of 6 when we first laid eyes on each other in this life. If it is true that all the life forms on the planet have not just a physical existence but also a spiritual one, which can persist and repeat and recombine…then it makes the grief easier to bear….

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    • I know I can always count on you to turn navel-gazing into planet- and star-gazing. Thank you for elevating the level of the discussion!

      I think I was getting at exactly that mystery in referring to physics and chemistry as a “religion.” They CAN offer comfort and fulfill the longing we all have to figure out our place in the universe. I suppose perhaps they are less well-equipped to give individuals a sense of meaning and purpose.

      The idea of a spiritual existence that can “persist and repeat and recombine” is also comforting. And another comfort for me, which I didn’t highlight, is the thought that I share my struggles and agonies with most of the rest of the human race–including dear friends.

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