Existential Darkness at the Dawning of the New Year

IMG_0149This morning’s New York Times brought the usual sort of news:

I’d go on, but I’d just get more discouraged.

It’s New Year’s Day, and I’m feeling an increasingly familiar set of feelings as I wonder the meaning and purpose of my life and of life in general. No, there has been no crisis in my life. No sudden loss of a loved one or other such personal tragedy. Life has been quite generous lately. Thanks to the holiday break, I have had some time on my hands, an unusual situation given the tempo of much of my life. While I sometimes dip into the existential in this busy life, there’s usually enough that must be done to distract me from my growing angst. Thank goodness. Time on my hands has created time to stay with these thoughts, and the thinking has gone south.

I could blame it on my age. It’s not unusual for folks my age to have bouts of existential depression. The kids are growing, the amount of remaining life seems shorter by the moment (because it is), and the people who are doing amazing things in the world are often my age. Or younger. And the world seems increasingly chaotic, cold, and fragmented. It’s hard to maintain a sense that it’s all somehow okay. I’d imagine strong theism could be somewhat protective, but that’s not something I have plans adopting.

I do think theism protected me from this crisis during my childhood and younger adulthood. When it all seemed awful in the world or just within myself, belief in an omnipotent, loving deity provided an answer. Okay, not a concrete answer, but a vague sense of comfort, even if only the comfort of rote prayer. In my late teens and early twenties, I worked hard to cultivate the sort of belief that would offer the deep comfort I desired. I sought out experiences and spotty practices that might dull the loneliness and fear that lurked in my soul.

It worked. Or at least it gave me a place to run and something to do when the world seemed to dark and cold, providing solace. It also provided a community of people looking for explanations for the unexplainable and a bit of reassurance that they weren’t alone. And, according to psychologist Dr. James T. Webb, feeling connected and letting go are adaptive coping methods of managing these existential events.

I know pushing through these crises became harder as I let go of my theism, a process that happened gradually and somewhat reluctantly beginning in my early 30s.  Finding a community of like-minded people seemed unlikely after leaving two churches and wondering where the doubter belonged. I did find those people in the UU church I’ve attended these past several years, and they do offer community, albeit a community of people prone to the same sorts of doubts and depression. That’s perhaps too dramatic, as these same people work through those issues, moving though life determined to make it a bit better for those they touch directly or tangentially. There are no answers or perfectionism, but there is acknowledgement that there are big questions, plenty of big problems in the world, and a paucity of easy answers.

But it’s not really enough when this angst brings me down. I feel so small and ineffective in a giant world that frankly overwhelms, saddens, angers, and scares me. My life occurs in a but a tick of the second hand on the cosmic clock. My reach is so small, my grasp so loose, and my strength so inconsequential. And to top it off, I’m really not trying. The chaos continues around — people are born, they suffer, they die, and for what?

I don’t know. And I don’t know what I can do about any of it. Webb recommends several additional antidotes to connectedness and letting go. He advocates knowing one’s self, being involved in causes, maintaining a sense of humor, touching, living in the moment, cultivating optimism and resiliency, and being aware of “rippling,” the way our lives affect those around us. I’d agree that all of those can help ameliorate some of the pain associated with the existential crises that continue to punctuate my life.

I do think there is goodness in the existential angst. It serves as an honest acknowledgment that there is deep pain the world: divisions that need healing and people who need compassion. It reminds me that despite the reality of our aloneness, we are stronger together. And perhaps best of all, at least when I can turn a bit of light to the darkest of the gloom, is the reminder that love matters. The way we treat each other — the way we love each other — matters. If for nothing else, showing those in front of me love and compassion lightens their load and tightens the connection between us. And, if Webb is right about the ripple effect, it’s then worth knowing the love we show can carry to those not in front of us.

Does that matter, in the long arc of the universe? I don’t know. But it gives me a bit of comfort and lifts me back to the moment I’m in, making it an effective antidote for the time being. It lightens the quality of the inner dialogue and warms something within me that I’m willing to call my soul. It informs a course of action when the headlines are bleak — connect with others and simply love them. It’s the only purpose to this life that resonates with me, and if I’d look at the back of my car more often, I’d be reminded of that. Love. It’s our soul purpose. The rest follows. And a bit of the cloud lifts.

For a fine article on existential depression, read Dr. James Webb’s piece, Dabrowski’s Theory and Existential Depression in Gifted Children and Adults

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3 thoughts on “Existential Darkness at the Dawning of the New Year

  1. Thank you for the thoughts, Sarah. And welcome to midlife ;-) I can, in certain moments, resonate with everything you say here (and also, thanks for the reference to Webb’s piece!). What you write reminds me of the existential despair most post WW2 Europeans suffered and the Existential philosophy born from that angst. Toward that end I remind you (and others who happen upon these comments) of a short little essay that got me through many such moments and exhilarated life for me again – over and over. The last few lines are the best:

    “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” – The Myth of Sisyphus by ALbert Camus (http://www.nyu.edu/classes/keefer/hell/camus.html)

    • Thanks, Alex! Camus’ piece on Sisyphus cast a different way to view what seems without purpose, what is absurd. I’ll add it to my arsenal against the existential angst that flares more often than before. I need all I can get.

      The Webb article does hold a good deal of wisdom, doesn’t it?

  2. Pingback: Intensely Passionate and Passionately Intense | Finding My Ground

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