Have you ever looked up from your desk with that ringing question in your head: “What am I doing here?”
Worse still if it’s followed by questions like ‘Does my life have any purpose?’ and ‘What does it even mean to have a sense of purpose?’
Welcome to existential dread. Or existential angst.
Chances are if you’ve felt it, you’ve also questioned your sanity.
Existential dread is just not the kind of issue that comes up in everyday conversation. It’s firmly in the ‘weird and difficult’ category of thoughts.
I’ve found that only a few friends are open to talking about it. A couple of them really get it - and when they do it’s deeply reassuring. But others give me that slightly glazed look, like I just asked them, out of the blue, to explain string theory.
When I was at University I found like minded souls in Philosophy tutorials, and occasionally since then in random late night conversations with friends.
Sometimes existential dread feels like standing on the edge of a void. A teetering, vertiginous sensation. The feeling comes from the fear of radical, open, limitless freedom. If we are truly free to choose, why do we choose one thing and not another? And how do we decide what to do with our lives?
It’s this feeling of terrifying freedom – and the associated responsibility – that the Existentialists were referring to. In a world in which we are truly free, we are whatever we decide to be and that carries huge weight. Søren Kierkegaard used the term ‘dread’, Heidegger used ‘angst’ and Sartre preferred ‘nausea’ and ‘anguish’. So you can see a theme there.
There’s also an accompanying longing for authenticity, for deeper connection with the world and with others. It’s the desire to avoid what Sartre describes as “bad faith”: disowning our freedom and caving to social pressures to behave in a way that is other than our true nature. If you’ve ever said or done something at work in order to match up to your ‘role’, especially something that feels completely against the grain of your own character, Sartre would describe this as living in bad faith. You are behaving as you think you should, as society or social norms dictate, and deceiving yourself and others in the process.
Existential dread has been around a while. Although it feels like our current lives (on-screen living, digital connection and social disconnection) provoke feelings of existential dread, Tolstoy described it vividly in A Confession in 1882:
“Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort?... How can man fail to see this? And how go on living?”
- A Confession, Leo Tolstoy
I admit I don’t have any solution here. But we can at least acknowledge the feeling and find comfort knowing that others through the centuries have experienced the same.
This questioning of the meaning of life can be constructive – if you allow yourself to be curious and, particularly, if you find others open to discussion. That brink-of-realisation feeling serves as a wake up call to think about what really matters.
Your options in the face of existential angst are:
To accept there is no ultimate purpose in life, and thus any meaning we find is that which we create for ourselves. In which case read Taka Kawakami’s Buddhist perspective on purpose and happiness.
To reflect on the end of your life and think of death (it’s not morbid, I promise) in order to make sense of the present. In which case read about philosopher Roman Krznaric’s thoughts on mortality and death dice.
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