There is a point that some of us reach in life where the everyday normality to which everyone appears to be well adjusted just isn’t enough to keep us content, stable or secure. It can come out of the blue, or after a taste of the success we may have aspired to that once seemed to promise fulfilment. It is the point of questioning our life in ways that run deeper than contemporary social narratives commonly adopted concerning ambition, career, family, appearance, and material comforts with which most of society busies itself. Existential crisis is a crossroads of awareness at which we realise that these pursuits just aren’t enough to calm that part of us that is awake to questions of life and death, meaning and purpose, the eternal, and our very small, fleeting part in the inconceivable expanse of the universe. In this sense it raises the pointed question of ‘what really matters?’.
For some, this question at the point of existential awareness is never very far away. For others, it can be a horrifying dread that awakens us suddenly in the middle of the night or in the middle of life, demanding answers to questions we seldom dare ask. In either case, anxiety or angst lies at the centre of this experience: a dread and deep sense of unease that can sometimes be confused with depression or some other unexplained malady that torments us. Typically, such moments can arise out of significant life changes: the loss of a loved one or career, retirement, the so-called ‘mid-life crisis’, a health scare, a major challenge to our assumptions, or the sheer force of meaninglessness that breaks through a life of endless routine, finding oneself alone for extended periods, loss of status or material possessions, a crisis of faith, becoming a parent, getting married or divorced, being near death through accident or illness, a change of culture or a shift in consciousness brought about by substance misuse or a spiritual experience. There are many events in life that lift us out of the daydream of conventional thought into a greater awareness of the fundamental features of a temporal, fragile life and our particular life’s demand that we fulfil a purpose beyond the one which we may have assumed to this point.
The truth is that the emptiness or nothingness that can characterise existential crisis is often a hunger in us that yearns for more than the superficial, material comforts Western society is built upon. And like bodily hunger, existential hunger is a call to be fed in what used to be called the ‘soul’: a place that requires for its fulfilment existential and spiritual answers rather than more of the mundane. However, many of us, rather than discerning the difference, attempt to satisfy this need through escaping into entertainment, pleasure, alcohol and mind-altering substances, over-eating, over-spending, addictions, sex, reckless behaviours, and the many other means of quelling our inner disquiet. These attempts, however, are like eating more junk food when our body craves real nourishment that a steady diet of junk food has failed to provide. And likewise more of the same will stave off the hunger for a while, whilst the deeper craving for something absent remains, perhaps as a whisper or knawing in the background of our immediate awareness.
And so, existential crisis or awakening can present us with an important fork in the road: a point of open possibility; of freedom, and the choice to continue along the paths we know, or to take a new path perhaps into uncharted areas of life that previously scared us. It can also present us with temptations to deviate from the path we know to be right but which is nevertheless the more difficult road, in favour of one that seems more interesting, intriguing and easy as we attempt to alleviate the boredom, tedium or suffering that precipitated our entry into a place of greater torment. It is therefore important to firstly recognise existential crisis for what it is: an opening up of possibility, freedom, and the angst that comes from freedom. To confuse it with depression or a cliched view of mid-life’s lack of novelty and adventure, is to risk confusing an opportunity for greater awakening with a problem to be solved, or a symptom to be alleviated with an easy answer.
For this reason, it is important to be able to address existential experiences responsibly; resisting the temptation to make yourself feel better by any means available. Instead, being supported through existential crisis can mean the difference between pathologising your experience by thinking there is something ‘wrong’ with you, or escaping your experience by responding too quickly with an overnight remedy that usurps or placates the inherent value of this difficult but important place. In this regard, it can be helpful to find a supportive relationship with someone experienced in this area that can help you take stock of your life; recognising what is important and what is unimportant emotionally, psychologically, materially, and spiritually in order to know which direction is right for you. Because the right path for you is not necessarily the easier path, and by having someone willing to be authentic, honest and truthful with you in your journey, it can mean the difference between evolving and growing as a person to a better, stronger place in life, or inadvertently travelling further away from home, making the journey back that much harder.
Photo: ‘Outside’ No.2, oil on canvas, by the author
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