Existential Crisis

Copy of Outside No 2
‘Outside’ No.2. Oil on canvas, by the author

“When you hit a wall – of your own imagined limitations – just kick it in.”

― Sam Shepard

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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10 Comments Add yours

  1. jim- says:

    Sometimes I think that since the Industrial Age, we’ve just go too much time to be bored and think about these things. Seriously. I don’t suppose 300 years ago we had much time to lament our Existence. I could be wrong, not knowing much about the history of psychotherapy, but it seems about right.
    Our food now comes in a plate and we raise or grow nothing for ourselves. Life is full of time consuming and meaningless gadgets that waste the days away. Do you ever recommend to your patients to grow a garden, take a hike, just turn off the devices and live life like our bodies have deigned to do? Nice work Stephen. Good to see you and hope you are well

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen says:

      Hi Jim, good to hear from you. Yes, the superficial lives that our culture promotes is behind much of the despair and anxiety in society. Coupled with a world in crisis, politicians who tend to be immoral or more interested in war than peace creates a milieu that is anxiety-provoking for most of us.

      At the same time, existential philosophers for hundreds of years have been saying that there is something fundamental to being human that gives rise to existential anxiety. Death, freedom, meaninglessness, isolation being the big four. For thinking people there are always questions about whether this path is the right one over the many others we could have chosen.

      I haven’t told any patients to ‘take a hike’ yet (!), but yes I definitely recommend people do ‘real’ things like being in nature, gardening, taking care of animals, plants, people etc, having real relationships and spending less time online or on escapism and the eternal acquisition of money and property. There’s more to life than what we’re trained to go after.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. jim- says:

    I understand that. Sure, philosophers have been down this road. The ones that had time to kill and contemplate. I guess I was thinking more about everyday people without all the leisure. Leisure is good too, don’t get me wrong. I can lay in a hammock with the best of them.
    In reference I guess I’ll use my place in the jungle of rural Panama. It’s like going back in time. Everyone walks everywhere and works hard. They also allow natural death with a little mourning and move on. They don’t spend a fortune eking out a few more days of life when they know it’s futile. More acceptance than here in the states.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen says:

      I think if many of us had the time to contemplate life, balanced against meaningful work, then we would be more content than when continually striving for ambition or just to pay bills. Our society in the west isn’t a healthy one. It’s very fear-driven and gives rise to crises and distress in part because it isn’t healthy, denying many of the truths inherent in the more balanced life you speak of in Panama for example.

      I think people would be a lot more content if they were able to reject many of the norms we are given to conform to in the Western model: vanity, appearance, status, wealth, worship of youth, and the denial of death. Contemplating life then takes its place in the context of work, rest and the simple acceptance of life and death when we can wonder about the bigger meaning and appreciate what we have instead of what we don’t have. The rat race robs us of this balance as we become wrapped up in other people’s ideas of ‘success’ and personal value and the material possessions we use to escape boredom.

      For that reason I get so much out of camping in the wild where my time is taken up focussed on the basics of living then relaxing looking at the stars or a camp fire. I’d recommend that to everyone as a good antedote to modern life.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jim- says:

        What I find interesting is when people arrive at their philosophical destinations, a big part of that is to be comfortable enough to be themselves. They finally tell the world to f-off after most of life has past. This would be a good starting point, not ending.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Stephen says:

        Exactly. But schooling is the indoctrination process that teaches us to fill the roles of obedient workers, and so usually most of us don’t get the opportunity to reject societal norms until we’ve seen through the lies, often as a result of that existential crisis I spoke of. The work I do with people is about helping them come home to themselves for who they genuinely are, not what society expects them to be. As you say, that should really be our starting point and would save a lot of wasted years in many cases – my own included.

        Here’s a guy I like a lot: John Taylor Gatto, who died last year. He was an award-winning educator and eloquent critic of State schooling for the reasons I’ve alluded to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eP98ZKt709A

        Liked by 1 person

      3. jim- says:

        Amen. Me too. But then you’d have to find a new line of work…. Knowing you I think you’d take that as a good thing.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Stephen says:

        Yes, as much as I enjoy working with people, I’d sooner live in a world that was at peace, living simply and cooperatively and where the elders in the communities and families were the ‘therapists’. I’d be quite content chopping wood and growing food in a permaculture garden.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Stephen says:

      Many thanks for your kind comment Dr Masaoud. All the best, Stephen


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