Nothing feels more alive to me right now than the visceral awareness that I hold existential anxiety at bay by immersing myself in work or keeping myself distracted with activity. It’s beginning to seem like if I don’t have something practical and productive to focus on or something work-related to feel anxious about then a deep gnawing feeling begins to unfold and reveal itself at the edge of my awareness. Usually I can quickly find something to busy myself with to avoid this feeling – suddenly cleaning the bathroom seems much more attractive, an unexpected side benefit of this kind of existential angst, or so my wife would say.
According to the model of Personality Adaptations from Transactional Analysis, I’m a Responsible Workaholic (sometimes also referred to as Obsessive Compulsive). I tend to define myself through “doing” rather than “being”, my self-esteem has a complex relationship with my need to be doing stuff and so I’ve conditioned myself to feel like if I’m not doing stuff then I’m not worthy somehow. Perhaps this is why I love so much the moment when I climb into bed, because when I’m asleep I can truly and simply be without giving myself a guilt trip about not doing anything. To some extent this personality style explains the reason why I begin to feel anxious in those moments between activities, when there’s an opportunity to simply sit and reflect, but I think there’s something more universal to this experience too.
This is not to say I’m a bundle of nerves. I’m one of the most laid back people I know. The feeling I’m describing is subtle to the point of invisibility – I think it’s been there all my life but I’m only now beginning to see it’s shape and feel it’s texture. I suspect I have made choices in my life which have kept me busy and anxious in order to avoid having the time and space to experience this deeper existential anxiety. Recently I quit a job which made me very anxious. As the days passed and the anxious feelings ebbed away I noticed a new feeling, one I did not recognise for a while, then I realised that the feeling was the absence of anxiety. For a while that felt good and then I started to feel anxious about not being anxious. When I discussed this with my counsellor we were able to open up a space which enabled me for the first time to really explore my fear of death.
Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human. But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and, inevitably, diminish and die. Mortality has haunted us from the beginning of history. Four thousand years ago, the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh reflected on the death of his friend Enkidu with the words: “Thou hast become dark and cannot hear me. When I die shall I not be like Enkidu? Sorrow enters my heart. I am afraid of death.”
Gilgamesh speaks for all of us. As he feared death, so do we all—each and every man, woman, and child. For some of us the fear of death manifests only indirectly, either as generalized unrest or masqueraded as another psychological symptom; other individuals experience an explicit and conscious stream of anxiety about death; and for some of us the fear of death erupts into terror that negates all happiness and fulfillment.
Irvin D. Yalom, Staring at the Sun
The Givens of Existence
Existential philosophy and existential therapy explore what are commonly referred to as the Givens of Existence – the irreconcilable realities of life – our innate awareness of which inevitably give rise to existential anxiety. These givens of existence are:
- the inevitability of our own death;
- the reality that we are essentially free and the responsibility and uncertainty this freedom brings with it;
- isolation, the fact that we enter this world alone and we must leave it alone;
- the fact that we must create our own meaning in a universe which is inherently meaningless.
Now I don’t know if I really believe there is no meaning in the universe beyond that which I choose for myself. And while this list may seem at first glance to offer a pretty bleak picture of life I do believe that there is something hugely liberating about contemplating these ideas, at least on an intellectual level, as I have been doing for the last few years. However, I’ve begun to realise there’s quite a big difference between thinking about these ideas and really feeling them deep down. A lot of people seek the comfort and certainty of absolute truths in order to avoid these feelings, and I don’t blame them.
I’m increasingly aware that some of my favourite methods of distracting myself from these uncomfortable feelings no longer serve me particularly well. T.V. is still a favourite way of numbing myself. I’m also noticing just how much food and alcohol plays an important role in pushing these feelings away. Recently I’ve become aware of the way I can binge eat big bags of kettle chips and how this often corresponds to relatively small but significant moments of stress in my life. I’m quite shocked to be noticing for the first time the correlation between experiencing a stressful moment and then reaching for the kettle chips.
Productive and satisfying though it may be, I recognise that writing this blog post is also a form of escape from these feelings of discomfort on a Sunday afternoon because I do not have something else to be busying myself with, neither work nor play. This is all the more poignant today because while I would really like to end this post with some kind of positive affirmation, I’m aware that sitting with the discomfort these feelings cause me is perhaps more important than trying to find ways to optimistically transcend them.
An afterthought on privelege
The reality of my huge middle class privilege is not lost on me. I’m deeply humbled and somewhat embarrassed by how fortunate I am to be sitting here contemplating what it feels like to not be anxious about anything when there are millions of people all over the world worrying about whether they will be able to feed their children tomorrow.