Meditations on Existential Dread
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for?”
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
1. MAIN CHARACTER SYNDROME
Here’s the thing. It should, and I want it to, be clear that the concept of “existing” has never made any sense to me. Since about the age of seven, I have always felt this overbearing confusion and disconnection towards life. From the moment I unfortunately gained consciousness and self-awareness, it planted a seed of uncertainty in me, like a sin I was born with.
My first memories of childhood are of me trying to understand what it meant to be this thing, this creature, inhabiting this weird space that I called myself. I guess it was natural, as I attributed it to the high level of social awkwardness that I had when interacting with other human beings. I would sit alone in my own corner of the cafeteria, just watching other humans be humans. Normally and conventionally. Something about it never clicked with me. I would get called weird because I didn’t behave like them. I thought they were delusional, and I was the normal one. I saw it as watching a weird sitcom every day in which I was the only real one there. Everyone else was a figment of my weird child imagination. But I guess I had it backwards. I was consistently having what they call, “Truman Show delusions.” The realization that I was now in the operator’s seat and had to drive my vehicle of a body on the rollercoaster of what we call a life was something I couldn’t understand. At what point in the womb did they ask for my signature, agreeing that I would happily sign up for this? I would see people driving on the road and think that they were all fake, because where could they all possibly be going? How were they all living their own separate lives in their own separate bodies, but I was in this one? What is it like to be another person? I didn’t get it. I thought I was just a person with some terrible narcissistic tendencies. I thought the god complex kicked in early. In the same way, I didn’t understand mortality—the way someone could be here one day and gone the next. During my junior year of high school, I had to encounter death. It started when a classmate fell in an accident at school and was airlifted to the hospital. The next day in history class, the principal announced over the intercom that he didn’t make it. Everyone cried, but we still had to continue learning about the Roaring Twenties. Time doesn’t stop for anyone. It just keeps moving, even when you are hurting. It’s cruel.
It happened twice more. The second time a classmate had passed by their own hand, and the third time was a teacher who passed away from cancer. This heightened my overall curiosity. I would go home, run to the mighty home desktop computer of the early 2000’s, and Google all of life’s unanswered questions. You could say I was a natural-born philosopher. I had such a desire to figure it out. I would convince myself I had the power to find out the answers, as if I was some sort of Indigo Child. Sitting with the uncanniness of human existence kept me up at night. I didn’t understand how anything came to be, how people just went on and lived naturally. You know, the shit that they attempt to explain to you in seventh-grade biology class. It would fill my body with rage that a simple Google search could not give me the answers I was looking for.
SPOILER ALERT! NOBODY HAS THE ANSWERS TO THESE THINGS EITHER.
My Google search history would read, “Feeling like I’m not real. Why am I in this body? Why doesn’t God talk back to me? Is God even real? What happens when you die?” All I was met with on the corners of the internet were terms like derealization, dissociation, as well as the nearest psychiatric treatment centers. It convinced me that I needed one.
There was a time I came across the philosophical concept of solipsism, the theory that suggests that the only reality is your own. I fell down the rabbit hole of this theory and came to two conclusions:
I think I am a solipsist,
This uncertainty wouldn’t go away; it would only grow stronger. I was consistently left unsatisfied, and it was the recurrent and main theme of my life.
2. PHILOSOPHY CLASS
It only makes sense that this continual internal struggle with myself and existence led me down the philosophy major pathway. Entering college, I still didn’t understand what it meant to “exist;” but I tended to just ignore it and roll with it. There wasn’t anything I could do about it.
When I was nineteen, I went through some weird rebellious phase where I was experimenting heavily with alcohol and other substances. The specifics are not important. Just know—it was NOT pretty. It’s the path everyone warns you against going down and I went ALL THE WAY down it. Through my experimentation with these substances, I started to fully believe that death was not a real concept, that I was not real, or that…I WAS God. I engaged in a lot of what can be considered “stoner philosophy.” In all honesty, it began to get real when I was extremely under the influence and watched The Matrix for the first time. I know what you might be thinking, and yes, my mind was FUCKING BLOWN. But this wasn’t something new to me. This existential warfare was constantly sitting on my chest, and I reached for anything and everything I could to ignore it. If it made me ignore the fact I existed, I gladly did it.
After about a year of spending my life in that way, I started to feel the consequences, as it started to impact me negatively. The rebel in me started to give out. I felt like an existential failure. I wasn’t taking anything seriously. I felt lost. I ended up on academic probation at my community college. I spent a good amount of time trying to figure out what I wanted to do in my life. After good consideration, I remembered how intriguing the idea of solipsism was to me, and I decided to take my first philosophy class. It was Introduction to Philosophy at my community college.
This class was on Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at 11:00 a.m. until 11:50 a.m. I walked into this classroom and sat in the very front row. I was prepared to test my limits and get my academic life back in order. My professor walked in at least five minutes late; he had long grey hair, he was slim, and he was wearing a basic T-shirt and jeans. That motherfucker looked like Jesus. Whatever you might imagine a typical philosophy professor trope to be, that was him. He made it clear that he might care slightly less about us missing class this semester because this was his last semester of teaching, and he might even be the one to cancel class for us. He just wanted us to call him “Darrell.” He went on a tangent about how he was a certified ex-stoner who went through a phase where he only cared about how much weed he was smoking with not a care about school. Sounds familiar, right? He told us that he went to the Army, got married and had kids, and went to college afterwards. He got his life together and graduated Magna Cum Laude. When he told this story, considering what I had just gone through in my life, it felt spiritual for me to be there. For once, I didn’t feel like I was mentally insane.
Part of being a philosophy major is recognizing that you are sitting in a room full of people who all may have looked up at the sky once in their life and had a “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?” moment. It’s also sitting in a room full of people who you can recognize have either smoked weed or have experimented with a psychedelic at least once. I realized that there were people who accept that these questions don't have definitive answers, but there were ways to accept it, and find comfort, even with the unknown. Through reading Bertrand Russell's "Appearance and Reality" and Plato's Allegory of the Cave, I was able to learn about the concept of establishing what reality is and our perception of it.
I completed the class with an A. Darrell emailed me saying that he appreciated how good of a student I was, and how he knew I earned an A without having to read my last assignments. I thanked him in a return email back, telling him everything I just expressed here, and elaborated on the existential feelings I had felt prior. He told me that everyone who is philosophically inclined feels crazy at some points, but to remember that I have a community where I can find comfort in knowing this thinking is encouraged. After that class, I knew I had to continue my studies in philosophy. I kept the tests, assignments, and a copy of Russell’s “Appearance and Reality,” and hung them on my wall as a form of encouragement.
Shortly after that class, I made the decision to officially declare majors in English and Philosophy. I had made connections but recognized that no professor will attain Darrell’s level. The existentialist in me has grown, as it is now the year of the pandemic. I have even more time to sit by myself and question the meaning of life. I am pursuing my degrees completely online, as the world has shut down.
In my existential philosophy class on Zoom, we’re talking about Sartre and analyzing what he meant when he said, “existence precedes essence.” I am sitting by myself in my room, and it seems like I haven't left it in years. It's one of the first warm days in March, and I'm stuck inside listening to classmates give their two cents on what an existential crisis is through a computer screen. What a great time to teach this class.
My professor makes the same point he does every time, that he doesn’t like the use the term “existential crisis,” because it’s overused and misused. “I just want us to be careful,” he says. During our discussion, some agree with Sartre, saying that we build our purpose, while others are taking the route of Camus, saying everything is meaningless, and we all resemble Sisyphus. It’s not visible, but you can feel the tension creeping into the spring air of the virtual classroom. It’s filling up the balloon in our chests. My classmates, these humans, are ready to defend their existence. I guess that’s their right. As I’m listening, I realize that the only thing I’ve managed to grasp is that humans have too much damn curiosity and time on our hands. With this overwhelming desire to figure out all of life’s unanswered questions, we can never be comfortable with the unknowing.
I zone out of the conversation with the thought that we could be like the birds outside, enjoying the sense of freshness that we have waited months for, but our condition has led us here. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t seem fair that we must submit to this existence, this life of work, of having to figure it out because we seem more rational than other animals. At the end of the day, aren’t we all just animals? The only difference is that we can spew nonsense out of our mouths at a different rate.
I want to be a bird. I want to fly. I want to have a brain so small that it doesn’t make me think of existentialism. As Parmenides believed, I want to just be. But here we are, questioning and debating our existence. Sartre would say that we should find meaning in this. Camus would say there is no meaning, but we must embrace the absurdity of the universe. Being a nihilist doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I’ve learned that we often fill in fun facts that help us waste time. We can learn that we have fingerprints that are coded with our entire identity and apparently, it’s in our tongues too. We blink around twenty times per minute, there are bugs in our eyelashes and on our skin, and when we leak water from our eyes when we feel upset. Are these the facts that make us feel superior? Humans are just fucking weird.
I zone back in, and we’ve moved on to Sartre’s play No Exit, and we’re discussing the quote, “Hell is other people.” My classmates are concluding that he may have been right. Then, someone brings up the point that the people who have the equipment to save the planet also have the means to destroy it. Someone else says that Sartre is right because of living with their mom, and that’s what Hell is. There’s a girl who is very adamant about her love of other people. She knows what a good person is. I am sure someone is thinking that the play relates to the dynamics of the class, but they are too shy to say it. Sometimes you can read what people are thinking, without them having to say it. Sometimes I try to read the puzzled looks, the confusion, and the anger on these strangers’ faces. Class is ending, and my professor makes an uncareful joke about being able to explain what an existential crisis is. It is funny because I don’t think any of us will ever understand it enough to explain it.
In a different class, we are discussing Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle thinks that we are naturally political animals. He wrote, “Every man, by nature, has an impulse toward a partnership with others.” My professor goes on about how people debate what exactly he meant by that, but our goal should be to live in a way that is actively participating in the good of society. Living a life of solitude is not being human, according to Aristotle. Instead, Aristotle says living life isolated is the life of a beast or of a God. I take big issue with that sentiment; I don’t think humans are made for this. Who decided that? Is that what this is all about? I keep the thoughts inside in my head.
In my writing class, I write in a poem, “Aristotle thinks being human means being an active participant in society, I think he’s wrong.”
I was told to let the poem say that itself, so I changed the line to, “I think he’s fucking wrong. Being human is just a curse.”
It worked for me.
3. THE BIG BANG, THE EXISTENTIAL CRISIS
In reading this, you should know that it was bound to happen. These existential issues were building up inside of me. My life was just waiting for the right moment to completely explode. For most of my life, I ignored it. I refused to accept or confront it. Then, it happened. Full-on fucking existential crisis mode. I had always thought that people having an “existential crisis” was a joke, something that wasn’t really that serious. I have now learned that you should never underestimate the validity of what the human condition can and will do to you. The weird part was it came at a time in my life where I felt like I was thriving, like I was the warm spring air. My soul was blooming. But something came down and crushed it. Like things were going too well for me, so my brain had to ruin it. Not just ruin it but destroy it. Detonate it. The wires inside of me sparked and short-circuited. Everything I felt like I knew was lost. I was falling down an abyss. I’m not sure what caused it. It could have been the constant doom-scrolling on my phone, or hearing people come to terms with death--young people at that-- and hearing how things are evolving and escalating drastically. The fact that the planet was getting worse by the second, and there’s nothing we can realistically do to stop it. It made me feel helpless, like I should be taking a ladder and climbing myself up to the Earth and sky to:
1. figure out what is going on up there,
2. have a conversation with God or whoever about it, and
3. mend the Earth.
But I couldn’t. The fragility of life, the confusion, the questioning; it seemed pointless. It is, in the grand scheme of things, always pointless. I kept questioning why I was worried about things that served no purpose, why I was working so hard when it would all end. Every time I left my house, I was convinced I was going to die. Thanatophobia is what they call it—the fear of death.
I was convinced a meteor would fall on my head, I would sink through an invisible hole in the ground, or I was going to spontaneously combust. I was not only convinced of this for myself, but for those I cared about as well.
My therapist kept telling me to learn that death is not in my control, so I shouldn’t worry about it. I was wasting time if I stayed in that state of mind. This was a very Stoic conception of death. As Marcus Aurelius said in his Meditations, “It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.” I was getting tired of being recommended that damn book. The funny thing about that book is that it was a collection of Aurelius’s personal thoughts, like a diary, that nobody was ever supposed to read. I guess I took a lot of writing inspiration from him.
The crisis made me want to have the firmest grasp on every fear I held inside of me. I questioned everything you could question. Life, death, spirituality, God, the meaning of life, purpose. These questions kept screaming at me internally. Questions like:
“WHAT IF THERE IS A HELL?”
“IS THIS HELL?”
“SHOULD I BE TALKING TO GOD MORE?”
*Cue me awkwardly deciding to pray, but it being a faint “hey God...sorry that we haven’t talked in a while, sorry I randomly decided to believe in you again...but what the fuck…”
“SHOULD I GO TO CHURCH JUST IN CASE?”
“WHAT IF I AM ALIVE WHEN THE WORLD ENDS?”
“DO I REALLY WANT TO LIVE TO SEE AI TAKE OVER?”
“IS DYING YOUNG OR GETTING OLD WORSE?”
It was intense. It was a storm of emotions.
It was real. It was there. It was a feeling that was hidden inside of me that came crawling out.
This feeling which connects humans in things like philosophy. This desire we have to figure shit out. The feelings which make you write in your journal, “God, I just want to be a bird,” or think this human shit is a scam. It’s exhausting trying to figure out the meaning of life, believe me, I’ve clearly tried.
This feeling is private and shoved down but is the common unsaid feeling between you and all the people you sit next to.
Hannah Flanagan is a senior double majoring in English and Philosophy with a minor in Creative Writing. She has always felt the overwhelming need to write. After graduation, she plans to continue her creative writing pursuits working towards her MFA. She wants to thank Professor Kryah and Professor Vogrin for inspiring the form of these pieces in workshops, which now hold a very meaningful place in her heart.