Existential Anxiety Means You’re Alive
I always found the psychoanalytic pre-disposition (and apparent zealousness) for Freudian explanations of childhood trauma as the cause of any and all psychological troubles to be somewhat unsatisfactory. Granted, such a school of thought has great merit under the right circumstances. But I had a wonderful childhood, thankfully, and the pinning of blame for adverse emotional states upon childhood trauma didn’t fit the narrative of my own life experience. I knew there had to be other explanations for those intermittent periods of angst, melancholy and despair, whether these explanations be cultural, biological or philosophical.
Recently I came to realise that the very act of existing could in and of itself induce a state of personal anxiety. After all, this is what the great existential philosophers throughout history have always espoused upon. How is one to take this finite, limited existence and fulfill one’s potential and grandiose ambitions? We are all painfully aware of how little time we have on this earth, relatively speaking, and even more aware of how inept and constrained we are as individuals with all of our inherent flaws and imperfections.
But this is what makes us human. Our beauty is inextricably linked to our imperfections.
Soren Kierkegaard observed that our anxiety could be traced to the “dizziness of our freedom”, our privileged capacity to choose from a multitude of options with almost every decision we confront on a daily basis. By definition this is a good thing, and something we should cherish and be grateful for, but it would be foolish to overlook the magnitude of the existential angst our confrontation with the consequences of our choices induces. Irrespective of your view on our scope for free will, apart from the most ardent determinist we are all likely to agree that we exercise at least a degree of autonomy over our decision making. This begs the question: how do I know what to choose?
The problem is that we can never be furnished with enough facts or information to make a fully informed decision. We are cripplingly ignorant. Whilst we may see minor glimpses of this problem when it comes to our food selection at lunch or which Netflix series we wish to watch, matters with more far-reaching implications — such as our decisions in relation to career, spouses, friends, places to live, how to spend our days and time — almost inevitably induce serious contemplation, and sometimes inertia. The endless freedom and possibilities could well be the source of our negative feelings that come embedded with this pact of existence. How could it be any other way? We are the only known species who exist fully aware of our own mortality. We are like Gods — who also happen to be conscious of our own biological decay. As Ernest Becker noted in his iconic book ‘A Denial of Death’,
“man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.”
Yes, we can only choose one thing out of an infinite number of possibilities. And yes, we are all painfully aware of our flaws, imperfections and limitations. But as Jordan Peterson says, the possibility of life lies in actualising our potential within our given limitations. This is where meaning is to be found. If we removed our flaws, we would be removing the essence of what it means to be a human being. We like other people precisely because of their vulnerabilities. Without these things, we would not be who we are. We would be robots. Artificial intelligence. If anything, we should be glad of mortality, for it imbues each moment with a significance that only finiteness could grant. Knowing that this moment could be our last, it feels all the more special. Each time you say goodbye to a friend or loved one, it could be the last time you ever see them. That’s powerful.
Not getting to do or be everything we aspire to is perhaps the trade off we must come to terms with. As Martin Heidegger said, you have to sacrifice your youth for something. For something is better than nothing. By definition, whatever you choose is a rejection of a hundred or a thousand other options. Yet I am not of the opinion that immortality would necessarily be a good thing for the human species, precisely for the reasons outlined above. It could lead to a complacency and apathy for life.
Our limited time, and freedom to choose, is a gift. Perhaps this can be a remedial perspective to adopt as an antidote to our existential angst, the occurrence of which means that you’re alive. How wonderful.
The Ithaca Diaries