The Problem of Existing

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

A philosophical deep dive into coping with the anxiety of living.


By Radheesh Ameresekere | Canada

 

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

 

Among my favourite philosophers has always and firmly rested the ever-anxious Dane, Søren Kierkegaard. The father of the European existentialist movement, Kierkegaard provided a rather dreary diagnosis of the human condition prima facie. Writing in Sickness Unto Death:“There is not a single human being who does not despair at least a little, in whose innermost being there does not dwell an uneasiness, an unquiet, a discordance, an anxiety in the face of an unknown something”. In many ways, the criticism of late-modern philosophy as a project of misery and melancholy seems rather well placed. But in other ways, Kierkegaard’s brutal authenticity and philosophical vulnerability is precisely the appraisal needed in an age of worry. That very sense of despair and anxiety – in essence – is the very absurdity we must acknowledge to combat it.


I have found myself an increasingly anxious young person in the last few years. Anxiety which, in many ways, had always been present within me in early life, but that I have seemingly only become aware of in recent memory. An existential anxiety which naturally manifests as a psychological anxiety (or perhaps vice-versa, but I am a philosopher not a clinician, so who is to say). Our understanding of existence is rarely little more than the association of ideas, and many of our ideas are rather... daunting. Given enough attention, they are often downright terrifying. Put them together, and things quickly become overwhelming. Big questions.


Is the way I’m living aimless and therefore meaningless?

Is there a future in such a dreary social condition?

Are my days destined to be spent alone?

Am I obligated to have children or am I obligated not to?

What happens after we die?


So on and so forth ad nauseum. Small questions too.


Is this the right job for me?

Am I going to be late today?

Why did I say that?

Have I forgotten our anniversary?


So on and so forth ad nauseum.


The root of this anxiety is the nauseating consequence of... existing. Now all is not lost, but bear with me a moment. The interest of this anxiety is two-fold in the modern project. At the macroscopic level, there is a sort of Freudian collective-neurosis. It is a symptom of a generation; a sign of the times, categorizing a proverbial age of angst. However, at the microscopic level, this is essentially a plight of radical individualism. The anxious hive is composed of a million anxious little worker bees – no bees, no hive. The handful of questions I alluded to, though implicating obvious collective ramifications, are essentially

engaged with the existence of the ‘I’ (or the ‘me’ if you prefer). They focus on the individual constantly at odds with the consequences of their actions or inactions. They arise as a product of merely being. By the brutally confronting manner of its nature then, we must examine existential anxiety qua the freedom of human choice.


The trickiness of the whole project is how limited our options are to combat the magnitude of merely existing. The ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach, though chastised by the Socratics among us, seems initially alluring; these questions can’t bother you if you’re not asking them. The philosophical issue with this approach is that a wilful ignorance that leads to inauthenticity, but if you’re indifferent to the likes of Socrates, Sartre, and company, there are nonetheless practical qualms. The practically issue with this approach is whether or not we can ever actually avoid acknowledging these questions. In many ways they seemed baked into our evolutionary, social, or rational codec, and will rear their ugly heads no matter the degree to which we repress and relegate them. Simply, they are a consequence of thinking in general.


If not this, then perhaps the ‘molehills not mountains’ approach. The likes of Epictetus and

Marcus Aurelius often taught that “you have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Certainly, a level of mental Stoicism may help combat this anxiety, but there are again practical concerns. The mental armour we may don amounts to nothing when that one thing - or one person - or one moment - forces you to realize you that you are eternally at odds with your freedom and its consequences. Only as strong as its weakest link, the moment a singularity exploits a chink in your armour, you are left entirely unguarded. While not grounds to abandon the Stoic project altogether, this possibility itself can be a source of angst. All that’s left now... is the leap.


The leap into what? The duality that this question produces has plagued existentialist thinkers throughout the movement’s tenure. The likes of internet, Reddit-brand existentialists have often encouraged a defeatist leap into an alleged meaningless and wholehearted disregard for life and freedom. On the other end of the spectrum, the Kierkegaards, Camuses, and Sartres of the world have encouraged taking the bull by the horns. There’s no way to avoid it. There’s no way to arm yourself. You can despair at the despair. Or you can embrace it. Make it such that, as Camus said, "your very existence is an act of rebellion". Make it such that the dizzying freedom of your existence, albeit a source of

great angst, is also the wind beneath your wings. Reflect and then act as you stare into the void, such that every decision you make is a conscious “fuck you” to the misery that accompanies life.


The practicality of this is, understandably, perplexing. How do we live? This has always been the implicit project of philosophy (if not ethics): eudaemonia – the good life lived well. The modern project has merely expanded to include a rather perplexing variable: despair. How do we live a good life well in the face of monumental, inevitable existential despair? For a start, the very act of continuing to live is among the most defiant acts. But to live without substance is... to be a plant. Some, like myself, find it in God by orienting their lives with the beatitude of Heaven or some similar summum bonum. Some just embrace the meaningless and take solace in their mere 80-something years, awaiting the day they are dirt in the ground. The more eager among us find it in living to the full breadth of life before they either become worm-food or meet the almighty. For some it’s the ethical. For others the

aesthetic. For most, it is some inexpiable, layered hybrid of the aforementioned and more. At the end of the day, there is hardly a one-stop-shop solution to the problem of existing. Rooted in radical individualism, in many ways the solution must then be a radically individual one too. Best of luck in finding it.


The first existentialist will likely remain among my favourites. A brutally authentic, unapologetic thinker, he always understood that this game is rigged from the start. But we may as well play, and have a laugh along the way. How we play, requires a little more nuance and thought – nuance and thought for which philosophy classes and armchair debates will always be a home for. Even upon ‘figuring it out’, the odds of a catch-22 are nevertheless as high as they’ll ever be. Eternally the comedian, Kierkegaard jested that “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations - one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it - you will regret both.”

 

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