Existential Dread: The Struggle And Search For Meaning


A friend of mine is really struggling with anxiety. It's not your typical anxiety. It's a deep existential anxiety. This person no longer sees the point of living. 

"What's the point? I know people who work at restaurants and have been doing that for years. They hate it," they told me recently. " But it's what works for them. Imagine doing that for the next 40 years. And then dying... you die. What is that for? What did it mean? Nothing, right?"

The truth is I largely agree with this as I told my friend. But it is a pessimistic viewpoint. Life might be meaningless in the grand sense. And yes, most of us do not get to control how we spend our time. And there's just an endless list of injustice in the world from climate change to vast inequality to the American prison system. But it is not the only thing. 

I think it is possible to acknowledge the great suffering of the world and the meaninglessness of existence, while still being in awe of existence. It is not easy. One has to work to be aware. One has to seek out art they love. One has to constantly check in with what they value and who they are. One has to cultivate compassion and love even in the face of great sorrow. And the truth is even if we do these things, the heaviness of existence gets to us all. None of us can escape suffering. Don't expect too.

Yes, I know, all those things I suggested require privilege and time, of course. Many millions of people don't get those same chances. Not everyone has a chance to go to a museum to feel awe or meditate an hour a day. Which is why it's important for those of us with privilege to do what we can for those who suffer.  

"Why do any of that," my friend asked me. "Why not just give up or just ignore suffering and seek pleasure?" 

I don't have any perfect answer for that, maybe because there isn't an answer. But I've reminded of this Kafka quote that always felt satisfying 

"You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

― Franz Kafka