If every person in the world was temporarily stripped of their daily purpose in life — if they were torn away from their responsibilities and daily routines, like going to work, taking care of children, keeping house, doing laundry — in time there would be global pandemonium.
Most individuals would begin obsessing about all the wrong things and asking unanswerable questions. For example, overthinking life and death — being born from a dark and undefinable void to dying, perhaps unexpectedly, and going back to that same obscure emptiness. Invariably, this kind of weighty musing would lead to the “Who am I?” and “Why are we here?” inquiries which can be intellectual cul de sacs — cognitive dead-ends that lack in utility.
This temporary loss of purpose would create an existential vacuum of anxiety so immense it would make everyone’s head spin. Humans could not handle it. Idle time for the human mind is worse than the devil’s playground. It’s the devil’s penitentiary.
Hence, when you experience this “existential despair,” you are facing your mortal self and the unbearable truth of your finiteness.
That’s why our life’s purpose and the responsibilities of each day, no matter how mundane help us survive. They ground us and prevent us from overthinking our ephemeral, perhaps meaningless existence.
A former patient once told me that in her experience, despite suffering from severe bouts of anxiety and depression, raising her two children forced her to look forward in life. Every graduation she attended, every soccer game, every band practice, every milestone her children achieved, compelled her to be hopeful, not fearful. It made her embrace what was to come. And as you get older, you need that because you are centering on youth instead of your own aging. So for her, mothering was her life purpose at the time. It kept her on track and helped her treat her mental condition.
So if you don’t have focus and structure as you get older, you tend to look backwards at your life more often. Sometimes with regret. You tend to obsess about losses, mistakes and bad choices, etc., with more scrutiny. The existential despair is liable to creep in and make you dissect your past when you have no business doing so.
This kind of despair could also inspire a state of solipsism –an obsessed, preoccupation with our own desires, fears and worries to the point of self-absorption. It’s also the unfounded belief that the “self” is the only measure of truth. It’s a misguided, self-indulgent gauge of reality.
As a result, any change that comes your way, any perceived unknown will appear fearful and threatening to you because it’s outside the realm of your tiny, myopic view of yourself and the world. Not having certainty and/or control is unbearable if you are caught up in a solipsistic loop. The ego-centric mind is not always the most open-minded thinker so exiting your comfort zone becomes virtually impossible.
Remember, it’s not the future that scares us, it’s our inability to control it that scares us. Self-absorption also traps us in a neurotic spin of future based thinking, which instigates a great deal of anxiety. Future-based thinking is a dangerous land-mine that gives rise to chronic fear because as we know there are no guarantees to anything.
Solipsistic self-absorption will also make you a little pompous. Suddenly you think that out of the 7.5 billion people in the world, your problems are more magnified and therefore, other people spend a great deal of time judging you from afar. Or that you are terminally unique and no one else suffers as much as you do. Or that the almighty has singled you out and personally chosen to conspire against you by making your life miserable. Well, guess what? We are NOT that important. Period.
So, lack of purpose and daily structure can be mentally hazardous. Lack of purpose means your mind is not adequately stimulated or challenged.
A few months ago, I took a hike on my own in the Santa Monica Mountains in West Los Angeles. I was feeling unusually lonesome. I was even feeling a little sorry for myself. Nonetheless, when I reached the peak of the loop trail and looked down at the vast beauty below me, a switch went off in my head. I teared up and felt a modicum of despair as I stood in quiet isolation. I hated the feeling. It was heavy and sorrowful.
Suddenly, I was over-magnifying every worry in my life from the basic fear of aging to whether or not I remembered to turn off the AC at home before leaving for work. It felt like my insides were being gouged out by a new brand of human desperation. It gnawed at me all day. I was out of sorts and disoriented by the consciousness shift.
And yet, it had a comical element. Violins and cellos swirled in the background giving rise to one big manipulative wallow of cheesiness. Kidding aside, it made me stop for a moment. I, myself, was confronted with the very same limitations of my short existence.
Then last week, I tore a calf muscle in my right leg playing tennis. I was forced to cancel all my patient appointments for a few days. I wore an orthopedic boot and hobbled on crutches to get around the house. With my daily purpose and routine temporarily gone, by the third day, I felt the despair again. It was just me and my peg-leg. However, it did compel me to write this article.
10 Tips to avoid existential despair:
- Find a life purpose. WHATEVER that may be. It doesn’t have to be a high-minded, virtuous one. Something you enjoy doing for yourself or others. Dive into it with supreme tenacity and eagerness. If you don’t like your current job, keep looking for other avenues of employment. Be open to new careers and projects that fill your spirit with excitement. Maybe you are in the wrong line of work.
- Do NOT allow your days to be filled with extensive idle time. Structure your days wisely. Mental stimulation is vital to a healthy mind. Life doesn’t have a remote control. Change the channel yourself. No couch potatoes.
- Focus on things in your life that you CAN make a difference in on a daily basis like, your marriage/partnership, kids, your extended family, your job, your responsibilities, staying healthy, etc.
- Set goals for yourself on a daily basis. Make sure you have a new challenge every day. It’s healthy to occasionally tussle with a conflict you may have been avoiding for years. It’s also healthy to try new things that may feel scary to you.
- Stop looking for guarantees in life. It’s ok to live with some uncertainty about the future.
- Stop procrastinating. Take action. Make daily decisions and choices in your life and learn to accept those decisions.
- Do not isolate. Make an effort to connect with other human beings at least one time per day. Unless you are a monk, remember that humans do not do well alone. Socialize, interface, open up a conversation with someone, anyone. Offer a kind word or a smile.
- Avoid universal, big-ticket questions that have no immediate answers. It’s not your job to figure out the secrets of the universe. Stay in the inquiry, but, learn to live with the unknowns that you don’t need to understand today.
- Remind yourself: I am not a victim. I am not the product of my life’s circumstances. I cannot change the world, but I can change my response to it.
- Don’t make everything that happens to you a commentary about your life. It’s not always about you. You are NOT that significant in the grand scheme of life. Live with that.
Lastly, philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, one of the founding fathers of the Existentialist movement said:
“Life is nothing until it is lived. It is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning we give it.”