An existential crisis is the moment when our minds are flooded by questions about life itself, and about whether there’s purpose or meaning or value, and the implications that this has on us as individuals.
We all have such crises, often when we’re faced with big decisions about our lives and how we plan to progress and what our aims for the future really are.
The anxiety of these thoughts be can pretty frustrating, especially when we realize that we are the ones in control of our situation, who have to make decisions that affect not just ourselves but other people too (Sartre called this ‘anguish’). So here’s a little list of what to do, if and when you start pondering the big questions...
1) Firstly, are you definitely having an existential crisis?
Well you can probably tell. I took an online quiz (because obviously nothing is more reliable). The results told me I was verging on nihilism, but with the occasional tendency for optimism. Cute. Then the website recommended I take the ‘ Are you a sociopath?’ test …Okay; perhaps the Internet isn’t going to be particularly useful. For the record, I’m not a sociopath.
2) Take the IB
If you’re not in Sixth Form yet and you want a sure way to get through without an existential crisis then take the IB. You’ll be far too busy studying six subjects (plus all the trimmings) to consider existential questions. Unless you choose to take Philosophy. Or TOK. Which you have to. So it’ll basically leave you sitting in your bedroom at 2 am writing a biology design coursework, wondering if IB will, one day, be worth the blood, sweat and tears (IT BETTER BE). So maybe this tip doesn’t really work…
3) Take a conventional route through life
Go through school, go straight to university, get your degree, find a job to work up through, buy a house, pay your mortgage/bills/taxes/student loan, settle down, have kids, and get old. Lots of people have done that so surely little harm can be done there? Except, what purpose is there to doing the same thing again and again? What if things don’t go to plan? Okay, perhaps this advice isn’t great either… with people to compare yourself to maybe you’ll always doubt…
4) Take an unconventional route through life
Take a gap year. Or two. Start university when you’re a few years older (or don’t?). Go travelling. Become a nomad and never settle down. Be an eccentric. But there’s still uncertainty, like with conventional routes, perhaps even more so… Yikes.
5) Think about really dull, mundane stuff
So we’ve moved onto distraction rather than avoidance. Think about the most efficient way of cleaning the carpet, how to make porridge taste semi-decent, or how interesting it is to watch paint dry. I’m going slightly crazy just writing those boring options… so you may temporarily forget to think about what the meaning life is but you may die of boredom in the meantime, and you won’t exactly achieve anything.
6) Make a bucket list (and do some of the things on it!)
So this is more appealing. Travel the world. Watch the BFI and AFI Top 100s. Learn a language. Or an Instrument. Or a few. Go skydiving. Read every book by a certain author. Doing amazing things may help you with the point 7 (see below), but can also make you feel very aware of just how limited you are and what the actual purpose of what you are doing really is. But at least when you do distract yourself you’ll be having fun.
7) Find a real purpose and distract yourself with that
Easier said than done, but at least try. Try the bucket list idea to help. The only problem is that your existential crisis may remind you of the limit of time… will there ever be enough time to do everything you want to do?
8) Do nothing at all
Again, easier said than done. Have you tried it? You’ll find yourself at least thinking or fidgeting…
9) Realize that it’s inevitable, yet repeat steps 1-6 anyway in blind panic
I know, I know... it’s hard to stop questioning things, and you can repeat steps 1-6 all you like; maybe they’ll work eventually?
10)Find a way to accept uncertainty
This is the eventual point. Once you feel fully fatigued with thinking, you may just have to say ‘Screw this’ and think of a way of trying to put up with your mind constantly questioning your surroundings. Some people choose religion - which may comfort them and give them some purpose, fine. Jean-Paul Sartre would suggest that this is not authentic, though, since we are innately free – any way of diminishing this freedom is ‘bad faith’. Camus went so far as to call it ‘philosophical suicide’. His suggestion is that in accepting our freedom we embrace the absurdity of life before us and enjoy the things we can have passion for, be that the things on our bucket list, the company of people, music, food, or the feeling of lying in your duvet.
Existential crises don’t have to be bleak. We can use them to question and change what we’re doing - and perhaps you found a passion for Hitchcock films, whilst in Indonesia, after your gamelan lesson, with a teacher who only speaks Xhosa.