The battle against Existential Anxiety.
It is not the fear of death that grips a thinking man and paralyzes his mind to the point where even the execution of routine tasks becomes painful and has a sense of profound meaninglessness attached to it. It is, in my opinion, the fear of life, that eats his soul alive. This fear, I believe, is ludicrous and absurd and has the potential of turning into a perpetual anxiety. This fear insinuates, in it’s attempts to convince the person, that the life he’s leading is meaningless and without purpose, what’s more, it suggests that even death is not going to be the end of this infinite injustice. His soul shivers at the thought of going through this random experience labeled “life” by the very people his mind considers to be “ignorant fools”. Although he reckons, that it won’t be “his” problem if he kills himself, even if he’s somehow reincarnated, the physical equations would change so substantially, that the burden would fall squarely and literally on someone else‘s shoulders. Someone who’s in a different situation. A different situation. A new start. Slowly and gradually, his vision (both of the future and of the past) narrows down until this new awakening remains as the only aperture open for hope. This is where he gets anxious. Existentially anxious, to be more precise.
Existential Anxiety is the fear of nothing itself and is therefore, the mark of lunacy. It is triggered by what Paul Tillich referred to as “The trauma of nonbeing.”. An oversimplification of which would be the very idea which, though vastly accepted in the annals of psychology (and in the common mindset), but is strongly refuted in this essay, is that it is simply, the fear of death. Another assumption that pops up in most debates about an existential crisis is that it mostly appears in cultures where one is not required to use most of his mental and physical energies to figure out ways to ensure his survival. Several people believe that a person suffering from existential dilemma has more often than not, lead a life of moral relativism or even nihilism. Others might argue that when looked at from a certain angle, existential anxiousness is just another manifestation of depression, which probably has it’s roots in the afflicted person’s childhood and/or a recent traumatic experience. These assumptions and generalizations, while not completely untrue, painted a bleak, semi-innocuous and incomplete picture of what the author believes to be “a man’s greatest enemy“.
It is therefore, that this essay was written, as a testament of personal experience and a record of judgments that the author arrived at after spending some time reflecting over his own condition (starkly similar to the condition at hand), the constructs that defined it, the situations that created it and the beliefs it instilled to finally arrive at a point in life where basic survival tactics and a thorough understanding of the problem enabled the author to leap out of this quagmire and to rid himself of the shapeless phantoms of meaningless thought. It must be understood, however, that the author is not a psychologist or even an amateur psycho-analyst. A mere dabbler in philosophy and psychology, the author is obviously in no position to assert the validity of his claims. Readers are advised to keep in mind the fact that this essay is what an endeavor in self analysis and some research has brought to fruition. It is not intended to be a serious whitepaper on psychology, nor does it pretend to be one. What it does attempt to be, however, is a manual of sorts for overcoming such anxiety and making sure that it never takes control of one’s life again. It was written in a hope to understand one’s own mind, and is published here with hopes of offering a helping hand to anyone who might consider his problems to be similar to that of the author.
The battle against existential anxiety, like all battles, begins with an understanding of the enemy. Where does anxiety come from? The answer to that is simple, it comes from an analytical mind. It begins with an over-curious attitude towards life. An attitude that seeks to destroy all precarious notions of understanding. This attitude however, generally and gradually fades away as life progresses (most children are more curious than most adults) for various reasons but we can witness the birth pangs of anxiety in the cases where this analytical mind is fed on rations of reason and logic to create the infantries of skeptical thought. When this skeptical thought intermingles with more curiosity (in a psychosomatic process that can perhaps be described as almost orgasmic) it upgrades itself from being the infantry of skeptical thought to the cavalry of false belief.
Judging only by personal experience, the author would say that this “up gradation” takes place somewhere between mid to late adolescence. The period where we often draft the constitutions of our lives. The role that social value systems play here is crucial and akin to the training nets employed to safeguard the life of amateur trapeze artists. It is not totally unfair, therefore, to say that this phenomenon is more common in cultures where the role of such social “nets” as religion and a strict moral codes has diminished over the years to make room for the pre-requisite confidence for evolutionary thoughts. However, nothing could be farther from truth than the assumption that societies with rigorously implemented morals and ethics, or social systems deeply rooted in religious beliefs are somehow invulnerable to these negative side-effects of a curious consciousness. Religion and morality may provide societies with check-nut like mechanisms to enable the masses to discern between order and chaos, but these are exactly the kind of contraptions that an analytical and curious mind seeks to reverse engineer.
In some cases, this stage is characterized by seemingly harmless tendencies that lean towards social rebellion. Teenagers often see themselves as exiled outcasts who are somehow above the norms of society. Upon finding no answers in the deconstructed ruins of religious philosophy, they bang about hither and thither like charged electrons in hopes of discharging themselves of the building storm of anxiety. At this point, most outcasts choose their false beliefs. Having completely destroyed the possibilities of accepting conventional false beliefs (e.g. religion, morality etc.) they venture out into newer arenas such as sexual deviance, self-infliction and narcotics etc.. The numbing down of sensory perceptions works out (for better or for worse) for the fortunate ones, but the truly analytical ones seek not to disengage from their senses nor engage them in forced beliefs and utter lies. They seek what they think is the truth, and end up being the loneliest of people in the universe. For junkies find other junkies, bisexuals, nymphomaniacs, zoophiles and pedophiles find release in fornicating with the “objects” of their desire, emotional “cutters” find interventionists to reinforce or reconstruct their false beliefs, but these ‘seekers of truth’ remain aloof, lonely.
Two things need to be said here. One, that these seekers can never be compared with nihilists, moral-relativists or hedonists, for they do believe that the ultimate truth exists somewhere and that it‘s not relative to anything, that it‘s the purest thing there is and hence the object of life. They believe it’s attainable, only that they’ve been unsuccessful in finding it so far. Two, what they don’t realize is that their loneliness is in fact, the last brick in the wall. Emile Durkheim said, "Man is the more vulnerable to self-destruction the more he is detached from any collectivity, that is to say, the more he lives as an egoist.". And egoists they are, so much so, that their ego fails to recognize itself, it’s garbed in innocent and idealistic convictions. This leads them to the point where it becomes impossible to discern between what’s true and what’s infinite. What they fail to realize is that the truth itself is the infinite, it can never be achieved, yet it’s right in front of their eyes and slipping between their fingers. But these sorry souls have already started having visions of looking at the world from the other end of the telescope and the only thing that remains infinite now, is their downward spiraling journey towards an ever absurd universe.
It is not death they fear now. They fear the very truth they sought because it‘s staring them in the face so they must run away from the very thing they‘re chasing. Such a condition, as one can notice, leads to an addiction to (trying to look beyond) moral paradoxes, which is much more worse than sexual deviance or drug abuse because it fails to define itself, yet defends itself with all the brevity that a human mind can conjure up. Chasing this recursive infinity can be daunting, especially when you’ve got nothing to believe in but the recursive infinity itself. The fine line between insanity and creativity starts to blur, allowing all the demons of a sickly mind to creep in. This is where moral-relativism and nihilism might actually enter the person’s mind. It cannot be ascertained with precision, whether a vast majority of victims accept nihilism or similar notions as the end of their journey or whether they try to take it apart as well, and frankly it doesn’t matter. Nihilism, once rooted deeply enough, is self perpetuating, taking it apart only reaffirms the non-beliefs it has to offer. One understands now, with painful accuracy, what Plato meant when he called religion a “noble lie” but can do nothing about it because, logic, reason, cynicism and skepticism all focus on the “lie“ and not on the “noble“ part of that aphorism. The welcoming committee for existential anxiety, ever ready to bombard everything that stands in the way of it’s esteemed guest. Including itself, if it has to.
A man suffering from anxiety will deconstruct every assumption of the physical world with such astute thought-play, as to convince himself that his anxiety is a controlling parasite which deems that it’s own existential perpetuation is far more important than the survival of it’s host. When it does happen, a man is forced to jump ship and abandon life itself. At this stage, visible signs of depression emerge from being dormant character nuisances to active physiological symptoms. Breathlessness, for one, was a major problem for the author. One feels acutely claustrophobic even in open spaces and the feeling of being hopelessly trapped obviously follows. In that position, the victim realizes that there’s nowhere to run, the war-horns have been blown into. Armies of doubt, ruthless, pragmatic and idealistic at the same time, threaten to devour all semblance of sanity. This is where one must not loose hope. Hope is everything.
In battling such panic attacks, the most common defensive measures often bleed into the beginnings of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders. But that’s quite unnecessary, it would be the logical equivalent of calling in elephants to chase away the mice. If one has enough hope, there is no need to induce changes in one’s character as means of self-affirmation. Resorting back to religion is also not necessary, but is highly recommended to those who do not have problem with it. Befool yourself into believing anything, that is the cure. It isn’t easy, especially for the smart ones, but it’s the only way out. “Once you stop believing in god, you can believe in anything”, goes the saying. One must invent one’s own god, if the readymade solutions invented and tested by generations past fail to measure up to one’s satisfaction. If we’re able to look beyond the mythos and the mysticism, one can find that religion does make us all saner for it defines the “good use” for madness (or what kind of madness might be considered as beneficial for the greater good) , thereby converting it into sanity.
But this definition needn’t come from religion. It can come from believing in anything but only by believing in it religiously. Western liberalism has failed in the past in this regard, giving the society of neo-conservationists a chance to rise in democratic regimes and push forward powerful myths such as nationalism and national chauvinism (not to mention, religion itself). Similarly, the Islamic world is torn between varied interpretations of it’s own beliefs, giving a chance to fundamentalists to try to coerce the timid into their strong beliefs even by using force. Mankind has yet to invent a healthier kind of nihilism and until then, religion can provide for a very efficient scaffolding like structure to give support to all other the myths we choose to believe in. In eastern cultures, people understand this. They do not ask for the literal proof of god’s existence because they know that religion is just a mythical tool supporting the grand illusion that is life. That is why eastern religions have survived brutal attacks from almost everyone else in the world. It is when these tools are seen not as tools to define the truth, but the truth itself that problems arise.
The battle against existential anxiety can be won. And fairly easily at that if one understands the nature of the affliction. The search for truth and meaning should begin and end inside one’s own head, for if it moves outside of the person, it tends to approach the dangerous realms of recursive infinity and the disorder therein. Irrespective of the tools that one employs, a strong belief in something can give ample courage and confidence to anyone who seeks to live a meaningful life. Not just belief but faith. Faith in one’s own self is the ultimate religion. People with faith will eventually come to be respected and loved and working out your own salvation can be much easier when one is respected and loved.