The Problem of Existence

How a Humanist copes with an existential depression.

When I was 17 years old I had an existential depression. It lasted about 2 weeks. I apparently got off lucky. I learned about existential depressions the following year in a philosophy class and some people suffer from these for years.

An existential depression is when your brain decides it’s going to figure out the meaning of life and existence and doesn’t allow you to think of anything else until if finds satisfactory answers. At least, that’s how it was for me. The problem is that since there aren’t any satisfactory answers to the existential questions of life, people can struggle with this for a while.

According to experts (Yalom – the existential psychiatrist according to Wikipedia) says that there are 4 basic ultimate concerns of existence. These are: death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness.

Humanism, I think, provides excellent solutions to these problems, which is probably why my existential angst period was so short. It probably helped that I was raised as a freethinker so these conclusions weren't a huge stretch for me.

On death – it is. Accept it. There is no getting around it. Might as well make the most of it when you are here. No point worrying about it because after you die, you cease to exist and so it won’t bother you anymore.

On Freedom – you can do anything you want, but that doesn’t mean those things you do will make you happy. You still have to live with the consequences of your actions. We are inter-dependent and our actions affect other people and their actions affect us. Might as well make the best of it and do what you can to be a benefit to yourself and others.

On Isolation – true, we are stuck inside our own heads. However, we are biologically related to all life on earth and chemically connected to the universe itself.  I’m never really alone or isolated. I’m part of an amazing ecosystem. When I feel like I’m struggling with something no one understands, I have to laugh, because someone else has not only been through this before, they’ve gotten through it. And if they can? I can! I haven’t felt isolated or alone since having this thought.

Finally – meaninglessness.  this is the biggie. Even bigger than accepting my mortality. Camus said, life is absurd. There is no meaning. And, as with death, it turns out that just accepting that reality opens up life tremendously.  There is no grand plan. I am alive and at some point I will die. I have complete freedom. How will I use that freedom? Selfishly?  Or, will I accept that in the grand scheme of things what I do doesn’t matter, but that in the smaller scheme of things it matters a lot. It matters to me. It matters to the people who love me here and now. I can either honor those relationships here and now and gather my meaning from that, or give myself over to the false nihilism of thinking that nothing matters.  Things do matter. Right now. And that is enough for me.

As  look through this list – it seems to me that the solution to all these existential problems, from a Humanist perspective, is acceptance. Accept the reality of these things and don’t let the immensity of the universe scare you. You are both made of star stuff and tiny at the same time.

As Pascal once said, “a man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once.”

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