How to Manage Your Existential Dread in Light of, Oh, Everything


The world probably doesn’t categorically suck any more right now than it did in medieval times when you only lived for three decades and were more likely to die by dysentery (if you were lucky). But lately it’s sure as hell seemed like we’ve been dealt existential angst in spades. Not that it matters either way, because these are the times we live in, and, like everyone else before us, we have to figure out how to deal with this shit in our own way, knowing what we now know. But how?

For the record, I have a lot existential dread, or at least, I can’t remember not really having it. If you’re running low, you can borrow some of mine. I don’t sit around in black turtlenecks chain smoking talking about Why We’re Here (fine, that was college. And my twenties) but as long as I can remember being alive, I’ve had a lot of questions about why the world is the way it is, what I’m supposed to do with myself, and whether it all adds up to anything that counts or not.

I also noticed that it wasn’t always easy to find people who think this way. I was all: “But how do you know what actually matters? How do you know if your choices are adding up? If your life has real meaning? How do you even define what that meaning IS? Is it just doing what everyone has always done and finding solace in that, or are you compelled in some way to do something else to create meaning in the world, like make art, or save lives, or simply exist with extraordinary kindness? HOW CAN YOU NOT THINK ABOUT IT?!?!?!”

When I wasn’t being called pretentious (if only I were faking it), people were like, “Who’s livin’ in your head rent-free?” and “Wow, you think too much,” or, “I’m sure there’s meds for that.” Sometimes I would think I was meeting someone with The Dread, but really they were just stoned, thinking about circles. Boooooo.

Finally, in high school and college, more people indulged me, and those people were usually my boyfriends. I also managed to find my way to a lot of these themes in books and art and movies, and that shit saved my life (see suggestions below).

Key distinction: Technically my life did not need saving. My thoughts just needed validating. I am not depressed. My dread about aliveness is totally normal, and not crippling. I still do all the stuff. I love being alive because it’s such a crazy adventure, but to me there is no clear or obvious reason for it. It’s très absurd and I don’t think anyone anywhere has proved any official point to any of this shit. And yet, here we are. Still, to merely exist without question, to exist without a sense of what it’s for, well, that just seems irresponsible to me.

So when the world seems extra indifferent, when the universe feels as if it’s all running on chaos fueled by entropy energy drinks, I can’t not slip back into The Questions. A week like the last one is nothing if not a perfect illustration of What the Fuck Is Going On With the Universe/People, and why aren’t we all thinking more about how we should be existing, and how can so many people have it so wrong (as if there’s a clear Right)? Sometimes I have to wonder if all the terribleness in the world literally gets done by people whose lives simply lack meaning.

Sorry fellow leptons, but I can’t answer these questions. However, I can offer a life’s worth of excellent coping skills for managing the epic life rash we call angst.

Make sure your life adds up to something

The great news is, it’s up to you to decide what that is. It can be based on how other people have lived, how your family lives, how your community lives, how George Clooney lives, or you can blaze your own trail. Neither I, nor the universe, cares. Just make it fuckin’ count, will ya? It all is probably equally meaningless in the grand scheme of things. This is not, in fact, depressing! It’s actually really liberating. Nothing really matters, therefore everything does, because it all comes down to what you choose. Choose wisely.

Alcohol helps

But you can’t be a whirlwind of meaningful meaning 24/7. If the angst comes up with a vengeance, sometimes you just have to just push it back down mightily with booze. Martinis are good. I like beers. Wine is pretty obvious but why the fuck not? This can’t be a permanent solution, because you need to do stuff with your life, remember? But it’s a go-to, a patch, an escape hatch to be used with caution.

Consume copious, reckless amounts of art

All of the joy of booze, none of the hangover. Look, art saves lives, period. Anyone who doesn’t understand this has never come across the right book at the right time, or seen a painting so arresting it crashes over you with a humbling inadequacy or read a poem that stays with you. Any art you like will do, but existentialist-themed art is particularly healing, especially when it has a sense of humor about this crazy thing we call our existence.

Some suggestions:

Woody Allen movies. Really any of them up until the late ’80s/early ’90s will cover this ground at one point or another, but if you really want a kind of jackpot of philosophies of life, Russian writers, life’s absurdity, and a passionate search for meaning, it has to be 1975’s Love and Death (thank me later). Please, forget whatever misconceptions you may have about his Jewy neuroticism, and just go for it.

Read these books:

Nausea by Sartre

Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard

The Stranger, by Camus

Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground

Also say ‘Kierkegaard’ out loud a lot. It’s both calming and satisfying.

Be cool, y’all

Look, the world marches on no matter what. Isn’t that freeing? Why get all worked up about it? Taking the long view, the absurd view, the-what-difference-does-it-really-make view doesn’t mean that you don’t care, it isn’t a justification for apathy, it just means you see that some things are more worth caring about than others and you don’t waste your energy on the little shit. Study the Existentialists for guidance. No matter how flawed you find their creed, they are probably among the coolest thinkers in history. There is Simone de Beauvoir. There is Albert Camus. Le swoon. I never hung out with them, obvs, but I imagine they moved with a kind of detached cool and unshockable demeanor.

Lean in

This working woman’s catchphrase is not even remotely about leaning into the nether regions of your weird tangential mind, but let’s co-opt it! Meditation devotees work at clearing the mind; therapy helps you to ward off the negative thought. But what of the value of focusing on a thought, following it to its conclusion, swirling it around, letting it marinate?

That’s right, sit around and think about shit sometimes. Sure, it’s a pretty granola concept, but in this world of constant distraction, it’s nice to do nothing but hash out an idea, chase a feeling, dive to the bottom of the ocean and hang out. While you’re down there, look around. Pick stuff up. Turn it over. You’ll have to let it go after a bit, of course, or pause it until there’s a more apt time to revisit it. But I think our weird, jumbly, unsettled thoughts are useful for more than eradicating. Obviously when things become rooted in unhealthy patterns, it’s one thing. But asking why you’re alive should be somewhere in the recesses of your mind all the time; otherwise how else would you evaluate what you’re doing?

Be real

Soren Kierkegaard, a famously influential Danish existentialist with a fascinatingly short life, said we have in us at all times a kind of dizziness of freedom, and the angst we experience about living is from the weight of that freedom — the knowledge that we can at any time in our life choose to exist or not to exist, and every choice in between. The ticket, then, is to live your life with passion and sincerity.

Unleash the primal scream

This screech-and-writhe therapy was a big hit…in 1971. But anyone who has ever driven down back roads blaring a good death metal song howling at the top of your lungs knows there’s something to belting out an undecipherable caterwaul every now and then, because shit is fucked up and bullshit sometimes. Go loud.

Take Tylenol.

Not kidding! A new study found that not only is this pain reliever good at relieving pain, it’s good at relieving weird thoughts you have about being alive:

New research shows Tylenol may have the unseen psychological side-effect of easing existential dread. The findings suggest anxiety about finding meaning in life and feeling physical pain may be rooted in the same part of the brain.
“When people feel overwhelmed with uncertainty in life or distressed by a lack of purpose, what they’re feeling may actually be painful distress,” said study researcher Daniel Randles, a doctoral student in psychology the University of British Columbia.

This is, perhaps, illustrative of something else beyond where in our brains we process these fears about being alive: It points to why it is so important if you have existential dread to manage it, to redirect it, to understand it, and to try as best you can to transcend it. To conduct your life with passion and sincerity. Because we literally can’t take Tylenol all day long (uh, can we?).

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