If you’ve ever thought deeply about life, or perhaps experienced something that set you back, and disrupted everything you thought you knew — you might have ended up floating in despair.
In this state, it might seem that nothing makes sense. Or, more perversely, that all the things you value have lost their significance.
This is where existentialism comes from. It’s often thought of primarily as a philosophical problem, but it’s pretty clearly an emotional one as well. In fact, the philosophical problem wouldn’t be a problem, if it weren’t for the emotional need that drives it — the sense that we need meaning, that we need to find things to value.
Traditionally, existentialism is thought to come from a loss of belief in God. Without a grounding force in the universe to believe in, existentialist philosophers were cast adrift, searching and struggling for something to hold on to. The most ambitious of these philosophers claimed to be perfectly happy in this state, or to find the freedom of this kind of free-fall exhilirating.
But more than a century into this thinking, people still don’t seem to be satisfied with that answer. Claiming to be ‘perfectly fine’ with existential free-fall seems like a case of protesting too much.
Religious people might point to this triumphantly, as the evidence of what atheism leads to. But they aren’t safe from it either. In fact, there’s all kinds of religious language for this sort of thing: Mother Teresa spent a lot of time in her own dark night of the soul, Christians often talk about missing a feeling of God’s presence, and even Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It would seem that we’re dealing with a universal human problem—perhaps made more pressing by rapid change or by new beliefs—but universally human nevertheless.
I think that’s okay. When things fall apart, or the way we frame the world doesn’t quite work anymore—a lot of things start unraveling. Some things we know, many things we’re not even aware of.
If we had a close relationship with our dad, and in some long-lost part of our memories, we associate him with childhood trips to get ice cream—then when that relationship changes, even our sense of taste may be disturbed. One thing moves, even without our awareness, and our whole sense of self may end up tumbling down like Jenga sticks.
I think this is what existentialism is, really: the feeling that our self is a jumble of incoherent pieces that no longer fit together. In a lot of ways, this is just part of the natural process of change—when we move, we have to rebuild in the new place.
What’s important is that we don’t get stuck there—in between the old and the new. What’s important is that we start to rebuild. And maybe we’re in a time where we have to get better at rebuilding, and have to rebuild more often. Things are moving and shifting ever more frequently, and it impacts us more than we know.
We can’t keep from experiencing disruption—and even to try would be more destructive. But we can get good at getting back up and building again—sometimes with a new set of pieces mixed in with the old.
Every time we do, we’re expressing a sort of faith. Not in the past, or in some structure that is slipping away, or we are leaving behind—but in the hope of what is yet to come, the joys we are yet to experience, the magnificent things we have yet to build. Every time we rebuild, our vision of the future gets bigger, more pieces are fitted in, and it all grows more nuanced, more intricate, more complex.
It is as if we were driving on a long highway with a vast and beautiful city on the horizon. Sometimes the road dips, and we lose sight of the city for a while. But every time the road rises again, the city comes back into view, suddenly clearer and more complete and more realized than ever before.