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The Original Meaning of Existential Crisis

What is an existential crisis?

"Wikipedia, now unashamedly reflects the agenda of those in power, describes that existential crisis is “accompanied by various negative experiences, such as stress, anxiety, despair, and depression. This often happens to such a degree that it disturbs one's normal functioning in everyday life.” It is absolutely regretful that such characterization completely misses the point but dominates the internet.

To begin with, “existential” is a philosophical idea, not a psychological phenomenon. It stems from philosophical school called [grunts] Existentialism. It is a spiritual, moral and philosophical struggle, which indeed is accompanied by unpleasant feelings but they’re not the point. It kind of all started with the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, whom we now regard as the “father of existentialism”. He was one of the most pious Christian of modern times who made a loud cry when he was witnessing at the front seat the heartbreaking deterioration of the traditional mode of spiritual quest in the form of Christian faith due to the tyrannical forces of the shifting times, where secular rationalistic capitalistic liberal…aka modern values were taking over. As a fellow blood-and-bone human, he experienced depression, anxiety, stress. But since he was a philosopher living in a time where psychology did not exist, he came up with a solution, not for his own psychological discomfort but for the despair of those swept away by the currents of the era.

In Kierkegaard’s opinion, these people may experience less psychological distress than he did, but they were in despair. Despair is a disgraceful condition of the soul, which is the real problem, not any negative feelings or thoughts. Despair is when your soul is either enslaved by necessity, lost touch with freedom, or befuddled by limitless imagination, detached from actuality. Either way, you’re not engaging with the full spectrum of your being. Accordingly, existential crisis is when this misalignment between your soul’s needs for holistic expression and your skewed way of life cannot be ignored anymore. In this view, existential crisis and its accompany psychological discomfort is not a problem at all, but an initiation to a solution for despair.

Kiekegaard crying in front of a church

What are the causes of existential crisis?

Soon after Kierkegaard died, another existential thinker in Europe made an even louder cry in reaction to modernization. “God is dead!” Nietzsche exclaimed, probably during maniac episode, “and we’ve killed him.” What could be more disturbing when the One and Only Lord, the source of our moral code, the ground of our rational thinking, the creator of our life, the meaning of our existence, is dead?! This, I proclaim, it is the "cause" of existential crisis… as in the condition for the possibility of the experience and hence conception of “existential crisis”. This, my readers, is the reason why we have the idea of “existential crisis” to talk about today.

To put in simple words, God used to be ultimate meaning of life. But since He is killable, we suddenly discovered that there is nothing really “ultimate.” This semi-voluntary realization of freedom prompts one to ask: Now what? That’s the ultimate question one might ask during an existential crisis.

But that happened only in Europe. Across the Atlantic Sea, those setting foot on the newfound lands couldn’t care less about the invisible entity in the sky. For them there was no doubt that the unbelievable richness of newfound resources and unstoppable creation of wealth was the ultimate meaning of life. All you need to do is to cultivate the technique of careful calculation - the “science” of this, the “science” of that. Secular, rationalistic, capitalistic, liberal values were upheld to justify unrestraint exploration and exploitation to maximize profit and development. These values have been working very well for these newfound nations - for a while. Until now. When it’s not new anymore. When there is no new space out there for free reining anymore, so that this mindset begins to eat itself up from the inside. The once breaking-free mood has turned into inescapable internal unrest.

It’s like a tiny batch of bacteria freshly placed on a Petri dish full of nutrients. At first the bacteria can’t be more optimistic about growth. They think unrestraint growth is the indubitable meaning of life. Now they’ve grown to a large overcrowded batch and begin to compete with one another bitterly. The younger generation of bacteria tries to follow the way of life the older ones had showed them. They try to strive hard imitatively, only to find more and more effort is needed to get less and less nutrients. It’s like you need to be dying to not to die. Or you’d rather die than continue. It gets so absurd that one eventually comes to a stand still. Now what?

This time around, it is the involuntary realization of freedom that caused existential crisis.

people living the city feeling lost and perplexed

Some people cannot stand the freedom, so that they’d rather continue on the inherited path blindly and forcefully until they get diagnosed with a “mental disorder” than to own their freedom. For a “mental health professional”, you have a disorder when you fail to function as expected within the established order. So the treatment is for you to pop some drugs to remain functional (for the established order). However, the true problem is when you are burnt out and screw up your biological functions of eating, excreting and sleeping. The real mental disorder is the compulsive adherence to a pathological lifestyle at the expense of one’s health.

Alternatively, you can suffer an existential crisis by putting yourself first and recognizing the absurdity. Your biology remains functioning, but your mind is at a loss. You start questioning the validity of what has been considered “normal.” You start asking what the “point” and “meaning” is for carrying on in the same way because it is not going anywhere, but you are not sure whether you’re wrong and everyone else is right, or the opposite. Basically when the existing lifestyle does not work for you anymore but there is not yet a new lifestyle, one experiences a momentary disorientation of outlook, a dizzying freedom that paralyzes your decisions and actions.

In conclusion, it is the uncalled for realization that one is inherently free that gives you existential crisis.

Quiz: Am I Having an Existential Crisis?

Because you realize you are free, you realize that all the ultimate things are ON YOU. When experiencing an existential crisis, you might be asking the following questions:

● Why am I here?

● What is this for?

● What should I do in my life?

● Who am I?

● Is there a God? Should I believe in God?

● If there is no God, then how should I live my life?

● What if God//karma/afterlife is real?

● If we are all going to die, what’s the point?

● Is death the end?

● Are there any consequences to what I do?

● How should I choose which direction to go?

● Can I control my destiny?

A man looking up the starry sky by himself

How long does existential crisis last? How to make it go away?

Existential crisis, at least for Europeans and their descendants, has lasted for about 200 years now. At first there were only a few people having it. They were philosophers. Now it has spread to the majority of people. Looks like a collective transformation has to take place.

Some people began to turn back to traditional values. Among them, some do not distinguish between the values and the story in which they’re embedded. These people are turning back to that old story and the old way of life it entails. This choice often leads them to anger and agitation fighting with those don’t do the same, but at least they got rid of their existential dread. The rest, while recognizing the importance of traditional values, do not feel like doing a full regression. For them, although the existing paradigm isn’t the entire story, it isn’t entirely a problem. Simultaneously, although the old paradigm is entirely relevant, it isn’t the entire answer.

So what to do?

All I can tell you is: don’t be afraid of the existential crisis. Be afraid of not ever having this existential opportunity. If you don’t have to be a philosopher to have existential crisis, you don’t have to be a philosopher to transform it. Philosophers laid down the first principles (from their lens) of this transformation, but the rest depends on all of us to materialize. My suggestion is, don’t try to reject it and make it go away. Most likely, it would never go away completely, but it would oscillate between crisis and opportunity with the magnitude slowly mellowing out. In the meantime, the following exercises may be helpful for you to mitigate your freedom-induced existential dread and angst.

1. If your romantic partner or your parents trigger you big time, prioritize working on your relationships. It may take a loooong time but it’s going to give you tremendous amount of meaning.

2. Entertain the notion death through reading or real life events. Reflect on your feelings and thoughts about death, and let them sink in.

3. Connect with philosophically or open-minded people who are not afraid of talking about death.

4. Study the cases of early self-actualizers (philosophers) by reading their philosophy to gain insights into your own case.

5. Last but not least, consult a philosophical counsellor, of course.

Let me know if you find this article helpful! :)

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Another most insightful literary creation of a highly admirable thinker ... but how do you feel about also sharing your own true feelings facing a reality to make this intellectual project into the kind of success it surely deserves ... lol

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