Living with Purpose: An Existential Crisis

“A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.”
– Franz Kafka

It seems as if I am in the midst of an existential crisis.

Why does my life feel meaningless?

What is the point of life?

“In the spirit of existentialism, it is up to the individual to decide whether they wish to persist in despair or emerge from it.”

Well, despair kinda gets old in a really sucky sort of way. And it might very well kill me. So, I’m trying to emerge.

Recently I have been feeling myself slowly, slowly, drifting into a depression. It seems to be coming to a head, as in the past week or so I have had to take care to prevent myself from turning to self-injury and getting lost in other dark thoughts.

Such days of darkness I seem able to recover from for a while, by pulling myself up and facing the sun-shining day with small acts of productivity and joy. Soon thereafter, however, the darkness inevitably returns – a day later, two days… a few hours in some unfortunate cases. Why? Because while I have managed to push away the darkness and grab with my fingertips some sense of meaning for a little while, there still remains undressed a larger sense of meaninglessness.

I was taught growing up that as one progresses down a true spiritual path, the path that I was raised on, that one will often face greater and greater hardships in one’s life – and that is part of the path. It is part of the pain of detaching from the world and uniting with God, which I was taught is our life’s purpose. This idea is basically the same as the Dark Night of the Soul, which my mother and grandmother talked about with me when I was growing up.

Perhaps that’s what I’m facing, as I have been spending the last couple of months stepping deeper and deeper into the spiritual path that I walk today, finding deeper and deeper meaning in that path.

Perhaps in a sense I have come to a crossroads – do I continue down this path with all it’s implications, or do I take a turn and postpone that inevitable Dark Night, letting my attention wonder for a while more to earthly preoccupations and “false meaning”. Or is there a whole different option instead?

Today I typed into my Google search box “life feels pointless” and found my way to an article on milkthepigeon.com that has inspired my mind to focus on some important questions so I can hopefully start to solve this existential conundrum I have settled into.

First, I think it’s important to note that this sort of existential pondering seems to be very much a part of my personality in some way. I can remember having these thoughts since I was a young child. I know as humans, the act of pondering our own existence is something we all experience, but I think it is safe to say that some of us go through this more often and more intensely than others. And I am definitely one of those people whose keen self-awareness and natural tendency towards frequent introspection brings me to the doorsteps of these existential “crises” more often than a lot of other people. This fact makes me nervous – what if I’m doomed to continue in this state of deep unrest for the rest of my life, because it’s just how I am? On the other hand, something tells me that I have enough autonomy and control over the aspect of myself that drives this so that I can change my thinking, change myself. It is not going to be easy, however. In fact, I have a feeling it is going to be very, very hard.

But I have to do it. If I don’t, I’m probably not too far-out in my thinking that I could have an end similar to some philosophers who have spent their lives deeply ruminating over life and existence and meaning. I could go crazy!

In a sense, I’m a at a precipice. I’ve found myself here before. When I turned 18, I became an “adult” (not really) and was terrified about the implications of that. I graduated high school with no sense of where I was going from there, so I went to college. And slowly during the last 8 years I have been moving through college, working at a dead-end “college job”, pursuing relationships, learning to take care of myself by taking on more and more responsibility… Now finally I am living by myself, on the opposite side of the country from my nuclear family, largely fully responsible for myself save for the bit my mom helps by supplementing my income while I finish school. I’m 4 months away from graduation – and that’s the precipice. It feels like a big one. What happens after I graduate college? It feels like Life starts then. But really it’s been going on all this time, I know that. And I know that I’m as well equipped to handle whatever comes ahead as anyone can hope to be. Sure, I don’t know what career I’ll end up in yet. But even with that, I have a feeling I’ll be okay. I’m at peace with that, I am confident in my capabilities and my ingenuity. It’s not that I’m afraid of life or failure… it’s something deeper that’s bothering me.

It’s that I’ve been moving successfully through these many life phases so far, developing more and more as a person, as a human being, a citizen, and so on … getting ready for something … but what? That’s what’s bothering me.That’s what bothers me every time I hit a precipice. Here, I become acutely aware of all the precipices I’ve swooped over before, and the ways that I’ve grown since then, and I realize that something seems to be missing. What is this all for? Do I just keep facing these obstacles, battling hardships, experiencing joys, sharing holidays, achieving small goals, and then… I die? Is that it? What the fuck?!

So where do I go from here, to get somewhere better? How do I weave some thread of meaning into these loosely, seemingly chaotically pieced together bits and phases of life? Hopefully the article I mentioned by Alex Heyne over at Milk the Pigeon will prove to be a good starting place. I actually haven’t finished reading the article yet – I was so inspired by it that about a third of the way through I sat down to start writing this. His article is simple and straightforward, and far more helpful than all the philosophy and self-help and even religious stuff I have read over the years.

To summarize what I’ve read so far, Heyne suggests that when life feels meaningless, obviously we need to find a reason to live. Makes sense. He suggests, though, that we often search for the wrong thing. And at least in my case, I think he’s right.

I believe there is divinity in the universe, and that we are a part of that divinity, like a lot of spiritual and religious people. Outside of that, my belief for many years has been that the purpose of life is to simply live life. To experience it, in all it’s joy, sorrow, and everything in between and beyond. Simply practicing being fully present in our lives and in the things we pursue has so far been a reasonable enough answer to the meaning of life for me so far. Except clearly it’s missing something, as evidenced by my recurring existential anxiety. Happiness and success is not where the meaning in life is – I’ve learned that in my short 26 years, because I’ve been happy, and I’ve experienced successes, and life still feelings meaningless. In fact, paradoxically, life sometimes feels most meaningless while I’m experiencing the most success and joy.

Heyne suggests something startlingly simple: “The way to become unlost, happy, and successful is found all in one thing: purpose.” Uh… duh? Right?

I guess. Except I never really thought about it that way before. Upon thinking about it, I realized that I have spent most of my life actively pushing away any sense of true purpose. For instance, I tell myself that everyone is responsible for themselves, shrugging off feelings of obligation towards others while simultaneously accepting those rules for myself and effectively isolating myself from other people on a deep, meaningful level – and people sense that, I think, so I become isolated on more “surface” levels as well.

Heyne firsts asks, “What’s your story?” The purpose of getting a grasp on what your “story” is because it provides a context for all the experiences in life to occur. Which is huge! Reading that alone really spoke to me somehow, it gave me a feeling of home, and that’s when I got up to start writing this.

My purpose for the past 8 years has been to finish college. To become educated, to earn my degree. And in 4 months, I’ve have done that. (Not to say I haven’t struggled with meaninglessness during those 8 years too!) Again, back to that notion of the precipice. I’m losing the sense of purpose I’ve identified with for the past 8 years… no, the past 20 YEARS! (counting all the years of my formal education.) No wonder I feel like I’m facing a great abyss. A large part of what has driven and motivated me for most of my life coming to an end.

Sure, I can continue to learn and grow throughout my life. And I fully intend to. Still, there needs to be something beyond that.

The second thing Heyne suggests is to figure out what you’re aiming for. This is something I figured out several years ago. Having small goals gives life a sense of structure, gives you a feeling of accomplishing things, especially as you’re working towards large goals that take years to see through to completion. I started living with small, yearly goals about 4 years ago. Every year, I physically sit down by myself in a quiet space and take time to set manageable, but sometimes ambitious goals for myself for the coming year. I don’t make New Years resolutions such as “start running more”, “manage my finances better”. I make goals, such as “run an 8k by October”, or “save $2,000 by the middle of the year”. Because those are goal posts that I can see, and I can use my every-day time during the year to take the small daily steps to manage my life so that I meet my goals. And it feels good to meet those goals. It feels good to go back to that list and cross off line after line of things I have accomplished in the year.

However, as Heyne also acknowledges in his article, I have found that while these give life a sense of structure and temporary purpose, their effectiveness is just that: temporary.

The response to that is his third point, which is to figure out your why. Ah! The BIG QUESTION!

He even quotes one of my old favorite existential philosophers at the start of this section, Nietzche.

He very importantly points out in this section that people have varying degrees of “depth” to their why. Unfortunately (or not) for me, I’m not materialistic, I’m not superficial, I don’t pine for the approval of others. I’m never going to be satisfied with doing a job just for the money, of improving myself for someone else alone.

It appears as though I’m going to have to work to create a sense of purpose based on serving humanity in some way. And to be perfectly honest, this is something I have known deep within me since I was a small child. I remember specifically in 4th grade, sitting on a grassy hill taking pictures of the distant mountains with a disposable camera, and thinking that my biggest goal was to be in the history books. I didn’t know for what – I remember thinking that maybe I could be a great scientist that makes a big discovery, or the first female president that changes the world, or an amazing, legendary artist or explorer. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to do something so big and so great for the world and for people that everyone would remember it, forever. History books, man!

Which today, I am afraid is going to be hard (hah!) – namely because I am not naturally a “people person”. I’m fascinated by people, I’m open and accepting, I’m analytic and willing to help wherever I can … but as an American citizen, growing up in this capitalist society has drilled one thing into my quiet, reserved, introspective, introverted heart: I’m not who “they” are looking for. I don’t have a big personality. I don’t walk around smiling. I don’t have a warm personality (sexist). I’m not willing to lie or cheat anyone. I’m not in it for me. I do want to help people – not greedy people, but people who are suffering. I want to be of service to people, to humanity, in some meaningful way. In a big way. I want to fucking create equality and alleviate suffering around the globe. Go big or go fucking home.

But who the hell do I think I am? Where do I even start with that?!

It’s laughable.

No, I’m literally sitting here chuckling to myself in the middle of the library.

With that said, let’s just move on to section 4 of Heyne’s article, where he raises the concept of “flow”. Which is something I will have to hold off on addressing for a potential future blog post.

I’d rather turn my attention now to the very end of Heyne’s article, where he shares a quote from Viktor Frankl, which says in part, “One should not search for an abstract meaning in life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.”

This raises a very interesting, and tough, point for me. In my typical approach to meaning in life, nothing really has any GRAND PLAN. Because I don’t believe in a conscious, anthropomorphic God, I have a hard time imagining where such “assignments” might come from, or to whom we are obligated to fulfill said assignments. I expressly have made a point of not believing in a Grand Plan of Life. This Frankl quote seems to contradict that belief, but at the same time it feels right. I think there may be a way to reconcile these approaches, however.

I believe in evolution. Of course. I’m not an atheist, but I as I said before I also do not believe in a conscious, anthropomorphic God, or Goddess, or whatever.

My concept of “God” is very abstract. God, to me, is the pure creative force that permeates all of the Universe. ALL of the Universe. No, God is not the Creator. Creators have intent. And I don’t believe that God has intent, because God does not have intellect or a mind or a brain or anything to Create with. God IS creative force. Make sense? That is my God. The All. The Source.

And we all ended up here because of evolution. Billions of years of evolution. That in mind, I have trouble believing that as member of a species that has existed for a mere handful of tens of thousands of years, I am some crown of creation that the universe was building up to.

We are but one of billions of species living on one planet circle one start out of billions, and billions of stars. It takes great arrogance to think we have some specific divine purpose, to exist and be amazing. We’re really not that amazing. Alone, at least.

However, all of creation, all the way out to the depths of the universe, is quite… unspeakably, utterly awesome. It’s mind-boggling, really. I am quite comfortable with the idea that I am a product of and inheirently a part of what’s going on out there. And that I continue to evolve, as an individual, and as a member of my species, and as a part of all creation. As a part of all creation which happens to be sentient and conscious, I can see how it could be my obligation to not thwart Nature’s course of creation and evolution, and in fact to work, to the best of my ability, in stride with Nature’s course.

Nature is beautiful, but it is also not necessarily kind. Creation. Destruction. They go hand-in-hand, from the cells in our body to the greatest stars in the universe.

What makes Nature beautiful, though, is the way that things in nature seem to compliment each other, working together in amazing ways to breed further creation, sometimes out of destruction.

Which is what leads me to believe that if I (as a human) do not work in stride with Nature’s creative course, there will be no mercy in our destruction. No, it’s in my best interest to work with nature. And inside of me, I feel that means respecting the world I live in and working to aid or compliment my fellow creation. Or, to help humanity… especially as we have headed in some destructive directions of our own recently.

But again, I can’t know ultimately what direction creation is headed in. Several million years from now, we could prove to be some embarrassingly immature, prototype of an amazing life form. That actually wouldn’t be at all surprising, considering how little time humanity has been in existence. But, that could only happen if our species survives that long. Being part of nature… Well, nature is amazingly adaptable. Most likely we won’t all die out, but things won’t be pretty none the less.

… I’m getting away from myself.

My point is, I feel like I can reconcile these two things. I think this all makes sense. I think I can find purpose to live my life with.

Now I just have to find it.


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