By Vivian Lam
Do you get stricken by unadulterated paroxysms of existential despair from time to time? You know, the ones that hit you when you’re laughing with your friends and leave you slack-jawed with the weight of the inherent meaninglessness of life and the vacuity of all human endeavors in the face of the eternal suffering, struggle and decay that defines existence?
Ha, yeah, me too. Sometimes it catches me just as I’m scooping peas onto my plate at the dining hall, inciting passive aggressive coughs and cold glares as the salad bar line extends at a rate of one person per single pea I’ve placed gently on cold ceramic.
It often takes the form of a strange seizing moment — where your heart thuds heavier as a weight settles on your chest, making it harder to breathe. A curtain has lifted, revealing a gaping void that cannot be escaped, and the back door is slammed shut, walling you off and muffling your cries of horror. A strange numbness drives itself deep into your bones. You start to see yourself as a sack of cells and nerve impulses; ~75 percent water; a walking colony of bacteria; the 666th cousin thrice removed of the Antichrist.
For some, angst comes as a state of being. For others, it comes during those 4:37 a.m. moments of silence where you’re one sentence into your 30-page paper, or where you just understood the first question of a p-set worth a quarter of your grade. For others still, it manifests in the paralyzing panic of not having any work to do. And some of us are still devout practitioners of feel-good middle school angst, hailing the second coming of emo as the nation descends into the dark ages.
In a way, this disquietude is a symptom of a larger condition of malaise that may never be remedied. It’s almost farcical that those very moments when we have a chance to pause from the grind and our headlong rush into a better and brighter future for all, to just breathe and sit still, we might find ourselves suffocating — from guilt, from ill-defined anxiety, from feeling the seconds tick by. Perhaps it’s our addiction to ascension, and our fear of falling. Perhaps a narrative of meaningful progress is all we have known.
But we must not give up hope. And we must no longer be afraid of emptiness or discomfort — for we can only continue to strive to create a community of meaning for ourselves and for others. To reconnect with ourselves and our place in the totality of existence. If this sounds vague and borderline bombastic, that’s because it is.
Nevertheless, it’s something most all of us will have to deal with, in one form or another. So, for your consideration, I’ve culled some tried and selectively true ways to momentarily surface from the murk of existence:
- Mindless entertainment
There’s nothing quite like video-surfing cute animal videos, or movie-marathoning the day away. Personally, I’ve found sad Tumblr black-and-white picture quotes to be particularly satisfying. It’s like posting sad song lyrics on Facebook, but instead you get an algorithm expressing concern about you with helpful links and resources.
Structure and pack your days so much that you don’t have time to breathe, think or feel. Constant engagement is a surefire way to fill the void deep within your soul, or at least distract you from it (philosopher Giacomo Leopardi considers it the only way for humanity to survive).
- Scream into the void
Probably the best way to go about it, honestly.
- Listen to sad music and read sad stories and make sad art in your emo chair and emo bunny slippers
It’s a weird feeling to read nihilistic and existentialist tracts and be able to say, “LOL, same.” It’s a challenge (and potentially dangerous) to confront those feelings of dread and come up with your own answer. But it can be cathartic as well. You could be a tortured artist, or you could just be human, who knows.
- Commit to your No. 2’s
I have one cousin who likes to play piano covers of pop songs while he occupies the single bathroom shared by a nine-person household. He claims that he’s trying to figure out the meaning of life. Absurd as it may sound, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone found some kind of lesser nirvana this way. You just have to take your time.
Albert Camus put it best: “Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning, but ‘steal’ some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.”
Do what you need to do. The world will still be spinning (for the most part) when you get back.
Contact Vivian Lam at vivlam25 ‘at’ stanford.edu.