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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #53, 12/26/2006

An Existential Crisis

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

An existential crisis is any decision or realization that forces you to examine the very foundations of your existence. When you are lost in the wilderness and are fighting for your survival, that's an existential crisis. It is not an existential crisis when you go to the store to buy the latest video game and find that it is sold out.

I take that back. Not finding the right video game might be an existential crisis for some people. If you have built all of your future plans around this one pursuit and your path is blocked, this might call into question everything that you have perceived about yourself. It could be even more existential if someone took a hammer to your precious video game console, which you had previously spent 16 hours a day on. Then, after predictable periods of denial, rage and desperate negotiation, you might be forced to entirely rethink your life.

It is existential when you are standing on the ledge of a tall building wondering whether you should jump. It is also existential when you have joined a religious group, married one of its members and rearranged your life to match their expectations then discover that you have doubts about their underlying claims. Should you trust your faith and your prior investments, or should you face the evidence on its own merits?

Considering getting married or divorced should be an existential crisis, even if you don't perceive it as such at the time. Deciding to spend (or not spend) your entire life with one person is certainly a life-changing choice that deserves major soul searching. Choosing a career, deciding to have a baby, or coming to grips with some foolish decision in your past are each existential. You should be thinking about the whole journey of your life and how this road will change it.

Whenever you ask yourself, "Am I worthless?" or "Have I done the right thing?" you are in the midst of an existential crisis. It is a crisis whenever you face a black abyss in your life and wonder, "What do I do now?"

Existential crises can be very difficult and painful, but you can't ignore them or brush them aside. If you do, you could pay with your life.

It is an existential crisis when you have killed someone and the judge announces the sentence: forty years to life. Slam! The prison door clangs shut, and all you are free to do now is learn how to deal with it. If you had the existential crisis before you pulled the trigger, you might not be in this situation right now.

People can make a lot of life-changing decisions that they don't really think about at the time—like shooting someone in a rage or getting married purely for love. It doesn't become existential until you begin dealing with the actual consequences of your decision and start thinking about all of its long term implications. Obviously, it is much better to have the crisis before the life-changing choice rather than after.

Rather than having your life disrupted by a mid-life crisis, a marriage crisis, a post-partum crisis or some other unanticipated crisis of faith, maybe it is better to have existential doubts all along. Maybe you should wake up every morning with the same unresolved questions you had the day before. Maybe you don't need any faith to begin with.

Life is stressful because much is at stake in everything you do. If you aren't wondering, right now, who you are and where you are going, then maybe you should be. Whether or not you acknowledge it, you are facing some major life-changing decisions even as we speak. Of course, I don't know exactly what those decisions are, but I think you do. Something you decide now, or should decide soon, could completely rearrange your future.

In general, people hate this kind of stress and will try any kind of trick to make the crisis go away. Whenever it occurs to them, "Did I do the right thing?" they prefer to get drunk or turn on the TV rather than face the question directly. If you were to discover, after some introspection, that you have made a significant mistake, then you would need to repair it or at least come to grips with it. Generally speaking, people won't do this unless it is forced upon them. They avoid the crisis by sweeping it under the carpet and pretending that they made the right decision all along.

Real decision making is always painful, but if you do a lot decision making—virtually every day of the year—then you become better at it, and it becomes less emotionally disruptive. A crisis becomes huge mainly when you put it off for months or years. If you get many miles down the wrong road, rather than only a few feet, then it really is a disaster when the road leads to mire.

Existential stress is any regret or worry that seems to threaten the underpinnings of your existance. It can be a terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach—“Oh God, what have I done?”—or it can be a continuous nagging concern about every decision you are anticipating right now. It's your choice.

From a practical standpoint, worries are much more productive than regrets, because worries you can do something about.

—G.C.




Reader Comments

“shows some insight and solutions to existential dilemnas” — 4/14/07 (rating=3)

“Good advice and humourously written. Thanks.” — 7/30/08 (rating=3)

“A gentle introduction to what is essentially something much bigger and full of complexities” —Love 10/6/08 (rating=3)

“great insights and eloquent, simple. thanks!” — 12/11/08 (rating=4)

“Decision making under certain existential crisis situations can be very stressful to such” — 1/8/09 (rating=4)

“I love the voice and he lightens a hefty subject matter, adding humor and clear example.” — 4/16/09 (rating=4)

“I feel better about panicking about my future with my fiance now. I know I've made the right choice in choosing to marry him, but the enormity of "the rest of my life" is overwhelming. I think this is about right.” —A bride to be! 7/18/10 (rating=3)

Ratings so far: 2 3 0 3 3 4 3 3 4 3 1 4 3 3 4 2 3 5 3 4 4 2 3 4 4 3 3 5 5 0 (Average=3.1)

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