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What's the action plan for pure angst?
September 16, 2011 12:40 AM   Subscribe

I've got angst - the honest-to-goodness, existential, "why are we here?" kind. Two years of trying to shake it haven't worked - and have sometimes made me wonder if it's worth fixing at all. What do I do now?

I'm a 23 year old straight single male, about to start graduate school. For the past two or three years, I've had anxiety issues which have severely impacted my quality of life (my anxiety per se has lasted longer - probably since early childhood). Most of my anxiety has centered around romantic relationships (How long should they last? Should I really be with this person? Should I be focusing on finding a permanent partner?) and money (Is spending X on a thing too much? Am I using my money wisely?). I broke an engagement a year and a half ago, and have had a smattering of relationships since on various grounds, each of which felt sort of essential to get into but then became a source of real grief when I realized they wouldn't last forever. I'm going for a degree in a field that I've worked in and care a ton about, relatively speaking, but I'll regularly get the impression that it, along with any alternative jobs or vocations I might choose, don't really matter much.

As cliched as it almost certainly sounds, boiling these problems down to their core reveals a Kierkegaard-style, purely existential angst: I don't feel like I know why we're here, why I'm here, or what a good sort of life looks like. My anxiety manifests in a lot of "If only"s - usually, if only I were in a long term relationship - but I can also feel at times like even that idyllic made up future is destined to fail or become unfulfilling.

Here's a list of things I've tried in the past, from least to most effective:
  • therapy (for specific anxiety problems - usually leads to a temporary resolution of those problems without addressing the underlying issue)
  • medication (for anxiety, which usually allows me to focus on the sources of my anxiety on the root level but has yet to help with the existential stuff),
  • meditation (I feel incapable of keeping a sitting meditation up for more than a few minutes, though I've had one or two really successful moments with it),
  • reading and writing out the ass about theology, philosophy and psychology (have provided me with some systems of thought that resonate with me, but these still go out the door when the existential willies creep in)
  • exercise (running specifically is one of the activities I'm taking some joy in, but I can't motivate myself to make up goals for goals' sake here, like learning to run a marathon)
  • mood regulation with food and caffeine (really effective in the moment, but I realize ultimately physically destructive. I'm not visibly gaining weight or losing physical function over fast food and soda - if anything, I'm losing some weight, which I attribute to anxiety in hyper drive - but I know I'm not doing my innards every favors. Also, I seem to be destroying my palate - there's not a lot of foods I crave during the week / month and most trips to eat food I once enjoyed leave me disappointed afterwards.)
Here's the bit of my arrogance that makes things complicated: when I get down to brass tacks with myself, I can't help but think that people who don't feel this sort of thing given how the world is are fooling themselves. I see most drug and alcohol use as pre-emptive self medication for these sorts of feelings (I do neither). I see lots of therapeutic approaches as attempts to quash the big existential questions without giving them real answers. Ditto for organized religion, which I participated in as a fervent Catholic until about nine months ago. As sweeping generalizations go, these are real doozies, which means I'm almost certainly wrong about the entirety of this paragraph. Still, I'm having a hard time convincing my brain that all that must be wrong.

There's lots of tips and tricks, on AskMe and elsewhere, about coping with anxiety and depression and, while those have been helpful in the past, that's not what I'm looking for here. I'd like to hear from folks who have had this sort of angst in the most technical sense of the word - not just indecision about their specific life course, but indecision about life and their place in it which severely impacted their happiness or emotional well being. If those were feelings you had and got over: what did you do to change your mind? How can my anxious mind - which longs for quick responses - know it's doing the right thing in the moment? If you're still filled with existential dread but have gone on to be productive and happy - what tweaks do you make?

In other words: now that I've identified the source of my problem and revealed some real skepticism about the typical solutions to that problem, what do I do next?
posted by Apropos of Something to Religion & Philosophy (48 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
I see lots of therapeutic approaches as attempts to quash the big existential questions without giving them real answers.

I agree with you, and I'm a therapist.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:18 AM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


If you accepted your position, instead of arguing with yourself that you must be wrong (took me a few decades to achieve this) what would your anxiety be about?
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:24 AM on September 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


I used to be a fairly (existentially) anxious person. Now I'm (mostly) not.

For me it's been about re-focusing my attention from mostly inward-looking ("why am I here?") to mostly outward-looking. In my case that meant first volunteering in homeless shelter health clinics, and then eventually getting my act together to go back to school, then medical school and residency. Nothing clears the mind quite like encountering people in crisis, and trying to alleviate suffering. I'm not suggesting that medicine is the only route to that- just that getting out there and spending my energy thinking about other people really resolved 99% of my daily anxiety and angst.
posted by BundleOfHers at 1:26 AM on September 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


I see lots of therapeutic approaches as attempts to quash the big existential questions without giving them real answers.

Here's the thing: the "big" existential questions are basically a bunch of crap that people make up to give themselves something to worry about.

Spending time wondering why everything is the way it is is basically a poseur's activity; its sole purpose is to make the perpetrator appear smarter or deeper or wiser than they actually are. It's the philosophical equivalent of wearing a fedora while riding a fixie, and anybody who says different is trying to sell you something.

Concentrate on finding reasons for things that have reasons and your existential angst will disappear.

The correct answer to "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is "Fuck off".
posted by flabdablet at 2:34 AM on September 16, 2011 [19 favorites]


A couple things popped into my head.
1- Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. Existential angst and depression look alike in a lot of ways. If you feel like your angst is paralyzing you, consider talking to someone qualified about getting some anti-depressants. The questions you have won't go away, but they will become more of an intellectual exercise, as opposed to feeling like you're holding a loaded gun & have to make a decision (metaphorically speaking).
2- Leaving a dogmatic & authoritarian religion like Catholicism is a big deal. It seems obvious to me that this would cause a lot of stress & lead to thinking about these kinds of issues a lot. You might benefit from looking for an ex-Catholic support group, forum or blog to help address specific experiences/losses you may have related to leaving the church.
3- As BundleofHers said, get out and help people. In Existentialist and Humanist philosophies (as I vaguely remember) your self is defined by the ACTIONS you take. If you value being a good person, you must go out and do good. You live an examined life, and you make choices, and that's how you assert yourself against the void. Volunteering is a great way to do this.

Leaving behind religion can be terrifying, but I also feel like it is enormously freeing. You are, at last, fully in charge of your own destiny. Think of how much power that gives you.
posted by anotherkate at 3:01 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not quite sure I agree with flabdablet on the poseur front, though. If you feel this, then you feel this. I think you have the mental space and perspective to reflect, which is no bad thing, just somewhat unusual.

Have you thought about turning to literature/fiction to help at least frame some of the questions? You mention Kierkergaard - questions of existential angst seem to have been actually quite the norm for anyone who had the luxury of looking beyond surviving the next day, until recently. I would recommend Rilke's 'Letters to a young poet', and if you like that then exploring further.

I think the problem with the therapeutic is that it is so inward looking, it assumes the answers must come from inside you somewhere. So the outward and not inward idea is handy as a way to get through the day and avoid the issue, but also a good reason not to go down the therapeutic route for this. Existential angst is not freaky, it's a common symptom of the human condition, of being sentient and thoughtful! I think the only issue is that we also have to get through the day. Allow it some time, and explore it whilst getting on with day to day things.
posted by Marzipan at 3:16 AM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]



If those were feelings you had and got over: what did you do to change your mind? How can my anxious mind - which longs for quick responses - know it's doing the right thing in the moment? If you're still filled with existential dread but have gone on to be productive and happy - what tweaks do you make?


You may not like the short answer, but it was:
1) meet and learn about people with truly awful problems
2) learn to stop trying to find "the magical key" to life...to learn that there is not one true answer, but a myriad of perspectives and to try and be far more refined about my beliefs
and MOST IMPORTANTLY...
3) grow out of my 20's.

Anyways, I don't think I'm alone is seeing "existential dread" as being largely a curse of people who were raised in some religious ideology, or a society that is based on religious ideology. How so?

1) a person is born into a strict religious family
2) much of religion works by using emotions of extreme hope and fear
3) this person learns to live life through religion, and will act or not act due to hopes and fears
4) at some point, the person's belief in religion is removed. he/she is still only familiar with acting based on extreme hopes and fears, and now is unsure of how to act, and becomes distressed. before, the person felt god and religion was enough of a motivation to do or not do something. now the person feels nothing is as important as god, and how can he/she possibly act, when nothing is as important as god? he/she is like a mouse that has been electrocuted or given cheese, and is now paralyzed to do anything on its own. this is "existential dread."

Just for contrast, an agnostic person who grew up in a relatively normal house is like a mouse that was maybe given cheese occasionally, electrocuted rarely, but never really bothered very much. This mouse, when free from the bait of cheese and the punishment of electrocution, used its time to amuse itself, run around, figure out other productive (and unproductive) things to do. When it is released into the wild (or perhaps, a larger cage), it doesn't need as much motivation to do things. It just does them. That is what it is used to doing, and is used to sometimes being rewarded, sometimes not.

You are like the mouse that is paralyzed. To get over this is going to take some time to readjust. You're going to have to learn how to relax. It's not going to be that easy at the beginning, and you're going to overreact/underreact to a lot of things. Time will help you find your balance again.

All I can tell you is that for me, it was worth waiting many years to find this "balance." Why? Because it was nice to see what it was like living like a normal mouse. Because being that paralyzed mouse was kind of a drag...and at least for the sake of others, I'm glad that paralyzed, angsty mouse I used to be is largely (not completely) gone.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 3:23 AM on September 16, 2011 [9 favorites]


I like the paralyzed mouse analogy. It made me think about ex-battery hens. After you rescue them, it takes a couple months before their claws unclench enough to let them walk around and scratch.
posted by flabdablet at 3:45 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hate to sound like an old fart, but most of the symptoms you're describing are (in my opinion) due to a condition known as being 23 years old. I tried not to think that way, but when you said, "I can't help but think that people who don't feel this sort of thing given how the world is are fooling themselves," it kind of snapped into focus.

This is the time in your life when everything is anxiety-ridden (because you're still transferring from childhood into adulthood) and terrifyingly overwhelming (because you think you know everything).

Not to diminish your anxiety; it's very real at the time, but eventually, most people do grow out of the brain-crushing idea that every decision is just that important and that you have to know what life is all about.
posted by xingcat at 4:19 AM on September 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


The correct answer to "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is "Fuck off".

Not so. If you're a big-picture type you need to focus on big pictures. Beforehand your big-picture vision was determined by the catholic belief system. That's a lot of stuff, no wonder you feel bleak. In time things will come back into focus. The world really is astonishing, and as a person of no religious faith I have found the closest thing to nirvana has been to study science. More people-person types can find deep, deep meaning in human interaction - especially at moments of crisis, growth or intensity (hence many people's satisfaction in parenting).

Also it's completely understandable that you feel a lack of models for 'a good life' - the world as presented by popular media is not nurturing, and as a relatively young person maybe you've yet to develop a keener eye for life as it is actually lived. You need to observe joy - go see kids in the park, play with kittens, marvel at the ordered chaos of birds, watch old couples enjoying each other's company. There is no rationale for joy - it's as intrinsic to the human condition as suffering.

Basically you need some soul food. Analysis cannot feed you (it's taken me more than thirty years to understand this), but self-awareness, curiosity and discovery can. Maybe we're cosmic fungi and there's no imperative other than to be - but this is hugely liberating and joyful for me. To misquote (I think) Khalil Gibran: you are the expression of life's longing for itself. I think and feel and process information. In the bigger picture maybe my function is to grow and propagate ideas, maybe not - all that matters is that I'm here and I'm alive, learning more about how that state of affairs came about makes me revel in just being.

The social stuff, the worry about money etc is an anxiety that stems from the idea that there's a single, correct solution to being and managing your life. There isn't - but if you're living within your means now and saving some cash for later where possible, treating romantic partners with respect - even as you work out what you need from relationships - and being engaged with the world around you, you'll be involved in the best kind of living.

Oh, and about the arrogance thing, brains may may give you the ability to see 'how things are' at a higher resolution, but existential angst is only one way of framing the view. Your intelligence and consideration means you have access to myriad realms of wonder, go explore!
posted by freya_lamb at 4:55 AM on September 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


I sometimes have had similar thoughts, and the arrogance turned out to be more of the anxiety and depression talking, trying to build even more defenses around itself. It tried to convince me that I was the only right one that could see the pointlessness of it all. Therapy helped.

Maybe therapy with a non-CBT therapist willing to engage you on this level would be most helpful to you. As Obscure Reference points out, not all therapists are of the "band-aid" school, and some would probably find it interesting to wrestle with these questions with you.
posted by ldthomps at 5:23 AM on September 16, 2011


Hi Chase.

First, you're ahead of your time/23 years by having the presence of mind to ask for other's perspectives.

Second, one day you will be posting a reply that will help a 23-year old with these questions.

Third, the mind is a very dangerous place to walk alone, and some of us have a greater propensity for frightening ourselves than others. You are, clearly, an intelligent, intuitive, insightful, critical thinker. These are great gifts, and you are just in the beginning of finding out how they can be of service in your own life and to your world. Navigating the world with a mind of your capacity -- well, until you learn how to reign in the scary thoughts, it is terrifying.

How to reign in the thoughts takes a lot of trial and error and trying different things until you find what works for you....as you are doing.

But here's a bottom line for me: I can terrify myself out of living TODAY in my PRESENT LIFE. I can worry and philosophize myself into completely isolating and disconnecting myself from real life. I can paralyze myself with fear. I can "angstify" myself into a sort of romanticized existence, trying to 'be sure' I'm choosing the 'most meaningful' pursuits possible...as defined by someone or some entity.... --- OR ---

I can get out of my house, my room, my head, my journal, my books, my therapists office and CONNECT. I can take interest in others in ACTIVE ways. I can go volunteer in the local emergency room or homeless shelter (trust me, it makes all the difference, as BundleOfHers so aptly said). Go to an AA (or other support group) meeting and just listen, to people who are struggling to finding hope and a meaningful existence moment by moment. I can become engaged in being connected with the human race, being PART OF struggling humanity, rather than separating myself. I can let myself feel and taste and smell and hear, and live my own life with other half-sure people. But I've gotta care out my own meaning. If I get out of my fears and face life with passion and with presence, fully there, listening to people and to my own life, the depression and meaninglessness does not rule my existence.

You could engage and dig deeper in connection with people. It's all a serious of little and big risks, every day.

Or, you can be like me, and waste years of your life worrying and angstifying, being afraid of making mistakes, not really connecting or engaging and getting your hands dirty with people....always fearing you might not get it 'right.' You could just stay stuck in your head and not really connect to the beautiful world, creation, body, life, organic gifts given to you now.

I don't think it's about departing from religion...I think religious people have to make the choices, too. Toss out the harsh, severe, punishing ideas of God, though.

Everyone has to decide either to actually live fully engaged in life. Or you can dink around in the cesspool of your head and avoid being fully present. Living fully today means risking that you might be wrong. Take the risks. You won't be abandoned by 'God' or 'meaning.' It seems to me the more you practice getting out of your head and into your life, the more meaningful life becomes and the more you trust you're not alone.
posted by sleeping beauty at 5:31 AM on September 16, 2011 [7 favorites]


I've confronted some similar questions, and they became more intense after I left the Catholic church. Here's how I came to make my peace with these questions - what worked for me might not work for you, but I hope it helps you find a framework to explore.

I don't feel like I know why we're here, why I'm here, or what a good sort of life looks like.

We're here because of the unfolding laws of physics, chemistry and other scientific stuff about how things came to be. There is no Reason for Existing, there's just Existence. Reading some Camus along with learning the basics of astronomy and evolution might help you as it helped me.

Similarly, there's no Reason for Me, contrary to what I was taught in church. For what it's worth, this became clear to me after reading Carl Sagan's "Demon-Haunted World", and seeing a quote from Stanley Kubrick in an interview: "No matter how vast the darkness, we must supply our own light". I make my own reasons for being, because there isn't anyone else to provide one for me. I've decided that my reason for choosing to continue to exist is about building a better future for me and my loved ones, in a broad sense that leads to me doing environmental and social justice work on a volunteer basis. It's absolutely a decision that I make in order to feel good, because feeling bad about a purposeless existence makes the people who love me sad (which I don't want for them) and it irritates me to feel like I'm floundering around.

To me, a good sort of life is one where I'm loved and give love to a small group of people, and get to use my talents and skills on a regular basis, in service of a greater cause. Like my answer to the first question, this is backed up by science. Reading books by Martin Seligman and other Positive Psychology researchers is where I picked up this idea.


I can also feel at times like even that idyllic made up future is destined to fail or become unfulfilling.

In this, I'm inspired by Zoe from the tv series Firefly: "I ain't so scared of losing something that I won't try having it." If you do try to bring something worthwhile into your life, and after a time it breaks or fails or you no longer find it worthwhile, surely that's a better overall result than suspecting that things might be worthwhile but never trying to do them, living in stasis or paralysis? Fear of being wrong, or of losing something you value, isn't a good reason to put your life on hold.
posted by harriet vane at 5:32 AM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


I used to feel that way and then (after reading Carlos Castaneda) became comfortable with the truth that "nothing really matters." Embracing that, rather than fearing it, allowed me some freedom to pursue whatever life choices felt best for me.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 5:35 AM on September 16, 2011


Oops...that should read "carve out my own meaning." Oh, and it may help to know, I'm living much more fully now and finding freedom from much of the angsty fears.
posted by sleeping beauty at 5:37 AM on September 16, 2011


Ditto for organized religion, which I participated in as a fervent Catholic until about nine months ago.

This stood out for me. Nine months is too soon to transition from one world-view to another and it sounds like that may be what you are going through.

I recall my college being full of recent ex-Catholics who would meet regularly mostly to discuss "big" issues. I attended one of these meetings mostly because two friends of mine were in them and told me that it was more than just for recent ex-Catholics.

In some sense, they were right. The group discussion was fascinating. Together they were trying to evaluate philosophical frameworks to try and fill a void that they felt. I left the group, though, because it was too exhausting for me and because I was consumed with other issues at the time, things more mundane but more real for me.

Everyone has their own timeline, I believe, for waking up to the idea that the world we inhabit is largely a void in which we have constructed edifices. But when you do, there is a lot of value in gathering the time and patience to sort through ideas, like sorting through objects in an attic, discarding the useless things and holding on to those of worth while knowing the source of that worth.

The successful transition, at least for me, was the fruit of that process. I know why I believe this or that. It is because I consciously decided at one time to believe it. Not because it was told to me by a religion or pitched to me by the snake-oil salesmen of ideas. I became naked and then re-clothed myself slowly. I became the person I decided to be.

For me, I rejoined reality by touching it and feeling it. For me, it was swimming in the ocean. I took a year off after college and spent many days waking up before dawn, zipping up my wetsuit and diving into the ocean. The Pacific Ocean is cold and some days the chill was almost unbearable. I drank ocean water, almost losing myself in the swells. I felt rip-tides blocking me from swimming back in, even though I was near exhaustion. I felt large fish swim by me. I was surrounded by a school of dolphins, enormous frightening beasts that from a distance appear to be sharks.

By immersing myself like that, I became more conscious of how fragile I am and how we are all skimming along, barely taming world and forces around us. Once you have made the active choice to live and survive in this reality, you must also make the choice on how to live it. Blandly following the ideas of others? Wallowing in despair? Living in happiness, aware of each moment?

The two things, for me, went together. Accepting this world and living in it, and also using what I had learned in rebuilding my mind in order to live it as best that I am able.
posted by vacapinta at 5:44 AM on September 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


for what it's worth: i was the same way at 23 - taking "life" way too seriously (how could one not??!) - constantly searching for The Big Answers. You will likely continue to suffer your anxieties, as I did... until you don't. In other words, you are on track to sometime finally crack under the weight of it all and have a breakthrough/awakening that will hopefully give you a peace you are looking for. Right now, even if "The Answer" was shoved in your face, you would probably just "think" it away until such a "breakthrough" happens.

So to answer your question- what do you DO? I would say: keep knocking, keep thrashing, keep chipping away until Life/"something" catalyzes you out of the void/ blackhole and into the present moment. I would also throw in: create, rather than ruminate.

(For me, those catalysts came after a strict religious upbringing and years of suffering, and all during a short window of time: the birth of my first child, prolonged-extreme stress of my job, a one-time intensly positive drug-experience, reading Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth")

I think many of the previous answers (my take on them anyway) fit with this:
"Justice" - this could take years.
"xing" - you might need more life experience
"flabdablet" - these questions are a manifestation of your Ego
"bundle" - it's a matter of where your attention lies
"freya" - less analysis/ more living
"vacpinta" - experience raw vulnerability
posted by mrmarley at 6:11 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's my two cents worth. A major mistake in our mental worlds is mistaking the virtual world we create in our minds for the world itself. We're trained, some say domesticated, to see the world filtered through these mental models. Even more unfortunately, we tend to see these models of reality as being who we are, as composing our essential reality instead of being just ephemera we were trained to regard as real.
So, the real question I think for you, is not 'how do I deal with my angst' but how do I step outside my various mental frameworks and begin deconstructing them or restating them in a way that leads to a more positive life experience.
Since our brains are plastic in their ability to learn and change, you can do this, restate the terms of your relationship to life. It's really a matter of retraining the mind with new propositions than the ones you are using now. It takes time to do this, there's no free lunch. Since 'angst' is just a word which you are applying to a feeling state, deconstructing that belief and restating the underlying premises are what you need to look at doing. Then go for a long walk in the woods. You'll feel better.
posted by diode at 6:12 AM on September 16, 2011


My parents died about six months apart just before I turned 30. I'm an only child - well, I have half-siblings, but we didn't grow up together - and my grandparents had died years before. So when my parents died, I immediately fell into an existential "I am alone in the universe - entirely, utterly alone; there is no one left who has known me my whole life" crisis.

I was in therapy. I talked to my therapist about it. I'm positive she said helpful things - she was my favorite therapist ever - but what finally got my out of it was waking up one day and accepting it. Yes, I am alone in the universe. So is everyone. My chance to be - or at least feel - less alone is solely up to me; I am the only one who can bring fulfillment to my life, and it's an internal process, not an external one. It's also okay to be alone. I didn't force myself to accept it, mind you - it just kind of happened.

You'll be okay. What you're going through is pretty normal, though it may be amplified by your anxiety. You've got a long life ahead of you, and you really don't have to figure everything out now. Try to remember that you should spend at least as much time actually living your life as thinking about what it means to be alive.
posted by rtha at 6:37 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I went through something very similar at your age. I left Orthodox Judaism and experienced anxiety and depression and all those big questions. I guess what ultimately helped was time and therapy, but let me give you a shortcut, if possible.

The "answer" to all those questions is that they are bad questions. The existential ones assume that there are answers when there aren't and the personal ones assume that there is one correct answer when in reality there are many.

Why are we here?

Our ancestors got lucky and evolved to fit a niche.

What is our purpose?

What's the purpose of a Sunday afternoon? It only makes sense if you assume there is a purpose. Do whatever you want with your life and your afternoons.

What is a good life? According to whom? And does it make sense to rate something like a life as "good" or "bad" when almost every life has both?

How long should [relationships] last?

There is no "should." It's up to you and her.

Should I really be with this person?

There is no "should." Do you want to be?

Should I be focusing on finding a permanent partner?

(Again with the "should." David Burns has a book called Feeling Good which has a lot to say about all of these "should" thoughts we have. Most of the time, they are irrational. If they are rational, they can be rephrased so they are pragmatic instead of moralizing.)

Try to flesh out what you really want to know. Will you regret it later if you don't? Will people look down on you if you don't? Will your parents? Will you? Do you feel compelled somehow? Etc.

Is spending X on a thing too much?

Too much for what? Again, there is no Big Truth here. There are a million ways to spend money. All of them have consequences, but it's up to you to decide what consequences you want. Is spending X too much if your income is flat and you want to have Y saved by next year is a valid question. Is spending X "too much" in general is not.

Life's all about choices and there are no right ones and wrong ones in a vacuum. Marry Katie or don't, maybe you'll be happier with one choice and maybe you'll be happier with the other, but you can't know for sure and there is no single right answer. Think about what you want, make your best decision based on the absurdly incomplete information that you have, and repeat.
posted by callmejay at 6:58 AM on September 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


"I looked more widely around me. I studied the lives of the masses of
humanity, and I saw that, not two or three, or ten, but hundreds,
thousands, millions, had so understood the meaning of life that they
were able to both live and to die. All these men were well acquainted
with the meaning of life and death, quietly labored, endured privation
and suffering, lived and died, and saw in all this, not a vain, but a
good thing."
-Leo Tolstoy
posted by General Tonic at 7:05 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not so. If you're a big-picture type you need to focus on big pictures.

Not so. If you're a big-picture type you need to get out more. The devil is always in the details. Ignore them at your peril.

There's no way that any of us is ever going to have a complete understanding of ourselves and our surroundings. All any of us ever get is better at it over time, and that only applies for as long as we keep paying attention.

Sitting on your arse and allowing illusory Big Pictures to clang about in your head is fine, so long as generating angst and drama (both for yourself and for others who care about you) is your hobby. But if you'd rather not have the angst, all you need to do is work on discarding beliefs you cannot test and allowing those that remain to be shaped by experience.

The world is as it is. Get amongst it. Get interested in it. Find out how assorted bits of it relate to one another. These are good things to do. And bear in mind that when the world has stopped surprising you, it's not because there's something wrong with the world - it's because there's something wrong with the ways you're choosing to look at it.
posted by flabdablet at 7:12 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I get the impression that intelligence is a major source of self-esteem for you. I think that's a pretty fragile basket to place all your eggs in. Is it possible that if you consciously worked on finding value from other things (kindness? giving to others?), you would slowly feel less invested in being right about what the grand questions of life are and so on? I mean, do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?
posted by prefpara at 7:15 AM on September 16, 2011


For me, what seems to work is a worldview cobbled together from sources as diverse as my Jewish upbringing, various philosophers, and Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (don't laugh, they're wonderful), which boils down to a sort of works-based humanism. This is what keeps the angst at bay, for me: the idea that we're here to leave the world better than we found it. The idea that there's no inherent meaning to the universe, but that doesn't mean life is meaningless-- we create meaning for ourselves out of nothing, every day. And that's amazing, and wonderful, and something to be proud of.
posted by nonasuch at 7:15 AM on September 16, 2011


Answers that have helped me:

What is our purpose? Simply to be, and to be happy.

What is my purpose? Simply to be, also. And whatever else I decide to do.

Read the Alchemist, Autobiography of a Yogi, and then simply vow to be happy and to improve the lives of others somehow.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:15 AM on September 16, 2011


The "answer" to all those questions is that they are bad questions.

Hence "Fuck off."

It's Australian for "mu".
posted by flabdablet at 7:17 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


PS: I'm 23, too, but female. My anxiety about the future and life in general is high. As a mostly-white, middle class kid, though, I can say with absolute certainty that we have barely scratched the surface of our lives right now and as soon as we let go of some of our privilege, and just start living, we will be okay. It will all be okay.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:19 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


You may not like the short answer, but it was:
1) meet and learn about people with truly awful problems
2) learn to stop trying to find "the magical key" to life...to learn that there is not one true answer, but a myriad of perspectives and to try and be far more refined about my beliefs
and MOST IMPORTANTLY...
3) grow out of my 20's.


I do want to modify #1 slightly, though. I think what was key for me was having to engage with people who I wouldn't have normally, rather than people with "truly awful problems". Shit happens to all of us, and just because someone's burden looks heavy (or light) to you, doesn't it mean it feels that way to them. At the same time that I try to work to remove obstacles for marginalized people, I also recognize that just because someone is at or near the top of the pyramid doesn't mean that they're not able to have weighty problems.

The ongoing internal project of my life so far (and maybe forever) is forgiving myself for being human (and occasionally, sounding incredibly pretentious). Struggling with accepting the fact that I am and always will be flawed, recognizing that there are things I can change but other things that I don't have the resources to change, and trying to extend to myself the understanding and acceptance that I try to extend to others. Some of this got a lot easier after I got into my late 20s and basically discovered that yes, I am reasonably competent at conducting my life. I gave myself a really hard time for many of my post-college years for not having the grown-up thing figured out, because 1) I didn't realize that there isn't really any final "figuring it out" -- there's always going to be something that comes at you that you you'll have to learn to deal with and 2) I didn't realize exactly how much I had to figure out at that point in my life. It's a much bigger transition than I gave it credit for.

The world, and ourselves, are changeable, but not perfectable. Coming to terms with that is important. I'm not a big one for deep and important quotes, but there are two of Vonnegut's that have stuck with me for a long time now:
A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.

There's only one rule that I know of, babies — "God damn it, you've got to be kind."
For me, personally, those are two thoughts that so far have withstood the test of time. (On preview, resulting in a worldview very similar to nonasuch's.)
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:20 AM on September 16, 2011


the idea that we're here to leave the world better than we found it

Substituting "kitchen" for "world" here is the key to successful house sharing.
posted by flabdablet at 7:20 AM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


You exist to make a contribution to society. You help other people in work and in life, and in exchange, society support you with things like money, utilities, and friendships. Time spent not helping other people (or keeping yourself healthy so that you can continue to help people) is time wasted.

(Note: It's still OK to waste time sometimes, or even most of the time.).
posted by yeolcoatl at 7:27 AM on September 16, 2011


Put slightly differently: your continued existence uses up resources. In order for you to continue to exist, you must have those resources. In modern society, those resources have to come from other people. Therefore, if you exist, it is because you have done enough for other people with resources to make it worth it to them to subsidize your existence. (Even beggars provide a service to the people they're begging from, a good beggar makes the giver feel good for having given.)

If you stop helping other people, you will not be able to support yourself and (eventually) stop existing. Therefore, the purpose of your existence (tied to the fact of your existence) is to help other people.

You can also make this a grander purpose by more actively seeking out and helping other people, as suggested a couple times up thread. In my case, I chose teaching.
posted by yeolcoatl at 7:48 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Regarding your relationship anxiety:

At 23 you're too focused on "getting it right this time", but you don't even know what you want yet. What if "the one" doesn't exist, but you eventually meet a few that come close? Good relationships are more a product of timing (i.e. where you are at in your life) and hard work than perfectly complimenting each other. What if you don't find a partner to settle down with until you're 30 (or older?) What if I promised you every relationship you have will fail until then, and even then, that there are no guarantees of forever? Do you give up on relationships or keep dating? Would you consider approaching your relationships differently, and treat each one as an experience to enjoy and grow from while it lasts? A relationship is a journey, not a destination.
posted by lizbunny at 8:37 AM on September 16, 2011


Thanks for everybody's input so far. A point of clarification, and an additional question:


  • As a kid, I essentially grew up in an agnostic household and drove my own religious development. This by way of saying both that I've never had a problem intellectually being a little bit the heretic, and my family couldn't be more supportive of me choosing whatever direction I pick to go in. At this point, I'm a self-identified non-denominational Christian who reads a lot of mystical theology. I'm fine taking the good and leaving the bad from that experience, with no hard feelings, but trying to process the good parts from the bad parts is part of the problem.



  • Volunteering strikes me as a decent and well-intentioned choice, but one where my double-think has gotten me in trouble in the past. First, on a practical level, lots of these feelings come late at night, when I don't have nearly as many opportunities to go out and invest my energy in someone else (I suspect this is part of the reason I really like those long-term relationships, it provides someone to support at the end of the day). Second, when I've volunteered in the past, I've had a hard time getting over the idea that it was there mostly to make me feel good: I've rarely been worked to the degree I thought I could, and always get this lingering thought that we'd be a lot better off as a society if we paid people without jobs decent wages to do lots of what we cosign to volunteering. So, I try to give a little bit more money, but get into that guilt spiral again ... you see how this line of thinking works.

  • posted by Apropos of Something at 9:19 AM on September 16, 2011


    Your mental processes sound so much like mine it's scary. One possible distinction, though, is that my recent thing has been not so much
    "Why is the world this way? [->Angst]"
    as
    "God dammit, stupid fucking humans are gonna destroy this great world! [->Anger]"

    Lately I have been turning my mind, that terrible weapon, against itself by asking "Okay, if you're so smart and if the world's so screwy, what could it possibly look like for you to not be pissed off all the time?" I can't seem to come up with a plausible answer to that question, which seems to be leading to resigned and slightly amused acceptance (the ideal way to view existence, according to lots of wise folks).

    FWIW, YMMV, and in the words of Red Green, "I'm pullin' for ya. We're all in this together"
    posted by fetamelter at 9:45 AM on September 16, 2011


    My answer is the exact opposite of flabdablet's. I think you're onto something valuable. My advice would be to allow yourself to really be okay with not knowing. If possible, switch your perspective to one of curiosity, the kind of curiosity that a scientists have when they notice a phenomenon and embark on its exploration. And then do it! Your methodology for exploration doesn't matter -- you can use all of the stuff of life to inform you. These questions are the same kinds of questions that made the Buddha the Buddha. MeMail me if you like for some resources that I've found helpful.
    posted by Wordwoman at 9:54 AM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


    Volunteering strikes me as a decent and well-intentioned choice, but one where my double-think has gotten me in trouble in the past. First, on a practical level, lots of these feelings come late at night, when I don't have nearly as many opportunities to go out and invest my energy in someone else (I suspect this is part of the reason I really like those long-term relationships, it provides someone to support at the end of the day).

    My read is that volunteering is not being suggested so much a solution for those emotions in the moment as it is an opportunity for you to develop a perspective that will serve as a tool to help you work through those moments when they strike, and possibly even lessen their occurrence. And maybe give you an opportunity to build relationships that you can call on in the moment when you're overcome by those feelings.

    Second, when I've volunteered in the past, I've had a hard time getting over the idea that it was there mostly to make me feel good: I've rarely been worked to the degree I thought I could, and always get this lingering thought that we'd be a lot better off as a society if we paid people without jobs decent wages to do lots of what we cosign to volunteering. So, I try to give a little bit more money, but get into that guilt spiral again ... you see how this line of thinking works.

    Yes. And you're not wrong. But you've heard the starfish on the beach story, I'm sure - you can't throw back all the starfish, but your effort matters to the ones that do make it back into the ocean. And volunteering making you feel good should not be a bad thing - this is assistance that you're doing, not penance. Now, if you're feeling like your efforts are entirely wasted, that's another issue, and it may take some shopping around to find something meaningful. Money is only one resource that problems need - finding a problem that needs your particular talents might be a bit of challenge, but it's definitely a worthy one.
    posted by EvaDestruction at 10:18 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


    I don't feel like I know why we're here, why I'm here, or what a good sort of life looks like.

    These are perfectly legitimate questions to have that have concerned thoughtful people for thousands of years! Study philosophy!

    I strongly disagree that the correct answer to them is to swear at anybody. All that does is make the world more dumb.
    posted by citron at 10:23 AM on September 16, 2011


    Oh, and you said you can't do sitting meditation, but what about walking meditation (for instance, a labyrinth)?
    posted by EvaDestruction at 10:31 AM on September 16, 2011


    A book you might like: Absence of Mind, by Marilynne Robinson.

    Nowadays, Kierkegaard would likely be put on MAO inhibitors, even by his fellow Christians. Now Søren had a lot of guilt, which his belief system told him was the way he should feel. But I would see his guilt as probably partly symptomatic, and I imagine (since IANYT) that much of your anxiety falls in the same category. This doesn't mean you're asking bad questions, but that your anxiety is about more than just looking for meaning. (As an aside, needing meaning is the opposite of arrogant.)

    On preview, since people are suggesting meditation (yes, I saw you think you failed at it) I have another book recommendation which I learned about by reading AskMe: Cheri Huber's There is Nothing Wrong with You.
    posted by Obscure Reference at 10:42 AM on September 16, 2011


    At this point, I'm a self-identified non-denominational Christian who reads a lot of mystical theology.

    "Doctor, it hurts when I do this..."

    when I've volunteered in the past, I've had a hard time getting over the idea that it was there mostly to make me feel good

    And this is bad why, exactly? Volunteering is supposed to feel good. If it doesn't feel good, you're doing it wrong.

    I've rarely been worked to the degree I thought I could,

    Volunteers should work, never be worked. If somebody is working a volunteer, as opposed to simply finding something useful for them to do, they're doing it wrong.

    That's why it's called "volunteering". It's voluntary. It's stuff you do because you see the need and feel the urge, not because you expect some other reward for it. It's a different kind of thing from working for pay.

    and always get this lingering thought that we'd be a lot better off as a society if we paid people without jobs decent wages to do lots of what we cosign to volunteering.

    We'd be a lot better off as a society if we paid people without jobs decent wages, period, and we all had more time available for voluntary work.

    To make this fair to people with jobs, we should pay everybody enough to buy basic food and basic shelter, just for being citizens. Anything you make from a job would be on top of the basic social wage. That way there would be no need for an enforced minimum wage, low income earners would have no need to work "under the table" to avoid loss of welfare payments (which is effectively a punitive marginal income tax rate only applied to the poor) and people whose skills run more to slacking off while living on a pittance would have no need to occupy workplace positions better given to those more motivated to do good work.

    So, I try to give a little bit more money, but get into that guilt spiral again ... you see how this line of thinking works.

    I see how it goes. I don't see how it works; the guilt strikes me as dysfunctional. Just pay attention to what's around you, give as much money and/or time as you're comfortable giving, do your job and stop beating yourself up.

    My answer is the exact opposite of flabdablet's. I think you're onto something valuable. My advice would be to allow yourself to really be okay with not knowing.

    Being really OK with not knowing the things you don't know is an absolute pre-requisite for the mental freedom that confers the ability to engage in playful inquiry.

    So is being really OK with not wasting time seeking answers to questions that have none because they're actually completely incoherent.

    More recommended reading (here's an excerpt).
    posted by flabdablet at 11:33 AM on September 16, 2011


    This sort of thing might fall under what the Buddha called the "Fourteen Unanswerable Questions," which he refused to answer because "he described them as a net and refused to be drawn into such a net of theories, speculations, and dogmas. He said that it was because he was free of bondage to all theories and dogmas that he had attained liberation. Such speculations, he said, are attended by fever, unease, bewilderment, and suffering, and it is by freeing oneself of them that one achieves liberation." (from Wikipedia).

    The Parable of the Arrow relates to this - do you really need to know the precise nature of the poisoned arrow before you remove it? If you're interested in the history and Buddhist philosophy around this concept, there's a more detailed, nuanced take on the unanswerable/undetermined questions here, from John Hicks.
    posted by dialetheia at 12:06 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


    I’m pretty much with you on this, and for what it’s worth I think that you’re right to be asking these questions. What worked for me during my existential angst was 1) realizing that it’s okay not to know things; and 2) reaching out to other people who also asked these sorts of questions about life.

    The first one happened when I was listening to a discussion between an agnostic and a Christian about the origin of the universe. The Christian was pressuring the agnostic to make some statement about the beginning of the universe, and agnostic guy finally said something like, “I don’t know. I don’t think that anyone can know. We might be able to make some guesses that seem more or less likely, but I don’t think we’re actually going to completely figure it out.” It made an impression on me because most people I know pretty much had a pat answer to the whole beginning-of-the-universe question, didn’t really seem to have a good reason to back it up, but nonetheless was really passionately attached to that answer. I don’t really understand why it’s important to have a definite opinion about those sorts of questions when you haven’t had the time or training to really think about them. So I guess I’d recommend being comfortable with a certain amount of honest uncertainty, because you will never actually know everything you want to know.

    Second, I talk to other people who also have these big picture questions about life. We never actually come to any conclusion in these discussions, but that’s okay, because being with other people who understand your interests and sympathize with these kinds of struggles is comforting. You will never be able to think your way through difficult questions on your own—you need other people to point out the flaws in your reasoning and argue with. This is true of every field of inquiry and is the reason why things like peer review and so on exist in the sciences. So try to find that through a philosophy meetup or your grad program (although sometimes it’s surprisingly difficult to find grad students who are interested in issues that aren’t directly related to their program).

    If you’re really interested in these big picture questions, what matters is figuring out better and better ways of investigating them. You may not ever find an answer that satisfies you and gives you a sense of identity and place in the world, but at least you can find sympathy and encouragement from the people around you, and develop more satisfying ways of considering the questions. It’s all about the process of asking, not the conclusions themselves.

    Your problem now seems to be that you don’t have a balanced way to deal with these questions. You need to schedule a time when you are allowed to think about these things (when reading a book that seems to have some sort of valuable insight, talking to people who share your interest and what have you), and then try to discipline yourself so that you aren’t dwelling on morality or god or whatever all the time. After a certain point, it does get to be a bit unhealthy/ self-indulgent.
    posted by _cave at 12:06 PM on September 16, 2011


    Honey, if I were single I'd be on you like frosting on a layer cake! I spent ages looking for someone who cared deeply about life, wondered what it all meant, didn't want to settle for mediocrity, suffered with depression and anxiety, felt things deeply, took life seriously.

    Don't try to cure your own angst! It'll make you hot beyond belief someday, to some beautiful brainy babe who won't believe her luck when she finds you :)
    posted by cartoonella at 12:53 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Dialethia, the OP is not asking for theories, speculations, and dogmas. In his own words, he is asking "why we're here, why I'm here, what a good sort of life looks like." Surely such questions and the possible approaches to them are at the core of the Noble Eightfold Path. (I'm not a Buddhist so pardon me if my understanding is off -- however, I'm pretty sure the OPs questions are worthy ones and not the "unanswerable questions" you refer to.)
    posted by Wordwoman at 1:11 PM on September 16, 2011


    I've already favorited Callmejay's answer but I can't emphasize what a great response it is. It's no surprise you're thinking this way at your age. It's about this time that many people start to question the absolutism they've been raised on but are not yet able to mentally accommodate relativism.

    Yes, these are bad, pointless questions. They originate from false premises: that the universe has "purpose," that there is a singular "good" life for you to model yours on, that the complexities of human relationships can be reduced to handy rules of thumb on duration. These questions are far too subjective.
    posted by Kitty Stardust at 2:01 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


    I'd suggest that your life (as all of ours) is a very small part of a very large complex system we call the Universe. If you think you're in control of your life, maybe best to think again. There's only one 'good sort of life' - it's the one you're living now, but you don't know that.
    How to find out that your life is actually perfect? Just let go. Accept what happens. Don't look for some mystical 'reasons'. Live in the moment. It is all you have. You may want it to be 'That', but in truth it is what it is.
    posted by nickji at 9:25 AM on September 17, 2011


    Ignoring contemporary psychiatry, and speaking from personal experience, it's entirely possible to think oneself into this sort of existential malaise, but also entirely possible to think oneself out. (Of course the puppet can never see nor determine the cause-effect, chicken-egg relationship between himself and his neurochemical strings, but if the emergent problem in the hardware (depression and low serotonin levels) is caused by a subjective glitch in the software (thinking about the big questions and not finding answers) then tackle the problem in the software, at the subjective, contextual level.)

    That digressive introduction aside, what I'm really trying to say is that you stand at a crossroads, in which through your life experience and thinking has brought you to an existentially threatening question, this natural and leviathan philosophical roadblock of what it all means. You can choose, like many people, to simply bury it and brush it aside, like everyone does when as a child they have that first brush with the concept of death and personal nonexistence.

    Or, if your intellectual integrity won't allow it, you can probe, and probe, and typically the lack of definite answers brings on this kind of depression. No one can tell you the answer or the argument that leads to it and you will have to think it out. Think. Trace the contours of your arguments, your conclusions, redraw and retrace your lines of thought. Take your mind as far as it will go, keep questioning, never stop thinking, until the structure of your logic is polished and your conclusions shine clear as day. When you find the answer (and you will find one eventually) you'll know it. You'll feel it, because when you lie to yourself or try to bury the question or ignore it or feed yourself pat, plastic, shrink-wrapped answers, you'll always have that splinter in your mind, that you can't bury with self-medicating or SSRIs or simple talk therapy. The answer is in yourself somewhere. But at that moment when you figure it out, when you decide where to go and whether or not to go at all, you'll feel the gears stop gnashing in your mind, the keystone slide into place, and you'll see, and you will walk out of that valley either stronger or dead.

    The personal experience: I grew up as well in an agnostic (well, vaguely Buddhist and unspecified benevolent personal monotheistic deity) household but chose atheism by age 11. When I was fifteen, after becoming engrossed in philosophy and the debate surrounding the existence of God and the meaning of life and purpose and whatnot, I fell into a severe existential crisis that lasted half a year. I had to confront the question of living a possibly meaningless existence as a rational agent in an undetermined, meaningless universe. The ambiguous answer given by Russell in his famous essay was useless, and so was most of the works on existentialism that I read. I had to discover the answer myself, and what precisely that was doesn't matter here, because it's a painful process that you can only go through alone, but suffice it to say that I found it. When I came out of it, at sixteen, I was stronger. I'm here, telling you, not as an atheist but a fellow human being, that this is your plan of action: keep thinking, and keep questioning. Don't be afraid to pull that keystone, to gleefully dynamite the constructs that you've taken for yourself, to throw yourself into that yawning chasm, because afterwards, standing in the rubble, piece by piece, you can begin rebuilding yourself as you choose.

    Did any of that make sense?
    posted by hyrodi at 2:09 AM on September 19, 2011


    ...this natural and leviathan philosophical roadblock of what it all means. You can choose, like many people, to simply bury it and brush it aside, like everyone does when as a child they have that first brush with the concept of death and personal nonexistence.

    Or you could choose to treat "What will happen to me when I die?" and "What does it all mean?" as the completely separate questions that they are, and spend time on each contemplating what is wrong with the question before seeking an answer that's assumed to exist simply because a question has words in it and a question mark at the end.

    This is not burying or brushing anything aside. If questions that cause you grief rest on broken assumptions that make worrying about them pointless, you probably want to know that.

    Tackling "What does it all mean?" is best started, in my opinion, by close examination of the words "all" and "mean" within the context of the question. What does the question mean by these things, and what kind of answer would satisfy?

    If "mean" implies a universal purpose or a plan: if such a plan did exist, would the plan be part of the "all" it purports to plan? If so, how so? If not, why not?

    If "mean" implies a formula or set of rules to live by, what evidence is there that existence admits of being reduced to such?

    Is "What does it all mean?" in fact a meaningful and useful question, or could it be some kind of philosophical parallel to "What integer when multiplied by itself yields two?"

    And so on.
    posted by flabdablet at 6:44 PM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


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