Existential angst before bed
December 27, 2011 6:53 AM   Subscribe

Existential concerns hit me as I fall asleep basically every night. How nutters am I?

I'm an atheist in my mid-to-late twenties with a fiancee, stable job, house, good friends, great family, and overall pretty happy with life.

I was raised in a Pentecostal Evangelical church and transitioned to full-on atheism over the course of a few years back when I turned 20. Despite this, my family and I get along great, I have a lovely fiancee, and things are generally going well.

Lately, I've found my mind drifting into existential angst mode as I lay in bed waiting to sleep. This rarely comes up during the day, since I don't really have the time to think about it and otherwise keep myself busy. But as I'm lying there, my mind wanders to the standard fare: basically, this is all you get. you could be dead tomorrow. your friends and/or family could be dead tomorrow.

Coming to terms with the inevitability of death is pretty straightforward: everyone dies. I think the issue is the greater sense of smallness, and of a complete awareness of the total lack of comprehension we have in general with regards to the Really Big Things. No one really knows how we came to be. No one really knows where we go when we die, and it's frustrating and can leave you feeling helpless, if you let it. Moreso if you believe that you just cease to exist entirely, as I do.

As a Christian, it was really comfortable to rely on the idea of God and an afterlife. For one thing, even if you fucked up, God had your back. For another, even if you died, boom, heaven. It was a wonderful comfort to have that belief to fall back on as I went to bed. Even better? In heaven, you presumably get to see your dead relatives! Sweet deal, that.

As an atheist, the cold hard reality that you no longer have those comforts to believe in leaves me with the OTHER reality that atheism is a damn hard sell. It sucks! Most religions have a pleasant afterlife to look forward to, if all goes well. Atheist? You lie in the ground and cease to exist. That's it! All those people you love that died before you? Your memory of them is all that's left! It's pretty shit, if you think about it. Writing the brochures for atheism is a pretty thankless job, I figure, since I suppose you're stuck pushing the "this is all you get! enjoy it while you can!" angle.

So on to my question:

What do other atheists do to avoid overthinking and pondering things like this: essentially, the general truth that we're here, that's it, and most of what happens is out of our hands?

Am I the only one who lies there and lets the mind boggle as I realize the complex series of things that happen to keep me around? I wouldn't call myself depressed at all. In general, I'm having a great time in life, but it's kind of a bummer, and it's been the theme for a few weeks now that I go to sleep thinking about this stuff, if I'm not distracting myself with other, more cheery thoughts.

I'm not looking to see a therapist nor is this a really huge problem for me. But it comes around basically every night, and I just want validation that I'm not crazy, that other people's minds wander like that, and maybe some ideas on avoiding that train of thought. I get that I should probably just ignore it to the best of my ability, but I'm more curious with how much time the rest of you spend thinking about this stuff, and how you work on processing it.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (38 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I don't see atheism as depressing. It's my inspiration for living each day like it was my last, and doing the best I can to make the world a better place while I'm still in it - not because I have to because God says so, or because I'm doing it to get to heaven, but because it's the right thing to do, and it creates happiness, peace, and love.

I've never laid awake thinking about 'what if...?' mainly because I don't see the use in sweating it, since I can't change it. It's reality. I prefer to focus on the things I can change, just like those religious folks who pray "God grant me the serenity..." (I think there is some secular truth in that too). I also am not bothered by the fact that I don't understand the essence of the universe, why we are here, etc. I don't think I'm any rocket scientist, so it seems rather presumptuous to me to think I might understand any of those things. I have enough trouble with basic arithmetic, common sense, and not tripping over my own shoelaces. I don't think you're crazy though. I just think we're fundamentally different personalities. I admire you for thinking big thoughts, rather than just being satisfied with ignorance like myself...
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:12 AM on December 27, 2011

You're not crazy. This happens to lots of people, atheist and otherwise.

Here's practical advice: Think happy thoughts. If the happy thoughts will not think, or your mind keeps wandering back to your existential angst, get out of bed, go to a chair you have designated your worry chair, and give yourself over to worrying about it for five or ten solid minutes. Then get up and go back to bed and insist to your brain it think happy thoughts. All existential angst thoughts must be thought in the chair.

The idea is that it's really easy to train yourself that your bed is the place for worrying, especially if it's the only quiet time you have all day. It can be useful to actually WORRY your worries and feel your angst, but do it NOT in your bed, so that your bed becomes a happy, sleepy place and doesn't get hijacked for upsetting thoughts.

Also Socrates says if there's nothing after, then it will be the most peaceful night sleep you've ever had, and who wouldn't want that? The ironic bit being that worrying about it is preventing the peaceful sleep. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:12 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I find my practice of Buddhism (which is not a religion) is helpful in being present and enjoying things while I am here.

And just because you don't believe in God doesn't mean you can't believe in the concept of soul and your soul moving on after death. You can be "spiritual" without being religious.

Finally, no, you're not unusual in thinking about this kind of thing - its the stuff that late night college chats are made of.
posted by NoraCharles at 7:13 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is going to sound counter-intuitive, but maybe the fact that you're avoiding it is the very reason it is coming up so persistently.

Let me issue the disclaimer first that this is not going to be a theist's attempt to be all "ah-ha, see, you have a god-shaped hole" or any of that kind of crap (that annoys me too). Because honestly, some religions got issues. But this kind of metaphysical stuff is stuff that we all wrestle with, and we all kind of do have to wrestle with.

For many people religion does help them wrestle with it -- or avoid wrestling with it, quite honestly (it's easy to just cling to "this is the pre-ordained answer to those questions, period, the end" when you get those nagging questions). But -- as I'm sure you will agree -- relgion doesn't work for everyone. Even for the theists the answers one's religion offers may not quite "fit". They didn't for me, for one.

You're not crazy, but I suspect that by continuing to try to avoid it, you could make yourself a little nuts. This is something you're wrestling with, and a part of you wants to think about; I'd just try thinking about it on a more attentive level (nothing fancy, maybe just a series of journal entries or notes or something on your computer where you just write out whatever's in your head at the moment about the topic) and get that out of your system until your brain is more settled.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:16 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had this problem commonly in the past -- in similar circumstances, atheist staring down the barrel of mortality -- and while I can't dismiss the existential drama I have learned that this tends to happen when I'm not taking good care of myself physically: too much caffeine, too much food late in the day, not exercising. You might look to the physiological side of things as well as the philosophical; can you change aspects of your daily routine that will tend to lead to better sleep?
posted by gerryblog at 7:25 AM on December 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

Yeah I feel the same way as EmpressCallipygos; I'm not at all convinced that you need to avoid thinking about these questions. It's totally normal that you're thinking about them! I think that almost everyone struggles with thinking about things like this, whether or not they're religious.

The other thing that I'm really struck by in your question is how you seem to be trying to deal with this all by yourself. There's plenty of alternatives to therapy. Do you talk with your fiancee about these questions? Are you part of any atheist groups? Maybe you could start one--you could read some philosophers and other thinkers and be like an Atheist Existential Reading Group. There has been lots written on these sorts of topics. Maybe just reading some atheist philosophy on the meaning of life will provide you with the feeling of community that might be what you're looking for.

No one wants to face the dark unknown alone. And you don't have to! Whatever our existential situation--wherever we came from, wherever we're going--we're in the same boat.
posted by overglow at 7:25 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

What do other atheists do to avoid overthinking and pondering things like this: essentially, the general truth that we're here, that's it, and most of what happens is out of our hands?

This might not really help you, but I never worry about stuff like that because I never believed, nor was I ever taught or asked to believe, anything else. The thought that "atheism is a hard sell" is a little bizarre to someone who was born and raised an athiest. It doesn't need to be sold, it's just...what is.

It's not that life doesn't frequently suck or that I'm totally fine with dying; the thought that I might get hit by a bus and not have time to do all the things I want to do would be very distressing if I sat around and thought about it too much.* I (and many other atheists, I'd imagine) wake up at 4am and worry about a lot of things, it's just that the afterlife or lack thereof is not one of them.

So I say you're not crazy for worrying. The content of what you worry about is formed by your background and experience, so you get religious stuff while someone else gets not having enough money, or being alone forever, or global warming, or what have you.

*I don't think about it too much because I'm going to stress out about something anyway by nature, so I might as well at least stress out about my career or something that I can do something about, you know?
posted by DestinationUnknown at 7:29 AM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

I actually think it's incredibly uplifting to be an atheist. So in my perspective: yes, on one hand, when we die, that's it; and no, there is no intrinsic meaning to life. But that just means all the power is in you and your life! And that's incredibly exciting. It means whatever you do with your life, all the relationships you create, or work you do – that’s what really matters. And you create every bit of meaning yourself.

I don't know if you've ever read "The Last Battle,” which is the final book in the Narnia series. Basically, at the very end, everybody from all the books ends up in Narnia, and Aslan splits them into two camps – the believers, and those who aren’t. The believers enter the “real” Narnia. And Aslan tells the Pevensie children (except Susan, of course), that they basically died in a train crash in England, and so did their friends and family. But it’s actually great news! Because now they can start to truly live life in the REAL Narnia and the REAL England (aka heaven). To me – as a disillusioned early teen realizing I was an atheist – this was terrible. Because then it followed that the life I knew was just some big lie, and that it was fake and meaningless. It seemed to me that Lewis’s interpretation cheapened life, believing as it did that there was something better just waiting.

Here is something I found very moving that was posted to reddit after Christopher Hitchens’ death - Ann Druyan's reflections on her husband Carl Sagan’s death:

When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me - it still sometimes happens - and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous - not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance… That pure chance could be so generous and so kind… That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time… That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it's much more meaningful…

The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don't think I'll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.
posted by leedly at 7:33 AM on December 27, 2011 [41 favorites]

You've just described my early 20s.

I was never a believer, but the idea of death didn't particularly bother me until my mom got sick with cancer. Suddenly it was immediate--close, and possible. I spent a lot of time up late at night with my mind racing, imagining what the sensation of dying would be.

I tried a lot of mental hacks. None of them worked. Here's what did: time, companionship, and being much, much busier. I realize now that I wasn't sufficiently challenged during graduate school. I had too much free time for boozing and smoking and partying and thinking. I should have been reading more books, writing more, challenging my brain. Instead, I let it fester, and it kept coming back to one question--the question of my death.

I also found that cohabitating helped, big time. Are you living with your fiance? I don't think about this stuff nearly as much since I don't go to bed alone anymore.

Overall, though, time was the best cure. I guess you can say that I just came to peace with it. Yeah, I'll die someday, but I no longer feel that overwhelming doom I used to about the whole thing. What's the point? I have too much to do before I get there to fixate on it. I used to feel a sort of skepticism toward people who weren't hung up on death--couldn't they see what was in front of them?! Now I can tell you that many of us have seen it, and felt what you're feeling now. I sometimes like to think that this awareness of our own mortality is an evolutionary trait. What better way than to get with the baby-making than to fear for one's own mortality? But who knows. What I want you to know is that someday, you won't feel like this--that terrible, stomach-clenching terror. It will get better. Promise.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:48 AM on December 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Thanks for that Ann Druyan quote leedly -- captures how I feel about things much more eloquently than I can manage. Here's another one I love from Salman Rushdie (from the Moor's Last Sigh):

“We look up and we hope the stars look down, we pray that there may be stars for us to follow, stars moving across the heavens and leading us to our destiny, but it’s only our vanity. We look at the galaxy and fall in love, but the universe cares less about us than we do about it, and the stars stay in their courses however much we may wish upon them to do otherwise. It’s true that if you watch the sky-wheel turn for a while you’ll see a meteor fall, flame and die. That’s not a star worth following; it’s just an unlucky rock. Our fates are here on earth. There are no guiding stars.”

For me, as a life-long atheist, this is actually a very positive passage -- our fates are here on earth! Our lives are what we make of them, and all that there is what you see around right now, so make them count. And when we die, we will cease to exist -- I don't fear death at all, after all, I did not exist until the very moment of my birth and that wasn't so very bad was it?
posted by peacheater at 7:48 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

What do other atheists do to avoid overthinking and pondering things like this: essentially, the general truth that we're here, that's it, and most of what happens is out of our hands?

I don't identify as atheist, but this struck me. I thought atheism was a disbelief in God on the basis of an absence of evidence. In your case, however, it sounds like you have taken on atheism as a belief system in itself, and that you are wrestling with it -- perhaps in the same way that you once wrestled with Christianity. Does your being an atheist mean that looking for meaning is prohibited? If so, I would suggest that you have taken on a belief system with strictures at least as oppressive as those of most religions. Your eventual answers may well not be theistic or having anything to do with an afterlife, but I would submit that questions of meaning are very worthwhile to ponder, read about, research, talk about and and explore. I think you can safely do so without slipping back into Pentecostalism or any other form of religiosity.
posted by Wordwoman at 7:49 AM on December 27, 2011

Your opening experiences reminded me a lot of experiences I had when I was a kid. I remember worrying a lot about death (probably after my grandmother died) and going downstairs to ask my Dad if anything happened after you die. He just said "no. nothing happens" which was honest, at least, but not much comfort. (This isn't meant to come over as patronising - "I had those thoughts as a child!", it's just what came to mind).

I take quite a lot of succour from meditation practice this days - which doesn't gibe with atheism to me. I don't know if I will explain this well, but here goes. At times I find myself sitting, head pretty empty, watching thoughts arise and fall, like ripples on a pond. I identify very strongly with that which is doing the watching, the act of perception, free of qualities if you will. The qualities are my life circumstances, my thoughts, feelings and emotions, all of which seem transient and impermanent, in these moments. I feel that if anything is "immortal" or unchanging about ourselves it's this. It feel like there's a truth, reality and depth to this experience. Funnily enough, when I sit like this, or put myself into this state in my day to day life, painful and difficult events seems much less so, including my fears and worries about death etc. They seem very much part of the whirl of thoughts, part of one's verbal circuitry, rolling round and round trying to think up a solution to something unsolvable, whereas meditatve experience situates you outside of this, at least for a brief period.

No idea if this will help, it probably sounds a bit odd if you haven't had these kind of experiences. But that's mine anyway.
posted by dannyl at 8:24 AM on December 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

What do other atheists do to avoid overthinking and pondering things like this: essentially, the general truth that we're here, that's it, and most of what happens is out of our hands?

I'm agnostic. I don't know the answer, and I don't see any reliable way to find the answer. I'm not even sure I know what the correct question is. I'm just kind of bumbling around, trying to learn stuff and create stuff and make the world a "better place" on the off-chance that I come back to it again later. I say go at the question head on, do not avoid it. It frees you up to worry about things that matter, like what you want to do with you life, instead of distracting your way through it.

It is hard to do, though.
posted by 3FLryan at 8:33 AM on December 27, 2011

Me? I do crossword puzzles before bed. Ones that are a little too hard for me so I'm totally engaged.

It is pretty irritating when I forget to bring them with me when I sleep somewhere else, though. Sometimes I go back to my mom's old standby from when I was a kid: how many powers of two can I do in my head? What about powers of three?
posted by nat at 8:40 AM on December 27, 2011

If I were you, I'd read some Joseph Campbell before bed. Or some really heartening and optimistic work about science and humanity. Just because you are an atheist doesn't mean you have to think about the negative side of not having a fully charted "other side" that you can fall asleep peacefully knowing one day you'll fall into. There are ways to ponder the mysteries of life in a positive and happy way without feeling like you're just believing the 'happy lie' that religion can often feed to you.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:49 AM on December 27, 2011

Try this piece by Greta Christina.

Also, when those with whom you've had a meaningful relationship are gone, you don't just have memories. They've probably left a mark in the way you think and interact with the world, maybe for the better, and in that sense, they're less 'gone' than one might suggest.

I listen to podcasts at night, sometimes to keep my mind from going to places I don't want it to. But I think that wrestling with questions is pretty crucial to an atheist view of the world, and human thought and experience was never advanced very far by absolute certainty. So long as you're not getting stuck in distressing patterns of thought, these kind of thoughts enrich one's life rather than detract from it, for me.
posted by lookoutbelow at 9:50 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

"I just want validation that I'm not crazy, that other people's minds wander like that, and maybe some ideas on avoiding that train of thought."

If you're crazy because you ponder your place in the universe as you're dropping off, then a lot of other people must be as well. To address your query in narrow terms, I have this happen on a semi-regular basis and it's very unsettling at times; at night, in bed before you sleep you're relaxed and the barriers and activities that normally fill your waking thoughts are starting to dissolve and drift away. I think sometimes we can unconsciously set up patterns of thinking that we don't even acknowledge until they become a problem, so the key is to treat this as a circular thought pattern that needs breaking (if you wanted to - some people might relish the opportunity to dwell on their innate tiny-personness in the face of an uncaring cosmos *shudder*) and either occupy your mind with a book or writing (nthing crosswords as well) or give yourself a mental shake and say no when you find it happening.

"All those people you love that died before you?"

I actually take some comfort from this as a concept - why would I want to stay in a world that all of my loved ones had left? If they don't exist, then there's no need for me to, either.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 10:10 AM on December 27, 2011

Sometimes I wonder how so many people get through the day not silently freaking out about their eventual deaths. We're going to die, and so will all the people we love, and none of us know when, like it could be FIVE MINUTES FROM NOW, and how does that not freak people's shit out like constantly? Have they not realized they're mortal?

I've gone through points where it's worse and points where it's better. I think, for me at least, I have a mental triage system where I need to be concerned about something. If my mind isn't engaged in something, it'll drift to one of my low-level default concerns, like is the cat healthy or what if we get bedbugs, etc., and stuck at the very bottom of my mental inbox is you know we're all gonna die, right? So some of it is about keeping yourself busy and distracted, which might seem like a cop out, but if you only have so much time in the universe, might as well fill it with interesting things.

Another way to think about it: you're going to die anyway, however many shits you do or do not give about that fact. Worrying does nothing to change that. Unless it stops you from engaging in risky behavior, worrying about death does absolutely nothing to delay or prevent it from coming. And for me, recognizing that a worry/fear/feeling is unproductive goes a long way towards defusing it.

So, yeah, you're not alone. It's absolutely understandable to worry about death. It's just not productive.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:17 AM on December 27, 2011

That the the happiest, most meaningful life is the life of loving service seems self-evident to me. I believe in an afterlife, but there is no certainty I am right. Instead, I am at peace with death as I contemplate the good I have been able to contribute to others' lives. I picture it as a huge tree of pay it forward. I will be gone. To another place? I don't know. But the seeds I've planted are reaching far beyong my small life.

It gives me great satisfaction and joy to imagine the happiness I am creating for others, and I try to create more every day. Then, it's great to think about as I fall asleep.

On preview, this sounds corny and self-important, but I don't mean that at all. I'm trying to say that my seeming insignificance in the universe is balanced for me by the power I have to bring comfort and happiness to others. And don't get me wrong. I DON'T WANT TO DIE! I'm just recommending you try it for your peace of mind. It works because it's true.
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 10:25 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

...it's been the theme for a few weeks now that I go to sleep thinking about this stuff, if I'm not distracting myself with other, more cheery thoughts.

When one of my best friends recently died, I tried to avoid thinking about their death and found that I had trouble sleeping at night without going over it in my head. (Not for existential reasons precisely, just normal coping-with-a-loved-one's-death reasons.) Once I gave in and started dealing with it in the daytime, it mostly stopped at night and dramatically shortened when it still occasionally comes up. I think you need to process your feelings about this and if you don't pick a time to do it, your body will decide for you at night.

So I'm going to suggest not avoidance, but critical analysis. When you've got time, sit with yourself and really puzzle out what you can take out of essentially, the general truth that we're here, that's it, and most of what happens is out of our hands?


I'm more curious with how much time the rest of you spend thinking about this stuff, and how you work on processing it.

I think you have a whole mess of questions for yourself here actually.

1) Is it depressing to you that you'll have no afterlife? No, I compare it to when I (infrequently) pass out. There is no duration of time, as I am not aware. I think a lot of people seem to think they'll somehow experience the not-being-there, which makes no sense.

2)Is it depressing to you that other people will die without an afterlife? I think that means we all need to make our legacy here, and I think that's actually empowering. It gives a sense of purpose. Create a value system, a well-thought-out personal one that's truer to you than the fixed-lot versions you get from religion. Do the most good you can by that new system. Influence the world positively through your values and actions and hope other people feel what you have done/exemplified is worth passing down through generations. Your memory of them is all that's left! It's pretty shit, if you think about it. No, no, no, it's pretty amazing! Look how important you are! That person's afterlife is in you and all the rest of their loved ones, and if you find them important enough to talk about, soon it'll be in the rest of your loved ones, and so on down the line. It's an actually achievable path to a kind of immortality.

3) What about the things you can't control? If it isn't up to a benevolent higher power, how does it comfort you that you can't control them?
I deal with those concepts by splitting the world into two spheres - the one I can control, and the one I can't. I don't see any usefulness in worrying about the sphere I can't control. It just wastes my energy. I then look to the sphere I can.

4) What about the greater sense of smallness? But remember, you're really important! You serve as the legacy of others, and if the smallness bothers you, it should encourage you to build your own legacy before you die.

5) What about the total lack of comprehension we have in general with regards to the Really Big Things? You may end up identifying more with agnostics in this regard, because not all athiests feel there's a total lack of comprehension here. Like I said earlier, I think I know what happens at death. I also think science is a great path towards puzzling out how we got here and that if that's a big question in your life you could consider involving yourself more in such scentific pursuits.
posted by vegartanipla at 10:43 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

You are me in my 20s. I eventually just got over it and stopped thinking about it. Listening to music or audiobooks at night helps a lot.

The void is always going to be there, though.
posted by empath at 10:52 AM on December 27, 2011

What do other atheists do to avoid overthinking and pondering things like this: essentially, the general truth that we're here, that's it, and most of what happens is out of our hands?

Basically, I just got fatalistic about it. The world is the way it is, and worrying about it doesn't change anything.

We're all going to die, and after that there is nothing. You just have to live the life you have, one moment at a time.
posted by empath at 10:54 AM on December 27, 2011

I, atheist, do this too sometimes. It's absolutely normal I think, no matter what your belief system is.

So yeah I lie awake and ponder and question and worry. But then I have this little dream, not a sleep dream, but a waking one, where I die and am buried in the ground. Years and seasons pass, and the sun comes up in the sky a thousand times while I decay underground, feeding the earth around me. I can see the grass and dandelions that cover the spot, and the earthworms that feed on the soil that is now partly me. A little boy comes along and picks up a worm, and puts it in a can. He comes to a lake and puts the worm on his fishing hook and after awhile his patience is rewarded with a spectacular catch. He takes it home and his dad helps him clean it and they cook it outside over a fire, while the smoke trails upward. They eat heartily. Years and seasons pass and the sun comes up in the sky a thousand times and the little boy is an old man and this is his last night. He's had a pretty good time. But now he's tired and he's sitting in a lounge chair on the porch when he takes his last breath, and the stars are the last thing he sees, brighter and brighter until they blot out everything. His children and loved ones bury him with love in the earth. He feeds the soil and the tree he lies near, which is baring a rather lovely crop of plums. One is picked by a little girl and eaten...

To some this little interlude may be disturbing but I find it beautiful and comforting that in this way at least, we all do go on. Our bodies are converted to nutrients and energy that sustain plants and animals and people for years afterwards. In this way, nothing living ever disappears completely.
posted by katyggls at 12:05 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

"No one really knows how we came to be."
Your parents had sex.

"No one really knows where we go when we die..."
Usually... the hospital.

"it's frustrating and can leave you feeling helpless, if you let it"
Then don't.

"Moreso if you believe that you just cease to exist entirely, as I do."
Sounds like you're not existing enough now, frankly. I'd work on that first. You already seem to know that reason and probability dictate that this is, in fact, your only life... but the flip side of the coin is that you can do *anything* you want with it, within reason.

I've done several things in my life that have made noticeable differences for the lives of many others. I've also lived by my own rules and ethics, and had an awful lot of fun doing so. People talk about unhappy atheists?! I'm *very* happy, and sleep well at night.

I have certainly had DARK existential moments, but the best solution there is simply to live your life well, without regrets. Realize that the actual cost of rejection in life is very, very close to zero, while the personal cost of not doing what you want is far higher. Find and work on the kind of projects that interest you. Do things you love. Go out of your way to do several whimsical, unpredictable things every day. Do the kind of things that allow you to clear out the mental clutter and noise, and "just be". Keep things fresh. Try new things. Embrace beauty, music, nature, and art wherever you find it. Don't be afraid to be a tourist in your own city. Be Ferris Bueller for a day, even...!

Live well, without regrets, and a lot of your existential angst will just drop away. It certainly did for me.
posted by markkraft at 12:28 PM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Hi! Atheist here!

I know several religious people, and guess what? They get upset when their friends or relatives or pets die too. And I'm sure they worry and wonder about their own death. Religion does not guarantee perfect peace and tranquility in the face of life's hardships. It could be argued that religion exists exactly *because* life is hard and unfair- it's a framework for trying to understand why things happen and what we're doing here.

For me, it's been about acceptance that yes, life is hard and eventually you die. This is true for everyone, regardless of their belief system. Once you accept it, you can get on with enjoying the good things.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:01 PM on December 27, 2011

As an atheist, I'm in the Socrates camp with Eyebrows McGee with regards to the afterlife. I do miss the people who were close to me who have died, but the fact of their non-existence doesn't make me worry on their behalf. I'm not afraid of dying in the abstract, though I do feel bad that if I were to die, the people around me would miss me (so, say, suicide wouldn't be an option for me except in some extreme circumstance). I do have a kind of physical, animal anxiety about dying when I contemplate something like parachuting or going to the doctor and finding out that I have a fatal disease, but I acknowledge that doesn't come from any rational place (probably just that good ol' survival instinct.)

With regards to lying in bed worrying in general, though, boy, do I know that song.

Like dannyl, I recommend meditation. When meditating, I don't know that I'm getting in touch with anything eternal, anything of spiritual importance, but I do know that I'm building skills that help me deal with my tendency to ruminate and worry. By training myself on the meditation cushion to detach from my thoughts, to let them fade away, and to direct my mind to the breath, I've found that I really can make a conscious choice what to engage with mentally, and I've learned an arsenal of techniques to stop the thoughts that keep me awake at night.

Many's the night that I've fallen asleep while watching my breath. For me it's more effective than thinking pleasant thoughts. I can sometimes get caught up in those pleasant thoughts, and end up staying awake, and it's too easy for those thoughts to detour into worry and angst again. Once I'd trained myself through a meditative practice to stay on the breath without being drawn away by thoughts (troubling or otherwise), I found that I went to sleep more quickly at night. Exercise and winding down for a half hour by reading before bed have also helped me.

It might also be beneficial to spend some time and thought on these issues during the light of day, when you have a better perspective and a fresh, alert mind. It helps me to detach from troubling thoughts when I think to myself, "Now is the right time to sleep/meditate. There will be a right time for these thoughts tomorrow/later."
posted by BrashTech at 1:05 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

And, like katyggls, although I don't belong to any organized religion, I like to imagine the atoms that make my body returning to the Earth and becoming new people, animals, and things. My consciousness may be gone, but the pieces that were me will still be around.

I've read a lot of books about Zen Buddhism (which is more philosophy than religion), and they say that we suffer precisely because we have to go through life as individuals. When we die, we return to the Earth. "To being one with the Universe," if you like. Then there is no more suffering, because there is no you to suffer. To me that's the same thing as being with God or being in Heaven.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:06 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The same thing happened to me for about six months at one point, every single night, at around the same point in my life. It was very unsettling (to the point of being physically nauseating) and I also wondered what to do about it. It eventually stopped happening, without any serious proactive measures on my part. You're not crazy. It's turtles all the way down and that's just a hard thing to think about.

When I needed to avoid it, I found that it helped to have an easy-to-watch movie close at hand, something plot-driven or engaging that I could jump into at any point. I'd pull out my laptop and watch a few minutes of LOTR or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and then fall asleep while thinking about the movie. I guess this is like a bandaid mythology to cling to for a few minutes, but it seemed to work.
posted by wam at 1:19 PM on December 27, 2011

Do a thing, tomorrow, that makes life better for someone. Family, friend, coworker, stranger - whoever. Not a give-all-your-money size thing, just a charity donation big enough to buy a medical treatment for someone, or a run to the store, or half an hour on the phone to your sibling - the key thing is that it hasto be something you weren't going to do. Then next time you start thinking "What's this all for?", you can answer "stuff like that".

Because it is.
posted by cromagnon at 1:25 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, also, a couple of bad LSD trips in my mid 20s helped clear a lot of the cobwebs out and gave me a lot of clarity, but I don't know if I'd recommend 'complete ego death' for everyone.

Really, what got me over it is a recognition that there are no answers, that everyone else is just as lost as I am, that in the end, everyone faces death alone, and that there's nothing you can really do about it. All you can do is live and love the best you can right now, and try not to make things harder for anybody else than they need to be.

I think after a while, pondering your own mortality gets boring more than anything else. Once you've run over the same subject from every possible angle, it becomes a less interesting thing to think about, and you'll naturally start gravitating to other subjects, and take the foundation of existentialism as a given and think "Given that life has no inherent meaning, and that life is only what I make of it -- what do I do with the rest of my life?"

There's a kind of freedom to that, if you embrace it.
posted by empath at 1:25 PM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Existential angst is not something just for atheists. Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Tillich were all christian existentialists. Kierkegaard was even the first one to use the word angst to describe the fear and insecurity caused by being free. I think that finding ones place in the world intellectually and emotionally is important. I just don't do it when I want to go to sleep. When I go to bed, I go over the things in my day and life that I am grateful for and make a mental list. The freedom to create my own values and meanings in life necessitates that I know what is important to me and what gives my life value. I prefer to end my day going over what I appreciate in my life and save the hard thoughts for when I am not tired. It is really easy when I am tired to be seduced by visions of my own importance and if I am obsessing over something when I go to bed it is usually because I am taking myself too seriously. My favorite cure for that is the Galaxy Song.
posted by calumet43 at 2:57 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is it depressing to you that you'll have no afterlife?

On the contrary, it's comforting to believe there's no afterlife.

If there's no afterlife, you might be missing out on heaven, but you'll also escape the threat of hell. I can't imagine anything more depressing than worrying that you might be going to hell, to be eternally punished for random sins or for arbitrary decisions such as not choosing the right religion. Believing there's no afterlife frees you from that existential burden.
posted by amyms at 5:59 PM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Julian Barnes (yes, that Julian Barnes) wrote an absolutely wonderful book about exactly this topic.

If "Only a couple of nights ago there came again that alarmed and alarming moment, of being pitchforked back into consciousness, awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist and shouting 'Oh no Oh No OH NO' in an endless wail" sounds like your fears come to life (and he also talks extensively about the death angst that comes before sleep), then this is your book.

It's called Nothing to Be Frightened of, which is a play on words as he explains in the book:
"People say of death, 'There is nothing to be frightened of.' They say it quickly, casually. Now let's say it again slowly, with re-emphasis. 'There's NOTHING to be frightened of.'
He is himself an agnostic, not an atheist, but he spends quite a bit of time contemplating atheism and especially death with no heaven/other existence waiting (the Guardian said of the book, "Described baldly, the book is a 250-page essay interweaving his thoughts on death and fear of death with recollections of various family members and anecdotes drawn from the lives of writers and composers").

I found it an incredibly fascinating, diverting read and though it doesn't really come to any helpful conclusions about that angst you're talking about, his eloquent discussions of it are welcome reminders that you are neither crazy nor alone.
posted by librarylis at 6:02 PM on December 27, 2011

I'm an atheist. I'm also an insomniac. I think your primary problem is insomnia, not atheism. Atheism just happens to be at the top of the worry pile right now. You are exactly right when you say that you start to think about it only when you're not too busy worrying about everything else.

Check out Say Good Night to Insomnia for constructive ways to handle those late-night ruminations.

Me, I like to listen to a good nonfiction audiobook (preferably read by a mellifluous Brit--I'm currently listening to Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" but I'd also recommend the BBC's "History of the World in 100 Objects" podcasts). It's just engaging enough to keep the worries at bay. I also take Ambien because I have an underlying sleep disorder. But anyway.

As for the existential questions--well, I cope with the prospect of death by trying to make the most of my life and relationships every day. I just read Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve and am looking forward to reading the work that inspired it, Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. You might find some insights there.
posted by elizeh at 7:09 PM on December 27, 2011

One thing that helps me is to just keep going until I have to pass out and sleep instantly, but sometimes when you want to wrap your arms under someone you want very much to be there, and sleep is not quite ready to overtake you.

You could also listen to the radio or podcasts, to switch into something else when you're head is full of too many things you don't really want to collate and file away.

But there in the silence and all that dark, just remember you'll never walk alone.

We are all right there with you, with the same amazing heartbeat that lets tomorrow flood us with sun.

Close your eyes and you can hear your own anytime when it's quiet, and if you listen a little longer you can sometimes hear everyone.
posted by four panels at 8:25 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I grapple with these thoughts, too.

Existential dread seems to me to ultimately stem from "the self". What happens to me?

Try meditation. Seriously. Vipassana, or "mindfulness", specifically. It is completely divorced from any spiritual baggage. It is simply a way to study moment-to-moment conscious experience in a subjective context (as opposed scientifically), and it has helped me personally to diffuse "the self", the conception that there is indeed some locus of significance between my ears, worthy of eternity. When I'm able to deconstruct "the self" in this way, I feel more in touch with a reality which requires my mortality. That is, I feel part of it, rather than at odds with it.
posted by stroke_count at 11:02 PM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

as a former catholic, it actually comforts me that nobody I know or love will end up being burned alive for all.eternity. oblivion seems like a much better alternative. poetic, too.
posted by Tarumba at 10:43 AM on December 31, 2011

Came across this quote as well, it says more than I could:

"For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love." - Carl Sagan
posted by four panels at 9:32 PM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

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