Finding Meaning Amidst an Existential Crises
September 7, 2021 10:23 PM   Subscribe

Many of my coworkers are having existential crises right now and I guess it's my turn. We work in the fitness industry, though I am hopefully leaving for a different space in about a month that I like and care about. However, I don't feel like I have anything outside of work that makes me go, yeah, my life has meaning. If you've been through your own crisis of faith, what helped you move forward and find what gives you life?

Things I like: making people laugh, advocacy, taking care of animals, giving children a safe place to just be, cooking for others. COVID has taken opportunities to do these things away.

Things that soothe me: animal videos, watching people demo skills they're proud of, rain, Disneyland

Things that I've done volunteer work for in the past: food banks, Girl Scouts, teaching

These aren't enough. Something is missing. Many somethings. The world is insane and I feel like what I do is meaningless. My therapist and I are brainstorming ideas to contradict that, but most of what I have is other-oriented. I don't really have ideas of things that are just for me, too. I've run out of spirituality.

Does this make sense? I'm struggling. I've also been donating money to whatever causes I can. That helps. But I would love to hear from others about what you've done in times like this.
posted by Hermione Granger to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Response by poster: Addition: I don't have anyone aside from my parents and therapist affirming to me that I matter. My friends are busy with their own lives. It would mean the world to me to have someone tell me I make their life better right now.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:26 PM on September 7, 2021 [5 favorites]


I can't pretend that this addresses the great questions of life, but...do you actually have a pet? Because that is a whole mysterious small being whose welfare is dependent on you, every day. Especially if it's a rescue.
posted by praemunire at 10:31 PM on September 7, 2021 [6 favorites]


I'm a very art/craft-focused person, so I'm not sure if this really works for you, but is there some kind of time/energy/focus-consuming thing you can do (at home, because covid, of course) that might make you happy, or at least serve as a rewarding distraction? I sorta hesitate because it sounds like you really want spiritual meaning, and on some level "hey, I found a project that isn't hurting anything and amuses me/is re-using things that were already made, and working with it makes me happy" is profoundly selfish, but here I am. I guess on some level I'm leaning into it -- "if it's meaningless and falling apart, let's enjoy it while I'm here and I can."
posted by Alterscape at 10:46 PM on September 7, 2021 [2 favorites]


First, the quick checks: do you have someone in your life you can talk to? Are you getting out and seeing folks? (Covid isn't that bad now, most places, if you've been vaccinated - a small gathering of vaxxed folks, especially outdoors or masked, should be ok.) Do you get your heart rate up on a regular basis? Do you get outside/sunlight? Are you sleeping a reasonable amount, mostly?

Because it turns out life doesn't actually have any meaning, not inherently, and half the battle is getting to the point we can accept the small daily victories, really internalize them and feel them to be "enough".
posted by Lady Li at 10:53 PM on September 7, 2021 [7 favorites]


What does it for me is having people or things that rely on me. Taken to an extreme, this can be bad in itself (hello codependency my old friend) but in smaller doses, well, the "need to be needed" is a very deep and valid human urge.

So I suggest you think about what ways you can feed that need for yourself. Giving money doesn't work (as you've found) because it has to feel to you like it's you the person who is needed, not your wallet. A pet is one way to feed it, but there are others too. I suspect there are volunteer opportunities available even in COVID times that might work for you. Just off the top of my head: suicide hotlines are bursting at the seams; probably a lot of kids, especially low-income kids, could use online tutoring; dependable and reliable foster carers are always in short supply. I'm sure there are many other possibilities. Think about things that involve actual interaction with people, because that is what gives you that deep sense of connection and meaning.
posted by sir jective at 11:06 PM on September 7, 2021


I guess what I'm saying is that probably there's a reason most of the things you're thinking about with your therapist are other-oriented, and you might be shooting yourself in the foot if you try to focus too much on more you-oriented stuff for this. It's hard to construct meaning by focusing on oneself -- and I suspect that to the extent it is possible, it's because the other-oriented desire to be needed has already been sated.
posted by sir jective at 11:10 PM on September 7, 2021 [1 favorite]


I hate to be "are you sure you asked the right question guy" but here goes. A lot of times when people say they want meaning in their life I suspect they really mean they want their life too be more satisfying or fulfilling, which isn't really the same thing: a very difficult and painful life can be meaningful, and a very satisfying and happy one can be not so meaningful. People seem loathe to admit when they mostly want to be happy, and they don't really care that much about what that "means" in terms of some kind of ambitious moral or metaphysical goal that it serves; maybe this just clashes too much with the drive to see oneself as a good person. But is it really so bad, assuming that this happiness includes relationships, engagement with the community, and other things that are not self-centered?

If that's off the mark, and what troubles you really is a sense that there has to be something beyond just rolling through life feeling, if not good, at least OK, then please forgive the derail.
posted by thelonius at 12:51 AM on September 8, 2021 [3 favorites]


"I hate to be "are you sure you asked the right question guy" but here goes. A lot of times when people say they want meaning in their life I suspect they really mean they want their life too be more satisfying or fulfilling, which isn't really the same thing: a very difficult and painful life can be meaningful, and a very satisfying and happy one can be not so meaningful. People seem loathe to admit when they mostly want to be happy, and they don't really care that much about what that "means" in terms of some kind of ambitious moral or metaphysical goal that it serves; maybe this just clashes too much with the drive to see oneself as a good person. But is it really so bad, assuming that this happiness includes relationships, engagement with the community, and other things that are not self-centered?"

I really echo this. I definitely have had big existential crises...in a sense, I feel like I never got out of them, I just figured out how to cope. So that's sort of my answer? Which is related to thelonius's point, I think. My method of dealing with it was taking life day by day (I personally am prone to anxiety and can get into anxiety loops about big picture stuff I have no control over), and just trying to incrementally make things better (in the local happiness sense) day by day. I really try hard to listen to my gut: what do I find fun? What do I find fulfilling? I try to lean into that stuff.

I think ultimately there is no "meaning" to life. We just...live. And it's sort of this simultaneously beautiful and terrible thing. I think the meaning is arbitrary, but given we are sentient and can experience both joy and suffering, I try to emphasize the joy and downplay the suffering. What that means of course varies for other people. So I guess for me personally, I just had to sort of except that there is no meaning to life. Nothing matters. But that doesn't mean we can't make life as pleasant as possible day to day. That's why I like "fulfilling" things. I learned Mandarin and now Japanese, which have both provided unending amount of interesting new things...new people to talk to, new places to visit, new books to read etc.

Do you have many friends? I agree with the person above that more socialization could help. It's not for everyone, but I find having the right amount of socialization (which for me as a big introvert is lower than for extroverts but definitely still greater than zero!) helps a lot.

I agree getting a pet could be a rewarding project for an animal lover. I got a cat as part of an overall goal to hyperoptimize my life less and just enjoy the simple beauty of the day to day and while that's a bit of a different goal, it was wildly successful. I enjoy drinking coffee and petting my cat.

It's hard to guess what makes you happy, but I would try to really lean into any gut feelings...are there anything things that you've thought "I always wished I could X"? Especially anything you think you are "too old for" (I have gotten literate in Japanese at 34...I know a woman who became an Arabic translator in her 60s!). There's a lot of things that provide a sense of fulfilment/meaning but might be a bit of a pain in the ass initially...I'd try to lean into those. Going just from your post, it sounds like something with animals and/or children. You like watching videos of people demoing skills...you could develop skills of your own, which I personally find incredibly satisfying.

I don't know if that helps. It's hard! It's really hard. I feel like I exist in a constant existential crisis and have ever since it really hit home that life has no meaning. But once I sort of made peace with that and leaned into the things that make me happy and provide a sense of fulfillment (though not necessarily meaning!), I have been quite content. And that's really my goal: contentment. Just...being able to take it all, day by day. Petting my cat with a cup of coffee.
posted by wooh at 1:45 AM on September 8, 2021 [7 favorites]


The world is insane and I feel like what I do is meaningless.

Me too.

I'm OK with it.
posted by flabdablet at 2:09 AM on September 8, 2021 [6 favorites]


Did you read this short article about “languishing” in the New York Times?

Pretty much everyone I’m friends with including myself seems to be going through this and it’s the pits.

It’s not quite an answer to your question but I found it helpful to have a name for the feeling I’m experiencing and maybe you might, too.
posted by onebyone at 5:13 AM on September 8, 2021 [3 favorites]


Things I like: [. . .] advocacy, taking care of animals,

Things that I've done volunteer work for in the past: food banks, Girl Scouts, teaching

COVID has taken opportunities to do these things away.

So, yeah, COVID has taken some opportunities and methods for doing these sorts of things away, but not all, and a lot of organizations have adapted to one degree or another.

In my area, the food bank is going like gangbusters, and the animal shelters are in constant churn. What schools are or are not doing for back to class or not is just chaos. They all need actual warm bodies to volunteer to show up and do the work, maybe now more than ever. Obviously your willingness to do this depends on your personal COVID risk assessment, but if you're willing to do stuff vaccinated & masked & possibly outside, I think lots of opportunities are still there. There may be a bit of . . . well, catastrophizing going on, where your (understandable) view of the havoc COVID has wreaked is distracting you from volunteer opportunities that still exist and that will both satisfy your personal likes and help others.

And even if you're still reluctant to do stuff in person, lots of orgs have ramped up their internet/email/telephone/snail mail efforts in light of COVID. I bet pretty much every local advocacy group, and food bank, and animal shelter and etc etc etc has a way for you to contribute from your home, with doing actual things besides donating money.

One thing I've found is mobilize.us, which will find various local-to-you political campaigns and advocacy groups that are looking for people to phone bank and stuff envelopes and send emails. Or in light of the fuckery down in Texas, you could find your local affiliate of The National Network of Abortion Funds and volunteer for them. (My local fund literally has a line on their volunteer page that says "I would like to help stuff envelopes (you're our hero!)")

I don't feel like I have anything outside of work that makes me go, yeah, my life has meaning. If you've been through your own crisis of faith, what helped you move forward and find what gives you life?

Mmmmm. I've always been pretty "inner-directed", so I dunno if I've ever had so much of a "crisis of faith", but I definitely feel like various hobbies help when I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed - having a thing to do simply for the sake of doing it as best you can (cross-stitch, playing an instrument, building instruments) can calm me and sort of redirect my brain. Although this may be more of a long-term thing to develop with your therapist.

P.S.: You matter.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:05 AM on September 8, 2021 [4 favorites]


Oh, yeah, and I almost forgot, there's the much-linked on Metafilter Postcards to Voters.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:06 AM on September 8, 2021


Things I like: making people laugh, advocacy, taking care of animals, giving children a safe place to just be, cooking for others. COVID has taken opportunities to do these things away.

Just to respond to this part: There's still ways to do these things safely. For example there are a lot of older, isolated people who needed help even before covid and could definitely use some phone chats that make them laugh, or delicious meals to look forward to, or help walking their dogs, or just some human company while walking around the block. Elder-care organizations, or religious organizations, or even just posting online on a local group could help you find people who could use your help. Or you might be able to join a Big Sister program, even if your meetups are out of doors. Lots of people need pen-pals. Wooh mentioned language learning; if that doesn't feel like enough on its own, you could learn a language that could help you provide some services for underserved communities, refugees, older immigrants whose kids don't speak their languages, and so on. And the need for all kinds of advocacy is never-ending. (On preview, see above!)

I don't know if you're into any kind of crafting. If you are, you might try making things to give away. For example, if you sew or knit - a lot of places take clothes donations for homeless people, refugees, shelters, care homes, etc. But often the clothes they get are a "beggars can't be choosers" kind of thing. Meeting with people, finding out what they'd like, and making something especially for them could be really rewarding. (It doesn't have to be clothes, that's just the most obvious example. It doesn't even need to be crafty... lots of kids would love a story written just for them, for example.) If you're not into making things (besides food)... maybe give it a try?

The point about how you could focus on your own happiness rather than on being useful is a good thing to think about. That said, if doing things for others makes you happy (it does me), then there are still many ways to go.

The world is insane and I feel like what I do is meaningless.

Yeah. You know that story about the person who sees a kid on the beach helping washed-up starfish from a storm get back into the ocean, and asks the kid why they bother, since there are so many there's no way the kid can help all of them, and the kid says 'I can't help them all but I can help this one'? I've been feeling lately like life is basically a project of coming to terms with that.

Finally, sometimes I'm just not in a phase where I can see an answer. I've learned that, at least so far, these phases pass eventually, and then suddenly I can see meaning again, or I find some option I hadn't thought of before. Sometimes it's okay to ride things out, especially in a context like a pandemic where things will almost definitely be different a year or two from now.


(Finally for real - if a pet isn't a viable option right now, consider plants: they don't need your love, but they do need your care, and they have their own world going on. Hanging out with them can be a good way to get out of your own head, and if you have enough plants there'll always be something new to discover when you get home.)
posted by trig at 6:16 AM on September 8, 2021 [4 favorites]


It would mean the world to me to have someone tell me I make their life better right now.

Hey I thought your username looked familiar. I remember it because of the wonderful Ask you posted recently about how to support a little kid and her mom dealing with COVID.

When I read your question my gut response was "The person who asked this is such a wonderful person. These people are so very lucky to have this awesome friend."

You made a difference in my day that day. Your question lifted my spirits. It makes me very happy that friends like you are out there for people. I am dead certain that you made a difference for that kid and for your friend.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 6:18 AM on September 8, 2021 [26 favorites]


You don't mention an interest in helping seniors, but I thought I'd share this great Reddit post from a few days ago: I highly encourage everyone to google a Friendly Visitor program in your area. It was so gratifying getting to know Kathy and I thought we’d have more time. The joy in her voice when we spoke was obvious. It breaks my heart to think of alllll the lonely people out there. We really can make a small difference ❤️ As the Redditor noted, they only spoke on the phone because of COVID, but it still made a difference to this senior.

Other things I can think of based on your interests:
-fostering animals. One of my co-workers has dogs and also fosters dogs and does this during COVID
-cooking for others: in an FB group for mutual aid in Toronto, I'd see people offering to cook or have home cooked food they made to give away. I'm sure there are ways that you can cook for people who need it, such as bringing meals to a homeless shelter, or posting to a mutual aid group in your area.
-teaching: how about tutoring kids or high school students? This can be done online too.
-advocacy: are you interested in doing advocacy? What kind? Climate change, environment, immigrants/refugees, women's issues, Indigenous sovereignity/landback? Lots of possibilities here; try searching on google or groups on FB to see how you can help them in addition to donating $.

Other ideas:
-Take walks in nature/find a hiking group on Meetup.com. Maybe there's a group in your area that's doing ecological restoration that you can help with.
-Take up a hobby: is there anything that you have even a passing interest in that you could take up now? And then find a meetup or FB group around that. I'm thinking crafting, painting/drawing, learning a language, learning a musical instrument, dance, etc. etc. For me I joined an online piano course with an amazing teacher in Calgary and the online community there is great. Separate to that, I've been part of a piano meetup group for a few years that is now virtual due to COVID and it's been so great for all of us to play for and listen to each other. I also started violin 6 months before the pandemic, kept going with online lessons and now my teacher and I meet in the park for lessons :) For me, studying music nourishes my soul, exercises my brain (violin regularly kicks my ass) and gives me opportunities to learn from others, and help others with their questions. I hope you can find something that gives you similar connections to yourself and others.
-Connect with your friends: even though they're busy with their lives, they're still your friends. I'm sure they'd appreciate a phone/video call or walk or something.
-Make new friends. There are regular posts in the askTO subreddit about how/where to go to make friends and I'm sure there are people looking for the same.
-Listen to podcasts/attend online talks of authors you're interested in. Even if I'm not talking to them, I still feel kinda connected to them, maybe because I'm listening to people talk?
-Writing/journalling. This always helps me, YMMV of course.
posted by foxjacket at 7:26 AM on September 8, 2021 [3 favorites]


There's a lot of bad things going on in the world right now, and a lot of them feel like they're emanating and/or being stoked from America. This can make it feel like we are powerless as individuals, which ironically seems to cause some people to latch on to those bad things and support them as they provide a sense of certainty.

For those of us that abhor the hatred and bigotry that comes with these lies and selfishness, we can rage against the false certainty but it can still feel like we are helpless in the face of such an onslaught of gaslighting and norm-shattering. That's partly why (IMO), as someone pointed out above, so many people seem to be struggling right now.

The thing I would do in your shoes is to delete your social media accounts, or at least block any and everything which doesn't show you the good in the world, stop reading news that only focuses on the negatives (i.e. pretty much all news sites), and focus on finding good in your local world. Talk to lonely seniors. Volunteer at a no-kill shelter. Help register people to vote and don't worry who they vote for, just get them to a polling station so that democracy can be true. Teach kids to read. Clean up litter in your neighbourhood.

Sure, you'll still meet the occasional asshole because they exist, but be a good person and you will find the value of your life in those you help. And the more you help, the more you will inspire others to do the same. That is meaningful.
posted by underclocked at 8:52 AM on September 8, 2021 [1 favorite]


I would consider finding a voice regarding topics that are important to you then choosing a medium through which you express that voice. Record it in some way. Present it to people. Create more and hone the craft as you do. Over time you will observe your body of work and this can contribute to a sense of fulfilment and belonging. Plus you will be helping people.

Examples -

- Making a podcast about a subject you care about (girl scouts/kids education, animal welfare, comedy?)
- Creating an online course for kids or for adults regarding how to make a safe space for kids
- Making art (first step = lessons?)
- Writing your own songs, creating albums and putting them online (you can also generate an audience through youtube)
- a youtube channel (reviews, how-to, history, anything at all)
- a medium blog

As an exercise, think of a topic that is constantly on your mind. Why do you think about it all the time? What do you want to say about it that nobody is saying? Write down everything that comes to mind. These are your podcast episodes (or whichever medium you choose).

Having come from a background where I was silenced, I feel fulfilled when my voice is heard. I understand it's not the same for everyone, but a clue to what might make you feel fulfilled could lie in what you were denied when you were growing up.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 9:07 AM on September 8, 2021


Two resources that have helped me when I feel like what I do is meaningless, are the "Anyway Prayer" (a version of the Paradoxical Commandments) and "Standing in the Shadow of Hope".

What that all boils down to (for me) is to keep working for justice even if I can't see the impact I'm having -- that the work is important in and of itself.
posted by elmay at 9:18 AM on September 8, 2021 [2 favorites]


Another thought: My wife, who sounds a bit like you, in terms of seeking fulfillment socially, just joined a group that provides career mentorship to young women. She gets to talk with early-career people and share her earned expertise/bounce ideas around with them, which sounds like it might be fulfilling to you too. Memail me if that sounds interesting, and I can put you in touch.
posted by Alterscape at 2:14 PM on September 8, 2021 [1 favorite]


A kid? I find being a parent gives me the greatest sense of purpose in life.
posted by Dansaman at 3:43 PM on September 8, 2021


For the first several months of the pandemic I was very other-oriented - doing all kinds of things for friends and family. And at some point this summer some stuff happened and I just broke. It's been one of the most challenging times of my life. I didn't want to die but I could not see the point in continuing to life.

What's helped so far is finding a new therapist, pulling back from everything that doesn't feed me or isn't necessary, medication, a 12-step program, and self-care. Lots of solitary walks in nature, making art, seeing the few people I feel safe with, lighter social engagement to the degree that I'm okay with (ugh, covid), and honestly netflix.

Self-care has been an ongoing challenge for me. When I first heard of it, it seemed to be a bunch of boring bullshit like long baths and manicures. Right now I see self-care as my inner loving parent taking care of my inner child - sometimes that means play or rest, sometimes that means going for a walk because I know it helps with my back pain, or cooking a good meal, or gently nudging myself to load the dishwasher because I know a cluttered kitchen will be stressful for me later. Sometimes it means hugging myself and telling myself I'll be okay.

Things will get better. Hang in there and be kind to yourself.

Side note: What I've noticed in myself is that when I'm depressed, I struggle with questions like "what is the meaning of life" and "what's the point?" When I'm not depressed ... it's not that I found answers to those questions, I just stop struggling with them.

posted by bunderful at 4:52 AM on September 9, 2021


Every time--every time--I've read a post over the years by The Hermione Granger has made my life better. Each has always had a spirit of love, community, inspiration, relatability, and uniqueness that has always been a pick-me-up and heart warmer. I do hope you find it in yourself now to channel that spirit upon yourself, as you deserve to feel all that you've given me and more. Thank you!!
posted by riverlife at 10:21 PM on September 10, 2021 [1 favorite]


I read this recent essay by John Green and I hope it might speak to you in the way it spoke to me. Hang in there.
posted by soonertbone at 8:50 AM on September 17, 2021


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