Existential dilemma

I'm so obsessed with questions of who I am and why I am here that it's hard to get through the day.

By Cary Tennis
Published February 5, 2004 1:01AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I am a 24-year-old woman. I am either having a nervous breakdown/period of emotional disturbance or I am having an existential crisis of meaning/religious awakening (albeit this sounds pleasanter than what I am experiencing).

For the last several months, I have been obsessed with some pretty large and, ultimately I think, unanswerable questions. I wonder why I exist. I wonder what it is to be a person (i.e., Do I exist while I sleep? Am I simply a collection of memories?) I am scared of death and wish I had some idea what it means. I don't understand the way time functions -- it bothers me that the movement of time is constantly converting the present to the past. It seems to me that our reality is a construct created in our own minds bridging the past and the future, and yet we only truly ever exist in the present. Until we stop existing, which, as I've said, I don't quite understand and which makes me extremely uncomfortable.


These questions bother me to the point that I can't pay attention to anything else. The world is written in a foreign language, and I have the urge to ask strangers how they make sense of their own existence. My father tells me I need medication, not because of what I am thinking, which he says is the stuff of great philosophy, but because of the way I am thinking about it, which precludes any possibility of the answer being something Good, Divine, or at least not terrifying. I am, I should mention, terrified. It really creeps me out that there has been an eternity before my existence and that there will be an eternity after my existence (presumably).

Sometimes I think he is right, but sometimes I think that brain drugs are simply today's answer to a problem that has existed since people existed -- that we have no true ability to understand why things are the way they are. Well, at least, I don't. So, what do you think I should do? Should I probe these questions longer? Should I seek religious counseling? Should I seek medical treatment? Nirvana? A different job?

Who Am I?


Dear Who Am I,

No doubt it pains your father to see you in such torment. It must be hard for him to see you struggling with questions that he no doubt struggled with as well, and with which he eventually found some accommodation. But I consider you lucky to be so intensely, so physicallyawake to intellectual and spiritual problems.

My own answer to questions such as yours is that first we must simply stay awake. That is why I reject the solution of drugs. Sure, it's painful. But you have to stay awake to get through it. To remain awake in this intolerable immensity of paradox we must focus our minds. So we must read the great philosophers -- not so much for answers, but the way we read magazines in the waiting room of a dentist: Because we have to do something with our dread and fear. Do not seek answers. Seek only information. Seek only connection with others who have the same questions. Seek only the beauty of the questions, the beauty of the thought. And in order to pursue this arduous course, it helps to have some discipline for the mind, some kind of mental health regimen: meditation, for instance, and exercise, to clear the mind of sludge and detritus.


In the end you may find, as I believe Kierkegaard did, that after all your thinking exhausts the world, after every atom is accounted for by the mind, there is still something incomprehensible left over, and that what's left over might as well be called God, and you might as well pray to it.

I'm not sure I've got that exactly right. In my own quest to live with the intolerable immensity of time, to stop quivering in this narrow plane between the incomprehensible past and the unknowable future, I've done a little damage to the old noggin, and there are some things I can't remember. Contrary to warnings, I topped off the tank and a little spilled out. I went out one night to see what that noise was in the dark, who was yelling my name out there, and I didn't come back for years. And now, as I said, there's stuff I don't remember. But you don't have to do that. You are one of the lucky ones. You can take this on like an adult.


What did you study in college? Did you study philosophy? Do you do anything creative?

God, I love the Web. I couldn't help it: I typed into Google: "Why do we exist?" And besides finding out why the Friends of the Elderly, the Free Software Foundation, and the Community Justice Dialogues Police Profiling Project exist -- or at least why they believe they exist! -- I found a good reading list at MeaningOfLife.Info.

Now, personally, I think you need a teacher. I would not suggest trying to do all that reading on your own. You need someone to guide you through all this. You at least need someone of your intellectual caliber you can discuss these books with. But ideally you need either a therapist with great intellectual gifts, or a teacher with a therapist's compassion and commitment to you as a person, who has the time, the persuasiveness and the strength to coax you over the chasms. The chasms are deep and terrifying, no two ways about it. Personally, I'm surprised more people don't go around utterly terrified at the prospect of nonexistence. You can't help but be scared if you see things clearly.


But at some point you can drive yourself mad if you are not intellectually honest. That is, there is a certain pleasure in torturing yourself and others with these questions; the drama of existential dread is indeed attractive. You may not want to give up some of that drama when answers begin to appear, and that is where you must be intellectually honest. They are not simple answers, but you will have to admit that they exist. And, with certain reservations, including the possibility that we are all indeed the bad dream of some snoring old man, you will have to admit that you yourself do exist.

We live in great contradiction and mystery. Still, even as we think of these things, we gather food and eat in a circle, because we are all fearful of the night.

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Cary Tennis

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