I'm paralyzed with existential dread

I'm accomplished and comfortable but feel an invisible weight that my life has no meaning


Cary Tennis
August 10, 2010 5:01AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

By most measures, I live the good life, and yet I am filled with existential dread. I've been acutely aware of this invisible weight, this hard, black hole that has inhabited my being for at least the last two years (when I abandoned a Ph.D. I was working on). It's possible, though, that I've been bothered for at least a decade by the feeling that my life has no meaning, and that when I die I will leave no legacy, no genuinely grieving circle of friends and family, no lasting contributions to the common good, and no private enterprise or real wealth to my children. I've noticed that this creeping anxiety has deepened progressively as I've ramped my career down from its high-octane heights over a decade ago.

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Today, I am middle-aged, healthy, with four university degrees, some professional accomplishments behind me, married for 20 years to a decent, kind man who loves me and our children dearly, and whose own hard work has made us prosperous. Most people find me interesting to talk to, sensible, thoughtful. I live in the nicest house in the neighborhood, my kids are mostly grown and gone, I travel, I read widely and deeply. I used to be busy with work, tending to my family's needs, and volunteering, but recently, all that activity has ground to a halt. I don't work or volunteer anymore. I have a few friends, but I don't feel like I belong to any community or extended family. My own aging parents live far away, but they've never grown into deep wisdom and take more emotional sustenance from my brothers and me than they have ever given back.

I am not "depressed," at least not in any clinical sense. I get up every morning, get dressed, run a few errands, but mostly I spend my day reading the news, pondering the universe, and planning all the things I'd like to do with my life. Just not now, not today. My plans are grand, but they are within my reach, and they offer more social connection, the chance to build something socially useful, and even to make a bit of money. But day after day, week after week, month after month, I've nursed them. I've trained myself in the necessary skills and talked about them, but I do not act. I seem unable to move forward.

I've tried talking to a therapist, but honestly, I was bored and irritated with myself for such self-indulgent wallowing, and while I did gain some insights into myself, I was not startled into change. It's true, I do feel better, more optimistic, when I get daily exercise, but that's fallen off too. If I had to guess, I'd peg the problem as not so much psychological as it is philosophical or existential (so not unique or solvable). I may simply be more aware of my own loneliness and vulnerability because I am idle and overoccupied with my own inner life. More practically, I'm contending with a motivational problem.

It's not that I don't know what to do to fix my life (act on my plans), or why (because it will make me happy and useful), or when (today). It's that I am not doing it. I figure I have 30 years left on this earth, if I'm lucky, to be productive and find meaning, but this train has to leave the station soon, or the rust will make all locomotion impossible. How can I get moving?

Stuck in Neutral

Dear Stuck in Neutral,

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At the heart of your problem is a mystery. In order to solve the mystery, you must accept a paradox. The paradox is that knowing eventually leads to not knowing. By exhausting all that is knowable you arrive at the final thing to know, which is that you cannot know it. At the end of all this is faith -- not faith in anything external but faith in the profound importance of putting your right foot forward and shifting your weight forward until it is mostly all on your right foot and then carefully lifting your left foot, which is now your back foot, and bringing it forward, passing the right foot, moving it in front of you slightly and planting it on the ground, carefully placing your weight on it, then moving your right foot, which is now your back foot, forward, past your left foot, slightly in front of you, shifting your weight forward, and placing eventually all your weight on your right foot, and then repeating this motion with your left foot, and so on, taking note of the shifting terrain as you do so. This action requires faith; walking, as Buckminster Fuller once pointed out, is a constantly averted forward fall. Likewise our knifing second by second into the future is a constantly averted catastrophe that takes deep courage to continue. You cannot know that any choice is absolutely the right thing or how it will turn out, how you will be rewarded; no degree will be conferred upon you when you complete your next step; there is no audience cheering you on; you do not even know exactly why you are placing one foot in front of the other.

Yet it is not only faith that brings you to this point; it is also the realization that this motion, however rudimentary and uncertain, is preferable to paralysis. This you can know with certainty: Movement is preferable to paralysis. By paralysis I do not mean stillness, but rather the blunt, muscular locking together of opposing forces. Sitting still in a park on a bench by a path where children pass with balloons and nannies eat sandwiches and ducks waddle about your feet is not wasted time. Sit still as long as you can. But when you begin fidgeting, then move. Trust the motion itself. I know this kind of trust, or faith, requires the suspension of what makes you feel safe and strong: the thinking out of it. The thinking out of it has reached its limit. The thinking out of it has exhausted you. So sit until you are quiet inside and ready to move, and then move without thinking.

Let the same force that has brought you to this point continue to guide you. Suspend judgment. Go into the next moment with this thought in your head: "I wonder what will happen next."

Continue.

There is nothing more of importance to say about it. That is all you have to do. Yet I do want to try to express one idea that may be helpful to you, if I can, and I'm not sure I can. The idea is that even in your "inaction" you are acting. The idea is to shift your thinking from the either/or categories of acting or not acting to a broader range of qualitatively observed phenomena in which stillness is a kind of action and inaction is a kind of action and error is a kind of action and thinking over the many possibilities is a kind of action. Then you see that you are acting already. Your hesitation is action. Your routine is action. It is all action. You are free to act in many different ways. You may make judgments about these actions but they are all actions and they all have a purpose. This may be a gestation period; you may be waiting for conditions to ripen; you may be resting an overused part of your soul; something may be about to be born; you may be feeding some inchoate plot yet to be hatched; it may be taking your blood and breath below your awareness so it can grow; you may be acting as host to the birth of your own fervent desire. It is impossible to know some of these things, because we are not completely aware. We cannot see our own organs and we cannot see inside our own heads; likewise in the realm of the ethereal, we cannot see all the phantasmic auras, avatars and archetypes that cluster within us to make us who we are; we cannot hear all the whispering and politicking among them. Which leads us to the essential point that this "I" we speak of is narrow and blind. Of course the "I" cannot know everything that is going on; it is only one convenient construct, a postulate, a singularity of convenience.

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If you can see things in this way, perhaps you can accept your situation with serenity and move forward when it is time to move forward.



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Cary Tennis

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