We Know Nothing and It’s Good: Advice from So Sad Today
Dear So Sad Today,
I've been struggling with existential issues for 11 years and this is the worst bout of it yet. It started when I was 12 when I had a panic attack. I was lying in bed and my mind started moving too quickly, thinking about how time moves and how we’re all going to die, what if I go to hell, infinity, etc.
I've been struggling on and off to varying degrees but this is the worst it's been. I had a panic attack three weeks ago and I feel forever stuck in the aftermath. It's so hard to describe. I feel like I'm stuck in my brain and consciousness forever and this terrifies me, like I want to pull my brain out. Basically, I feel terrified of my mind and the knowledge that I am stuck in it with no escape. Like I'm so hyperaware. I'm scared I've unlocked this way of thinking that I'm stuck with forever and I'm so terrified I’ll never get better.
I look around at others and don't understand how they're not experiencing the same. I just need to know if someone else knows what I'm talking about and if there's hope.
Dear Cerebral Jail,
Let me start by affirming that no, you are not the only one who has lived with these mindfucks for an extended period of time. There are many of us who look at the world and go “huh?” or find ourselves paralyzed by the fact that death is real. As Ernest Becker writes in one of my favorite books, The Denial of Death, “What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression and with all this yet to die.”
Of course, people aren’t talking about this a lot in the checkout line at Whole Foods. It doesn’t come up frequently at school, at work, or even amongst the closest of friends. It can feel very lonely when questions of existence and death loom. The feeling that there is something wrong with us for even asking questions about the nature of consciousness, the infinite, and the strangeness of living in a body only exacerbates the innate anxiety we feel when confronting these concepts. But many have asked these questions before us and many will ask them after we’re gone. Sartre describes living with these questions as a nausea. Camus describes it as an absurdity, which at any moment can strike any person in the face.
It is definitely absurd to just go about our lives—to work in some kind of brightly-lit open office space, buy a shitty lamp at Target, sit through a movie in a dark, enclosed theater—when questions of “what the fuck is really going on here?” exist. It is like we are doing two things: existing and watching ourselves exist. That duality can be incredibly painful, and it’s no wonder that some of us become agoraphobic. As Becker writes, “The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
But here’s the thing: there is pain and then there is suffering. They are two different experiences. While pain is an inescapable part of life, suffering is what we inflict on ourselves when we make the assumption that the state we are in is permanent. You are doing a lot of “forevering” and “nevering” right now. I totally identify. Many times, I’ve been in a cycle of anxiety that lasted for days, weeks, or even months, but when I approached it with catastrophic thinking, I believed it would last forever. I thought, Well it’s always subsided eventually in the past but this one is going to be the one that takes me under. This is the one where I will finally lose my mind or die. And yet, every time, I’ve always come out the other side.
The same is true of panic attacks. After we have a big one, we then go on hyper alert and become obsessive about every forthcoming bodily symptom—waiting for another one to hit. We don’t allow ourselves not to have another panic attack when we apply such a high level of anxious scrutiny to every breath, heartbeat or adrenaline surge. Every basic bodily shift becomes the potential for doom. This is no way to recover from anything. A sick person cannot heal if someone is waking them up every minute to take their temperature. And I find it useful to think of my cycles of anxiety simply as an illness, like the flu or any other. I need rest. I need to go easy on myself.
I do believe that anxious people often have the simultaneous gifts of imagination, depth, the ability to look at different sides of things that others may not see. But when you are in the throes of anxiety, it’s not the time to try to figure everything out about the universe, death, the meaning of it all.
Remember: ultimately we really know nothing. There is something good about that. Hell and infinity as we perceive them are man-made concepts, words that point to a question but don’t answer it. Billions of people have died and we still don’t fucking know what happens after. What if it’s not twisted and horrifying? What if it’s not a heaven we have to apply to get into? What if it’s a relief—a gorgeous erasure of fear, thought and separation—a full-time orgasmic bliss suspended in light?
I have no idea what happens to us when we die. I don’t know why we are here. But when approached through the lens of fear, it’s impossible to see any potential beauty in what may just be a beautiful mystery.
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