The Joys of Existential Angst

I was recently asked about the aloneness we subject ourselves to when we’re not content with the superficial pleasures of life, and strive for answers to life’s mystery. Here’s an abbreviated version of the question, along with my answer.

I was recently asked about the aloneness we subject ourselves to when we’re not content with the superficial pleasures of life, and strive for answers to life’s mystery. Here’s an abbreviated version of the question, along with my answer.

QUESTION: I’ve worked over the last seven years to become more attuned to myself, physically, emotionally and psychologically and I think after this time I know myself quite a bit better than I had done before. But it seems the more in touch with myself and how I operate I become, the less in tune I am with the world around me. I feel disconnected from the culture and general goings on of most people, who seem more preoccupied with celebrity culture, clothes, fashion, etc. And it’s not that I have no interest in these things, I do, it’s just that I know their place and they are not all-important to me. Is this normal, to feel you are an outsider once you take a step to reflect on life and question things, and begin to know yourself better? And do you have any advice about how to feel less lonely or isolated? Or is it just par for the course once you set out on this track?

What’s the point of facing something you can’t change?

You’ve put your finger on something faced by everyone who’s ever thought about life and acknowledged that it makes no obvious sense. Most people deal with this dilemma by hoping/pretending it’s not an issue. You can’t blame them. What’s the point of facing something you can’t change?

And then there are those of us who just can’t be satisfied with that. It sets us apart. We’re called strange; sometimes, we believe it ourselves. The natural reaction to feeling apart is to seek a place to belong. Shared belief systems provide moral support and ethical guidelines, but when they start answering unanswerable questions they cross a line and we lose confidence in them. That shows a healthy mind but doesn’t solve the existential dilemma.

We all need to belong. We all need to be self-reliant. Logically, the two seem irreconcilable, and yet we find our way between these two extremes each and every day.

The real contradiction is between the way we think we should be and the way we are. We find balance by being able to think logically while knowing life is not logical, a task that feels less strange when we keep reminding ourselves of life’s mystery. Still, as charming as that mystery can be in the stillness of a moonlit summer night, it can also take us into dark places. Trying to go with the ups and avoid the downs doesn’t work. Worse, it adds confusion to pain. Those who refuse to confront insoluble mysteries because, “there’s no point,” seem to us only half-awake. Meanwhile, to them we look mad.

When we gaze into the intimidating void of life’s
ultimate meaninglessness, we drop all pretense

Existential angst watches out for unrealistic expectations. It keeps us clear and wary.

The convenient answers of believers and proselytizers are as seductive as consumer or celebrity fads, and just as insubstantial. I labored with religion. I took up Buddhism hoping to find something transcendent. In the end, awakening was far more mundane than I thought: a simple, undistracted focus on the present moment.

Reflecting on that from this end of my life, it seems just right. When we gaze into the intimidating void of life’s ultimate meaninglessness, we drop all pretense. We’re left with few beliefs and few opinions, and that’s liberating in a way that can’t be described. There is nothing more wonderful than to breathe freely in all we do.

But gazing into the emptiness is one thing; trying to rationalize it is another; in fact it’s devastating. The human species dominates this world through its obsession with meaning and purpose, but we forget that all that is our own creation. Somehow, we expect our world to have its own definitions and its own answers, quite independently of us. It’s the ultimate projection.

What really sets you apart is not that you see your
commonality with others but that they try to deny it

It’s paradoxical too, for it unseats our self-reliance. Wanting meaning to reside outside of us leaves us fearful and risk-averse. We now think that life should be solid beneath our feet even though deep down we know perfectly well it’s not. Otherwise, why would we ever have invented religion and belief systems in the first place?

So let’s get back to breathing freely. Even in the emptiness of meaning you don’t have to be alone. You can breathe with others even if they don’t see as you see. That doesn’t mean liking them, just acknowledging that we’re all in the same boat. What really sets you apart is not that you see our commonality but that they they try to deny it, to escape in some imaginary boat that’s bigger and better. Loneliness and isolation come from the thought that everyone else belongs. Look into their eyes and you’ll see they’re just as afraid as you and me, only less clear about it.

Like gazing into the void, empathy too is a risk. It too takes courage, but the rewards are great. There’s something beyond the material and the rational. When you touch it, the material and the rational become strangely more substantial. In the end though, nothing is greater than love — not because it’s decreed by some higher power but because it feeds us.

You’ve always belonged, even if you haven’t felt accepted. Start by accepting yourself. When that seems difficult, remember: you’re not forever.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

7 thoughts on “The Joys of Existential Angst”

  1. ***Loneliness and isolation come from the thought that everyone else belongs. Look into their eyes and you’ll see they’re just as afraid as you and me, only less clear about it. ***

    LOVELY statement, to which I would add, “and DRUNK with the superficiality of LIFE” (a good thing I suppose), as I do not recommend INTROSPECTION to everyone.

    I am a fitness buff, and have been all my life, and from MY angle, it seems that most people are out of shape…
    Advancing in any domain, separates and isolates the person, depending on the context (how much part of everyday living it is, being a Great Tennis player, vs. being a great psychologist).
    Since I have picked up MINDFULNESS – a antidote as well as an extension to my egocentrism – I have realized one very IMPORTANT upshot….
    The more MINDFUL one becomes, the more MINDLESS things become.
    Welcome to the MATRIX.
    Even with a happy predisposition, any kind of intelligent, introspection reveals major inconsistencies between the human mind (exclusively) and the world.
    As for meaning…. PLEEAASE, is this question not dead already?

    1. Hi Ralph: You’ve fallen for a popular misconception. Mindfulness is not in itself an antidote to egocentrism. It’s a source of mental strength, but it can be turned to murder and mayhem as easily as to good works. It’s now popular in business, political and military circles precisely because it is ethically neutral.

      Combine it with intelligent reflection however, and you have a whole other story. Hence Mindful Reflection.

  2. After years of believing, I came to Buddhism and found something I never thought I would. I found myself and the who and what I am that I didn’t even know.

    I also woke up. In waking up I saw things as they are, not as I wanted them to be. One thing besides Mindfullness (which is by the way only of the “tools”) was learning to put my own feelings/ego “aside” and to just be present. In doing so I relaxed and started being present with life and take it on its own terms.

    I learned to sit with doubt, fear and uncertainty and in doing so, found the “rational” joy of life. I have become calmer, centered and my mind has quieted significantly.

    Many people do not “get” me. It used to bother me now I am simply accepting it. Others have commented on how healthy I eat, how nice I am and other things not so polite. I know I don’t “fit in” but I know that I do. I empathize and can see and feel (to a degree) other plights. but more importantly than others accepting or empathizing with me, is that I feel comfortable with myself.

    Life is not fair, I accept that, I have been dealt some severely harsh blows. But with a bit of patience, perseverance and hard work, I have found my way back to a solid sense of self. Even after discovering that I was adopted.

    I finally found out I was adopted a few months ago and it put the final piece of my life in place. I am 46 and I was adopted nearly 40 years ago very secretively into my family and I was adopted to replace a dead child. Litterally I was brought into the family to replace the person who I thought I was. Knowing this put all of the memories and feelngs I have had disjointed in my mind into a cohesive whole and I was able to remember my birth parents and much of my early life.

    I am grateful for the challenges and what they have given me. They have given me a chance to learn more about myself and to become a very moral, ethical and kind person.

    1. Hi Jeffrey, Thanks for this. I’m not clear, though, whether you founds yourself through Buddhism or through discovering you were adopted. That’s quite a bombshell: can’t be easy to digest.

      1. Good morning Stephen

        I found myself through both. I know myself to a degree, but I never “knew” myself on a deep level. Buddhism brought me back to my body, my senses, reality and the here and now.

        Discovering that I was adopted helped me reconnect with my earliest memories, feelings, emotions and my birth family who are and were wholly different than the family who raised me. it cleared up a lot of questions I had about who and what I was in relationship to my personality, temperament, intelligence and certain physical traits which are not present in my adoptive family, but are there in my birth family.

        After being adopted, my sister, Catherine violently beat me and nearly killed me. My adoptive family, although having money and appeared “normal” was a family with a violent and abusive hard core alcoholic father and a mother with extreme mental health issues. It was not a safe or sane place. I blotted out the memories or rather “dissociated” from the memories of the abuse and also my birth family. I still had them, but they were in fragments scattered throughout my mind.

        Meditation, mindfulness, patience, gentleness and the wiliness to sit with the feelings in addition to numerous other healthy and positive things, allowed me to process through all of these situations in my life and eventually led me to integrate into a whole being. I still bear deep emotional scars and have some strong “triggers” from so much abuse,

        It was disconcerting and freeing at the same time to realize I was adopted.

        I have much to thank Buddhism, specifically Zen Buddhism, for what it has given me. The practices and mindsets have given me a means of putting my life together in a wholly richer and healthier way.

  3. i want some more advise on how to overcome this continous fear.. because it seems never ending and everything really bothers me..
    and i felt good after reading your answer on that question but as time passes it starts to crawl over me again.
    so please respond to me with few more logical experience of yours!
    so that i can pacify the thoughts inside.

    1. Himanshu: Logic doesn’t help. In fact, trying to come up with a rational solution to the matter of life just makes things worse. The only way to deal with the problem of life is to engage with it rather than thinking about it. There is no absolute purpose, so we adopt somebody else’s vision of right and wrong, or to find our own. This is both liberating and frightening. Courage comes through experience, not thinking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *