Are you miserable because life is meaningless and we’re all just going to die one day?
Do you dread that there is no “right path”?
Are you depressed because, seriously, who is right? About ethics, the universe, the afterlife, the divine, the correct way to hang toilet paper — everything?!
If you answered yes to any of the above…
Congratulations! You might be going through an existential crisis.
If I made it sound like a bad thing, it’s my fault. Because it is actually a great thing. An existential crisis is your chance to grow!
Being in a meaningless state is awesome because now, you get to make your own meaning.
If you are certain about the workings of life and what you believe in, good for you.
But if you are a nihilistic heathen like me, I offer you a blueprint to making sense in this meaningless world.
1) Admit that we don’t know sh*t
Some people know more sh*t than the rest of us. A cosmologist might know more about extraterrestrial life, but they don’t know sh*t either (unless they have met aliens, then I stand corrected).
Point is, a great deal of what we profess to know is just a theory.
Scientific theories. Philosophical positions. Historical “facts”. Religious doctrine. All theories!
Sure, some theories are more feasible than others. But they are still guesses. We are just guessing our way through life. Throwing sh*t at the wall to see what sticks.
We have to believe something sooner or later, so please do pick a belief. But we have to remember what these beliefs really are: theories.
And theories can be wrong.
So we just feel our way in the dark with our working theory until a better one pops up. That’s why we must always test our ideas.
Wanna know who to trust? Trust the ones who admit that they are just guessing. Trust the ones who are willing to test their ideas.
2) Embrace our paradoxes
Human beings are walking contradictions.
We swoon over cute baby chicks then indulge at KFC.
We get stuck in the jam on the way to the gym.
We believe in human rights but support a company known for worker abuse.
We all have some degree of paradox in us.
But this paradox isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, some argue that holding two conflicting ideas at the same time is healthy.
It is called the “paradox mindset”.
- Keeps us from becoming too extreme
- Breaks down our assumptions
- Offers new perspectives
In a study on paradoxes, researchers told participants to write down three paradoxical statements. The statements could be as simple as “sitting can be more tiring than walking”. As long the two contradictory ideas were possibly true.
Next, they were given two standard psychology tests, including the “Candle Problem”. In the tests, the subjects were given a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a box of matches. They were told to fix the lit candle to the wall so that the wax does not drip to the table below. The accepted answer was to empty the box, place the lit candle in it, and tack it to the wall. But most participants didn’t consider using the box.
Of those who wrote the contradictory ideas, 35% found the correct solution to the candle problem, considerably higher than the 21% of the controlled group.
Embrace that tension.
3) Accept that our experience is small
Reality is enormous. And that is an understatement.
Being the teeny-weeny individuals that we are, we have no choice but to have a small experience.
Maybe your friend has seen war, experienced famine, been to space, and lived in 20 different countries. Sure, your friend has a way bigger experience than the rest of us. But in the grand scheme of things, your friend’s experience is still small.
Having a small experience is the only option we have.
The good news is that when we realise how insignificant we really are, our capacity for knowledge increases. Or so Socrates said, “True wisdom comes to each of us when we realise how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.” (Ties back to point number 1).
Socratic paradox: I know that I know nothing. What he means by this paradoxical nugget of wisdom is that he is wiser because he admits that his experience is small, thus he does not know sh*t.
May your existential crisis be a little more tolerable. Cheers!