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Analysis: The Existential Crisis
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever….
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind….
I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4, 8-14, 16-17).
The Existential Crisis
What is the “Existential Crisis?” Not every person experiences it. However, for those who do, it is a moment of realization that their lives have no inherent meaning, value, or purpose. It is in this crisis that a person may ask, “What am I?” “What am I doing here?” “Where am I going?” “What is my purpose?” It is a time where all thoughts about oneself and what one is doing appear to count for nothing. A person will die. The world will die eventually. Nothing lasts forever. What is the point in doing anything? This, of course, is a nihilistic perspective. However, as depressing as it looks, I consider nihilism to be a profound philosophy, not only in the history of thought, but also in the assessment of one’s own life. The benefits that come with an existential crisis may be initially difficult to see, but the process by which an existential crisis occurs may actually contribute to a person’s spiritual maturity.
Why does the existential crisis happen? So far, throughout the blog series, I have brought up the idea that human beings fear nonexistence, emptiness, loneliness, or death. To compensate for this natural fear, humans acquire and cling to identities—identities that give a sense of self, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. If any of these begin to fail, a person may turn to pleasing distractions in order to escape the looming feeling of nonexistence. There is not necessarily anything wrong with healthy distractions, especially from pain, but when those distractions lead to addictions or dependencies, there are harmful consequences for the person. But even these distractions may fail, or at least fail to please, and a person may either find new, more intense sources of pleasure or he or she may resign himself or herself to the creeping feeling of nothingness. If the latter happens, a person will most likely experience a loss of identity, a deep loneliness, and a purposelessness. The triggers vary. The onset of an existential crisis could follow a traumatic event or it could arise from a series of perceived failures. The result, though, is more or less the same. Much of what a person believed about himself/herself, believed about the world, and believed about his/her relationships is shattered. He or she does not know what to believe anymore, at least in particular contexts. That being said, when despair seeps into one area of life, it often affects many other areas, if not all other areas, of life.
Throughout an existential crisis, as explained by Rollo May in Man’s Search for Himself, a person might experience some combination of certain symptoms like the feeling of emptiness, the feeling of loneliness, and, above all, anxiety. The feeling of emptiness is that feeling of being nobody of significance, being nobody that could enact change. It is the feeling of having no direction in life, no goals, no tangible dreams. This strongly coincides with the feeling of loneliness—the feeling that nobody else really cares, the feeling that a person doesn’t actually fit in anywhere. All these feelings compound and are compounded by the experience of anxiety. Anxiety is a physical response to the perception of powerlessness. Human beings like to have a sense of control, especially over the events in one life. However, the reality is that humans have very little control over how things play out, and that reality is a hard thing to reconcile with. “Why don’t things go according to plan?” “Why do bad things happen?” “What more does the future hold?” “Why me?”
Yes, the truth is, as the nihilists affirm, there is no inherent value or purpose in an individual person’s life. All meaning that we find is imagined and projected. When the dream discontinues, a person is faced with the absurd. As it seems that there is no true way to escape the absurd, a person falls into despair.
O LORD, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah…
But I, O LORD, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O LORD, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.[a]
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companions are in darkness (Psalm 88:1-7, 13-18).
The existential crisis represents the loss of meaning. Those things that we need to feel secure about ourselves—identity, belonging, and purpose—begin to slip away. At the beginning of the post, I suggested that the crisis could help a person grow. Unfortunately, most people going through the crisis are likely to experience quite the opposite. I use the term “wraith” metaphorically. In mythology, the wraith is an unspecific spectre, hardly different than any other kind of ghost. In fact, the word “wraith” it comes from a Scottish word for “ghost.” For me, though, the word wraith connotes a hollow, formless, shadowy thing that hungrily seeks a material existence. Why do I see it that way? It probably stems from a dream I had once. Nevertheless, it is the word I have chosen to use in order to describe this existential phenomenon.
Typically, people experiencing emptiness develop a strong desire to fill that void by any means. Thus, life becomes this perpetual pursuit of satisfaction. Oftentimes, however, this pursuit continues at the expense of other people, of the environment, or even one’s own physical or psychological health. The wraith is the child of the sin nature. As I have talked about before (Part 7), the sin nature is a by-product of being created in the image of God. Our God-given creativity lends itself to autonomic, self-centered creativity. The more time one spends creating his or her life outside of God’s will, the more the wraith within grows until it may possess a person altogether. These possessed individuals are the ones that society would freely label “evil.” While the rest of humanity may not go as far, the wraith is nonetheless a powerful agent working within each of us. During an existential crisis, the wraith is more likely to make itself known.
The Existence of God
The glaring lack of meaning in any given individual and in society as a whole shows a strong disconnect between people’s day-to-day perceptions and a belief in God. When Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “God is dead,” the implication, as it has been interpreted, is that the belief in God was a strong source of meaning. But in a society where people no longer believe in God, all of life’s value becomes meaningless. This is especially applicable to the idea of moral order.
A couple things have contributed to peoples increasing disbelief in God—or, if not disbelief, the belief that God has little to do with human lives. First, the growth of scientific thought has placed a burden on theology to offer clear evidence for God’s existence. Unlike many people however—those who would identify a schism between “religion” and “science”—I believe the advancement of scientific knowledge has been a great benefit to the global society overall, and, furthermore, I appreciate the challenges that it has put before theology. There are many beliefs in religious thought that are unrealistic, unnecessary and, of course, dangerous. Beliefs should be compatible with what evidence is available without committing an inductive fallacy. Now, from this point of view, it would be foolhardy to believe in a god, since there is no tangible evidence for a deity’s existence. In many cases, I would definitely agree, as most perspectives on God are clearly imaginary and fantastical. That being said, we, as a human race, cannot talk about the existence of God until we first define what God is. More on that in a later post.
A second reason for our disconnect with belief in the divine is due to our expectations of God. Since I do suggest that many beliefs in God are indeed erroneous, it follows that faulty belief would lend to a misunderstanding of what God ought to be doing. When bad things happen or when things do not go our way, there is a strong temptation to challenge God. Because these challenges frequently go unanswered, it is easier to dismiss either the existence of God or the notion that God is a loving, compassionate God that cares about humanity. However, as I have found, the crisis of belief should inspire to, again, ask what God really is, to ask what exactly a person is placing their faith in. In fact, if one has had a misconceived view of God, there is nothing really wrong with dismissing that belief. One should be cautious about dismissing a belief in God altogether though.
Now, as Nietzsche suggests, there is a strong correlation between the belief in God and the sense of meaning/value/worth. While it may be useful to confront a faulty comprehension of God, one may be left with searching for a new source of meaning. However, by reevaluating and reformulating one’s belief, rather than dismissing it altogether, one may actually find a deeper sense of meaning—one rooted in simply being human/becoming Imago Dei.
Why the Existential Crisis Can Be a Good Thing
Allow me to share an anecdote. Due to being the type of thinker that I am, I have had many minor existential crises, which is to say that I am hardly satisfied with sticking to one goal for too long (like over two years). However, there was one time that I remembering being more intense than others. Funny enough, I do not remember what triggered it; all I remember is an epiphany that I had acquired from it. Whatever I was going through at that time in life, I remember picturing myself in an empty desert, much like the one I described in the previous post’s story (in fact, the imagery was inspired by my experience). I had no sense of direction; I didn’t know which way to go; I didn’t know if there was a direction I was supposed to go. I appealed to God for some wisdom, for some direction. I didn’t get an answer. In my image though, I pictured some sage-looking character standing nearby, not saying anything but smiling. The image changed to that of a room full of doors. Again, I wasn’t sure which door was the right door. Then it hit me: there wasn’t a correct door. All doors were an option. Was there a best option? No. Any door that I picked would take me to a different place, but it did not matter which place that I went. I was free to choose which door I would pass through.
This testimony is meant to exemplify how the existential crisis could end up being a good thing. Having no sense of self or purpose is an awful feeling, but it signifies a pretty important change. As terrible as it feels in the moment, it is a transformation. Remember that identities, however necessary they are, are more likely going to support delusions and encourage cognitive dissonance. During the existential crisis, a person’s sense of self is challenged and hopefully purged and refined. A person may begin to depart the need to conform to others or to seek self-esteem outside of one’s own creativity. A person may draw closer to his or her own authentic self—which is not a specific, predestined thing. Rather, a person may come to realize his or her own natural creativity and, therefore, become intentionally creative, which is more of embracing oneself as a responsible free agent than perpetuating delusion/cognitive dissonance. As existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre suggests, we create our own meaning. However, in whatever we do, we are responsible for it.
This gives human beings a lot of power, power that can become abused (remember the wraith!). There are many, however less well-known, religious philosophies that recognize liberation can come from breaking free of social expectations. But autonomy has its downside and can do more to damage harmony that to restore it. As I will show in future posts, there is a balance to be found with one’s creativity. Nonetheless, the existential crisis provides an opportunity for somebody to become something new, to be creative, and to draw closer to authenticity—which is nearer to realizing the Imago Dei. The process is only a possibility; it is up for the individual to willfully choose to be free, to relinquish old, outdated identities, and to move forward into the unknown with faith and hope. All in all, one cannot become the Imago Dei—the redeemed, new self—without going through the existential crisis.