Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Existential Challenges

We hear the term "existential crisis" thrown around in pop psychology fairly often.  According to Urban Dictionary, an existential crisis is a deep, obsessive concern with unanswered questions about the meaning of life and existence.  Existential psychology identifies four "existential challenges."  These "ultimate concerns" are the "givens" of life.  They are the fundamental truths that capture the essence of the human condition.  Our lives are defined by how we respond to these challenges.  A "crisis" occurs when we become overwhelmed by these truths and can no longer cope.

The four "human givens" we must all face are:

1. Death: The curse of human consciousness is an awareness of our eventual death.  We must live while knowing we will die, yet not despair.  We must love others with the knowledge that we will ultimately lose them.  Even long life is a mixed blessing, as we gradually lose everyone who matters most. 

Most of us use denial to cope with the inevitability of death.  We refuse to think about it.  We focus instead on staying healthy and living longer.  As a society, we relegate death to certain places (e.g., hospitals), where we don't have to see it.  Denial becomes less effective as we get older.  At some point, we are forced to confront death, either our own or someone else's. 

2. Meaning:  Most of us are not content to simply exist; we need a purpose in life.  "Why are we here?"  We must each answer this question for ourselves.  Your purpose might be different than mine.  We can choose to spend ourlives however we see fit.  Those who thrive devote their time to things they find meaningful.  They feel fulfilled.  Those who lack purpose find their lives meaningless.  They tend to feel empty and lost.

3. Freedom: We each have the freedom of choice.  We are free to make decisions about our lives and to determine our own paths.  With freedom, however, comes responsibility.  We are responsible for whatever choices we make.  We cannot blame others when we are unhappy.  If we want things to change then we have to change.  Freedom can sometimes feel overwhelming.  It can be tempting to ask others to make decisions for us and to hold them responsible for the outcomes.  This too is a choice - a choice to hand over freedom and to allow others to control our destiny.

4. Isolation: We come into this world alone and that is how we leave it: alone.  We can never completely share an experience with someone else; it is impossible for one person to know exactly how another feels.  And yet, humans are innately social creatures.  We long to connect with others.  Every connection comes with the risk of being abandoned (which is inevitable - see number one).  We are alone and yet we fear being alone.  So we do things that make us feel less alone. 

These four truths really do capture the essence of what it means to be human. 

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