An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions if their life has meaning, purpose, or value. This issue of the meaning and purpose of human existence is a major focus of the philosophical tradition of existentialism.
How often do you hear a celebrity, or some other public figure, on TV, the radio or in magazine or newspaper interviews mention that they’re “having an existential crisis”? Maybe rarely. Maybe a bit. Maybe loads. I am convinced I hear it all the time – maybe because I’m quite attuned to it/an existentialism geek. And it’s not just people suggesting that they’re in the middle of an existential crisis, but that others are, too. I watch a lot of sport and any time a player or manager is having a particularly bad time of it, they’re often labelled with the tag of being amid this great ‘existential crisis’.
But the reality is that they’re just a bit out of sorts. Or out of form. Or unhappy. Or things just aren’t going well for them at that moment. Does that mean that they’re thus questioning the random contingency of existence? Are they now certain there is no god or grand plan for humankind and that human beings are the makers of their own destiny and responsible for ALL of their choices? Are they now questioning the very nature of life and death and panicking over the notion that once we die, there is no afterlife for us?
Are they now questioning the value of their being? Are they questioning their purpose here on earth? Have they been brought face to face with their mortality? Have they just realised that there was no pre-ordained reason why their parents might have met, and that their whole life, and existence in its entirety, is just one long series of chance encounters, incidents and reactions devoid of wider meaning or purpose?
Or are they just losing 4-0 at half-time against Shrewsbury in the Checkatrade Trophy?
Whatever you think of the term and its overuse, I personally find it almost impossible to hear anyone mention the term ‘existential’ in contemporary culture these days without adding the suffix ‘crisis’. Now, I fully accept that anxiety and dread and concern over the contingency of existence are factors which crop up all the time in regards to various facets of life, but it seems that many people aren’t aware that there are actually elements to existentialism which don’t just focus on randomness, nihilism and the idea that if you question existence, it has to be a negative thing.
Existentialism is all about taking responsibility and making choices; it’s about assuming one’s freedom. Yes, all that Kierkegaardian stuff about anxiety and dread is a significant undercurrent of existentialism. And yes, the dizzying Sartrean realisation that human life is entirely random and not affected by destiny or the will of some god is potentially disconcerting for some. But that doesn’t mean we have to revert to ‘crisis mode’. Existentialism and its realisations can be hard to deal with. But it can also be life-affirming, liberating and pro-human. For a start, it gives us back the power of free will – we are responsible for our choices and how we wish to shape our lives. Existentialism is a humanism. It ensures that we take rightful control of our own lives. Or as Martin Luther King put it: “I came to the conclusion that there is an existential moment in your life when you must decide to speak for yourself; nobody else can speak for you.”
The main driving force behind Martin Heidegger’s ontological magnum opus Being and Time was that being had been ‘forgotten’. He wished to resurrect an inquiry into being that transcended the expectations and modes of investigation of traditional Western philosophy. Well, allow me to take Heidegger’s assertion a stage further and suggest that being has not just been forgotten, but replaced, usurped and superseded – by crisis. The very meaning of being has become crisis. It dominates the wider narrative, sets the agenda and steers our behaviour in a way that is leading civilisation towards unnecessarily troubled times.
So think of this blog post as my own mini campaign to change how we think about and use the term ‘existential crisis’. In fact, let’s actually go a step further than that and explore why the suffix ‘crisis’ prevails to such an extent in the media and beyond in contemporary culture. We need to change this ‘crisis mindset’. We need to think about our approach to death. We need to consider how we might remove the stigma and taboo about death – something which is as much a part of the nature of being as life.
We need to remove the crisis mode from death, talk about it more and actually come to terms with it. And as for the media, there is much we can do to avert the proliferation of crisis mode and negative sentiments which dominate the narratives we are fed. One of those narratives surrounds Brexit, and so I will explore the nature of crisis, division and selfishness. And finally, I aim to show why championing Niceness and Genuinity can help us to tackle crisis mode. Together, we really can make a difference.
Breaking down the great taboo
Death is a big deal. I get that. I feel it too. And if I spend too long thinking about my own mortality, the impending nothingness of death or, worse still, the sheer unknown quantities of what could potentially come next, I also revert immediately to existential crisis mode. It’s perfectly understandable that a subject like death does this to us. We cannot plan for death, we don’t know for sure when it will happen to us and we have far more questions about it than we do answers. But here’s the thing – it is going to happen. It happens to all of us. And there’s nothing we can do about that. And the sooner we can come to terms with that, the better it will be for us in the time we have left.
This sentiment is nothing new of course – from Epicurus to Heidegger to Alan Watts (like Heidegger and myself, an appreciator of Taoism) to Sigmund Freud to Michel de Montaigne, many great thinkers and philosophers have illuminated the notion that we can improve our lives now by accepting death and learning to think about it in a more positive way. There is a wonderful chapter on death and cemeteries in Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal.
She writes about a game she created called Tombstone Hold ’em, which uses the numbers on gravestones (dates and such) to play a version of poker. On the surface, the idea might appear disrespectful – a bunch of guys rounding around a cemetery playing a card game. But what McGonigal hopes to do is actually address the taboo of death. These beautiful resting places are often essentially abandoned gardens, with overgrown shrubs, weeds and moss covering the tombstones. They often don’t get the care, respect and treatment they deserve as most of us are inclined to steer clear of them. Nobody wants to be reminded of their mortality so starkly.
Yet McGonigal believes the game draws people into the graveyards, helps them to realise just how beautiful they are, encourages them to clean them up and look after them, and helps people to take the first steps in addressing their fears of death. The best way to tackle any fear or taboo is to address it head on – come face to face with death. Accept it is going to happen, no matter what. And then think about what eternal peace might mean. No more longing. No more depression. No more unfulfilled desire. No more jealousy. No more bitterness. No more hatred. Just peace. Everlasting peace. And rest.
I understand why funerals are often morose affairs, but I always prefer those occasions when people choose to celebrate someone’s life instead. My nan’s funeral was a bit like that. The first half was emotional and there was a lot of tears and heartache. But in the evening, we all had a drink and a dance and recalled our wonderful memories of her. I would much rather hear an applause to celebrate the life of a sporting great than sit through a minute’s silence. I appreciate that some occasions require a bit more tact. But there is just as much dignity in smiling and laughing when thinking about a loved one who has passed. A celebration of life feels to me like a way of saying thank you – for being you.
My personal favourite way of thinking about death and the meaning of life is an idea I often reference in these blogs. Freud suggested that we wanted to return to the state of inertia we once had with our mother in infancy – before we realised our place as a separate being in the world. He likened our death drive (Thanatos) to salmon swimming back upstream to die in the place where they were born. It’s as though the meaning of life is death. I try to take comfort in the idea that one day I shall return home – to nothingness. And from there I shall be at peace. Eternal and lasting peace. Or maybe shooting pool on a cloud with Cobain and Hendrix. Both good options.
I have worked in journalism for 15 years now. After cutting my teeth at a local newspaper (on sport and news), I worked for The Sunday Times (online and iPad editions) and The Times (sports desk) for a good six years off and on before a brief, ill-fated stint in primary school teaching (too much like hard work). I have since been a writer/production bod at Match of the Day, a kids’ football magazine, for almost six years now. And I can honestly say that in all of those 15 years, and in all of those various jobs, I have never written a story which wasn’t a) truthful to the best of my knowledge and b) loaded with some kind of negative, hurtful or hate-led agenda. I’m not the most committed journalist you’ll ever meet. I don’t feel like it’s a calling for me. I don’t use my work as part of any sort of mission to help the world. It’s a job, and I like it. But I do believe in honesty and integrity, I do my job to the best of my ability and I try to maintain as high standards as possible.
I have worked alongside many great people over the years. And, to be honest, I can’t remember too many who weren’t similarly minded. I don’t think I could’ve continued to work alongside people who I felt were writing pure lies, distorting the truth for their own ends or spreading hate for the sake of it. Which is why I find the contemporary media landscape so baffling. Why is there so much contempt and ill feeling swirling around? Why does it have to be such a vociferous and stark tussle between the hard left and right? Why do we always need to find scapegoats? What is with this blame culture? What is with this ceaseless craving for outrage – often at the smallest things? Of course, people who do wrong need to be held to account, and the media can be a powerful means to tackle injustice. But it doesn’t have to be a means to attack and chastise. It should be responsible for helping bring about positive change.
What is it about the darker side of our humanity that wishes to see celebrities being torn apart? Are we jealous of their ‘success’? Does their fame entitle the rest of us to use and abuse them as we see fit? When did we ever think it was a good idea to hack people’s phones to get ‘dirt’ on them? And why have we suddenly entered into an era of ‘fake news’? Using propaganda for political gain is of course nothing new, but actually making up stories to spread fear and paranoia and increase division is unacceptable. It is not just irresponsible, it is cruel. When did the media become a vehicle for spreading this ‘current of crisis’? It’s time to take the media back – we need to usher in a new era of genuine truth-seeking, responsible reporting and news which helps society, as well as informing it.
Now, that’s not to say we suddenly stop reporting on murders, sexual abuse cases or uncomfortable subjects. Sometimes the public does have a right and need to know certain things – and victims of heinous crimes deserve justice, as well as to be remembered. We cannot keep our heads in the sand when it comes to violence, oppression or abuse – it needs to be tackled head on. With love and education. Unfortunately, often the truth hurts. There is a brilliant exchange between David Mitchell’s highly strung Mark Corrgian character and Rachel Blanchard’s free-spirited Nancy in season two of Peep Show which goes as follows:
Nancy: (watching the news) Bad news, bad news, bad news. Jesus, Jeremy, one bus crash. What about all the buses that made it safely to their destinations, huh?
Jeremy: Yeah! Yeah, this is such bullshit.
Mark Corrigan: Yes, I suppose the news should just be a dispassionate list of all the events that have occurred the world over during the day. That would be good. Except of course, it would take forever!
Mark Corrigan clearly has a point here – news tends to be news because it is not just mundane, everyday occurrences. But please don’t ever try to convince me that there is a genuine public interest in seeing photos of a celebrity’s cellulite or stories about Raheem Sterling spending his (well-earned but admittedly ludicrously vast) salary on a new bathroom for his mother. The latter is supposed to be a cause for outrage. And yet, from my perspective, I see a young man from an impoverished background, who has worked really hard to achieve something significant, basically just giving something back to a loved one who made endless sacrifices to help her son realise his dreams. We need to care about current affairs – of course we do. But we must do so with love in our hearts. Not fire in our bellies. It’s time to end the age of outrage and crisis and usher in a new age of compassion, kindness and care.
Speaking of outrage, paranoia, fear and division, I’d just like to briefly touch on the enormous waste of time, money and effort that is Brexit. My feeling is that David Cameron should never have allowed such a monumental decision with such immense ramifications to be made by a ‘public vote’ – for me, it is the kind of inescapably complex strategic decision that we elect politicians to make. They are supposed to be responsible for acting in the best interests of the public and should’ve had the experience and insight to make the best choice in regards to our EU membership.
That might not seem particularly ‘existential’ of me – the idea of putting the responsibility for such a decision in the hands of others. But that is why we have campaigns and elections – so we can choose the people to place our trust in to deliver what our country and its citizens needs. They should have the means at their disposal to form an educated and insightful plan of the best way forward and should act accordingly. It’s good that certain things might be put to a public vote, but not something which will have such a significant impact on future generations – particularly when those future generations have to sit idly by and watch it happen to them without a say.
But it did happen. I voted remain. And, by a painfully and troublingly small margin, we lost. Mistakes were made. Big ones. In particular, the amount of time that people had to make their decision and the information that was made available to them was woefully inadequate. And that is before one considers all the misguided soundbites, unsubstantiated claims and full-blown lies. And yet, the vote did go ahead and, certainly for the foreseeable future, there should be no going back from the decision. If remain had won, and the margin had been the same in reverse, I might’ve been sympathetic to the leavers, but there’s no way I would’ve backed another vote ‘just to make sure’.
So we must stick with, and trust, the democratic process in this instance, even if the outlook now appears bleaker than anyone could’ve imagined. Now is the time to rally, bring the country back together and somehow make the best of what seems to be an awful mess. This should begin with addressing the unhelpful and misguided viewpoint that everyone who voted leave is a racist who is sick of foreigners coming to Britain to sponge off the state and take our jobs. Unfortunately, there will be some people whose vote would’ve been guided by such sentiments, and so we need to improve our means of educating people young and old to tackle these outdated perspectives.
But I have friends and family members who voted leave for entirely sensible, rational and well thought out reasons – among them, not wanting a supranational body like the EU to have so much power. Now that is completely understandable – the desire to make world politics more localised and delegate more responsibility to individual nations. Yet, when I voted, I didn’t even consider this notion. In fact, I read very little information from either side. For me, it was better for Europe to show a united front. I love my European brothers and sisters and I love visiting their amazing countries and so I voted for unity and fraternity. I voted with my heart. I voted emotionally. But was I actually wrong to do this?
I’m never going to change my stance. But there’s definitely an argument to suggest that the leave voter who didn’t want the EU to maintain such a powerful presence (after reading into both sides’ viewpoints), clearly voted with more intellectual responsibility and consideration than I did. So I do not hold any grudges against those who voted leave for good reasons – or at least what they thought were good reasons. Wanting to stop foreigners coming into the county is not a good reason. And those leavers who believe that Britain, the old head of the Empire and sovereign champion, is better off tapping into that old wartime spirit and colonial strength and going it alone seem so utterly adrift of reality, it’s quite ridiculous.
I find nothing quite as detestable as the in-it-for-themselves Brexiteer (Jacob Reece-Mogg, David Davis, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage), who couldn’t be any more detached from the common man or woman. We need to make clear a distinction between the Brexiteer who purely wants to benefit from the division and chaos that’s been created and those genuine, considered voters who are still our friends and colleagues and deserve our respect and love. We need to accept the vote now and do what we can to make the best of it. We need to change people’s attitudes through education and kindness. And we need to avert the crisis mode and instability that Brexit has wrought. If you voted to leave and you had good reasons, I understand. If you voted leave but you didn’t have good reasons, other than being a bit pissed off with the way that society is run, then I understand that, too. Let’s move on together and make the world a better place with Niceness.
Kill crisis with kindness
Principally there is being (Heidegger)
Principally there is man (Sartre)
Principally there is Genuinity (Shackley)
Placing myself alongside two of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century is like putting placing a pebble alongside Mount Everest and K2. I realise fully that I don’t belong among such esteemed company. But I like to use this close captioning of philosophical driving forces to demonstrate the most important aspect of my way of thinking. For Heidegger, being comes first, and there is nothing more primordial or important than being itself. For Sartre, humankind is given the greatest significance – because he believed that “existence precedes essence”; human beings are not answerable to god or destiny. We make our choices and decisions – we alone have a responsibility to assume our freedom. For me, it is love which comes first.
You can read more about my concept of Genuinity here. It is basically the notion that we all have a true self – a ‘genuine entity’ driven by kind and compassionate instincts. And this is what I believe drives being. Some human beings (and animals) are better at tapping into their Genuinity than others, but I believe we all, in some way, possess the ‘tools’ for Niceness, and it is love that guides us, drives our will to survive and gives us the greatest things available to us in this mortal realm. And I believe that Genuinity, love and compassion are our best tools in fighting crisis mode.
We need to connect. We need to look after each other. We need to defy those selfish people who wish to dominate, subjugate and enslave. We need to change the overarching, dominant narratives of fear, paranoia and division. We need to put kindness and compassion back at the top of the agenda. We need to educate. We need to ensure that everyone has equal rights, fairness and, at the very least, basic human rights. We need to look after our planet. We need to become ‘shepherds of being’ again.
Having an existential crisis is perfectly normal. We don’t know what is going to happen in the future. We don’t know what is going to happen when we die. We don’t know what the meaning of life is – all we do know is that existence does seem to be utterly random. And this contingency can be terrifying. Life can be hard. We are anxious beings. Sometimes it can almost impossible to shake off those feelings of dread and fear. But we are also beings who love. We make families. And we make homes. And we know what feels good. We know what gives us the greatest pleasure. Look after your fellow human being, treat them with kindness and respect, and together we can defy the existential crisis. Or at least make existence that little bit easier to cope with.