The Existential Crisis: Finding Life in the Awareness of Death

Jul 31, 2019

By Robyn D. Walser, PhD

My brother Daniel died at age 47. He had been diagnosed with a blood-clotting disorder years earlier, and his life eventually ended due to complications from strokes. The years leading up to his death were challenging. He lost his vision, and his cognitive abilities continued to deteriorate over time – each new stroke stealing a little piece of his mind.

In the final three years of his life, Daniel needed a fair amount of assistance, and my husband and I cared for him for almost a year in our home. The fragility of life thus became a part of our daily routine. I was pushed up against the reality of the body’s slow demise and the question of not just Daniel’s death, but my own.

It’s times like these – encountering the loss of a loved one’s capabilities or a loved one’s death, aging of the body, trauma, dissatisfaction with yourself, or feeling unfulfilled in relationships – when we can fall into an existential crisis. For some, the passage of time itself is the harbinger for contemplating existence.

An existential crisis occurs when someone questions the meaning of their life. They feel unsure about the purpose or value of their own existence and perhaps human existence, too.

Existential crises open us up to the following possibilities:

1. Facing the reality of our own death. With this awareness, we begin to question our purpose for living. This kind of contemplation can lead to a real sense of loneliness and fear. People who experience an existential crisis can feel depressed or anxious. They may desperately seek ways to avoid death or aging. This experience is sometimes referred to as a midlife crisis – and is typified by fearful thoughts such as “I’m 50 years old…my life is more than halfway over.” Pop culture representations of the midlife crisis often include the purchase of a sports car, along with “youthful” clothing, dyed hair, Botox, or dating someone much younger. However, there are many ways in which people might express an existential crisis including feeling sad, fearful and alone.

2. The recognition that we have the responsibility to make ongoing purposeful choices in life. We live in a reality where we define our lives through our choices. If you’re experiencing an existential crisis, you can become “frozen,” avoiding this freedom, worried that you don’t know the right and meaningful path or that might make the wrong choice. The ironic part is that staying frozen due to fear, according to existential philosophy, is itself a choice that creates its own consequences and meaning.

So, what should you do when faced with an existential crisis?

Recognizing the inevitability of your own death can be both painful and anxiety-provoking, but also freeing. Becoming aware of your preoccupations with thoughts and emotions while letting go of the struggle to control these experiences opens the door to new possibilities. It gives you a way to cope with the knowledge of your own passing.

It’s important to keep in mind that emotions and thoughts – including those related to death – ebb and flow and are a part of life. Being mindful of your experience without being trapped by it opens up possibility. Accepting that you will die one day is vital to the discovery of meaning and purpose. Your personal work on this matters.

Instead of Asking Why, Ask How

While it may seem morbid, facing the reality of your own death has the power to activate a shift in life perspective. It can motivate efforts that involve taking responsibility and choosing to live well while you’re alive. Being aware of death can help spark full engagement in life, building meaning and purpose with the moments we do have. This awareness can shift the main question in life of “why” we live (existential crisis), to a process of engaging “how” we live (choice and responsibility).

Watching my brother as he deteriorated was both heartbreaking and strangely fascinating – not in a morbid way, but in a loving way. Daniel was on his journey, and as much as he could, he made his own choices. He chose to eat ice cream and drink Coke. He chose to sit in the sun. He chose to bathe everyday no matter what. He chose to spend time playing with the dogs. He chose to keep laughing, even when he was afraid. He chose to keep loving and sharing himself with others. He didn’t have it easy by any means. Since the strokes robbed him of his sight, he could do barely anything alone. With his mind slowly fading, he couldn’t always understand or speak. But he continued to choose. And when death finally came to his door, he let us know he was ready.

It’s important to recognize that living inside of responsibility and choice in the service of meaning takes effort. Discovering what matters most to you and then choosing to take steps every day that align with these values isn’t always easy. And building a life guided by purpose does not mean that you will be free of anxieties and fears. Life will always contain joy and pain. Choosing to create meaning by actively engaging or participating may involve moving forward with your fears “on board.” But life is there to be tasted. It’s full of vibrant colors, textures, and flavors. Whether you taste what life has to offer is up to you.

Finally, time moves on. The death of loved ones, aging, or milestones such as birthdays and anniversaries can bring each of us in contact with our own inevitable passing. When I think of the 47 years my brother lived, I think it all went too soon. We don’t know how much time we have, and so in contemplating our own end, I wish for each of us to begin to choose with a compassionate urgency. This shouldn’t be a frantic pressure, but a loving urgency that allows you to stay more connected to your values, rather than sinking into a stifling or life-disrupting crisis. This is at once a terrible and beautiful thing.

Recognizing death can bring fear and anxiety, but it can also spark creation and purpose. The Stoics of ancient Greece once said, “Contemplate death if you would learn how to live.” In contemplating our own end, we recognize that there is still time for life in whatever time is left.

When to Get Help

Many existential crises can be weathered without too much difficulty. Most of us will face this process. It’s normal to encounter anxiety about your personal meaning and the finality of existence, and you can expect explore your own existential issues from time to time. However, if you find that you’re stuck and your daily functioning becomes impaired or the angst seems intolerable, then it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional. They can assist you through the crisis.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robyn D. Walser, Ph.D. is co-author of Learning ACT: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Skills Training Manual for Therapists and The Mindful Couple: How Acceptance and Mindfulness Can Lead You to the Love You Want. She has also co-authored two additional books on ACT focused on trauma and spirituality. She currently serves as Co-Director of the Bay Area Trauma Recovery Center and Director of TL Consultation Services. She maintains an international training, consulting, and therapy practice.