Last year, I was at a birthday dinner in central London. We were having a great time – laughing, talking, over-eating, etc. etc., when I was suddenly struck by a panic so arresting and all-consuming that I think I physically froze. Realistically no one else would have noticed, and it was probably only about five seconds or so before I shook it off and re-joined the conversation. To me, though, I was completely frozen in time, struck by a thought that absolutely terrified me. The thought was: what’s next? As in: literally, what’s next? None of us here knows what’s going to happen in the next five seconds. Or the next ten, or the next minute, or hour. I felt, for a brief moment, as though I’d cracked some kind of mass thought-barrier constructed by humankind. How is it that we all walk through life effectively blindfolded, metaphorically bouncing off the walls, with no idea what’s going to come at us next? How am I the only person, in this moment, who is scared by that? How are we this blasé about our own existence?
Needless to say, I’ve come to terms with this strange and sudden form of existential anxiety since then. Now, I find the unknown exciting (most of the time, anyway). But this brief episode made me realise that existential anxiety – something I’d never given true consideration to before – is truly frightening, and can extend to more aspects and phases of life than a bizarre, five-second invisible panic attack at a friend’s birthday.
I think it would be remiss not to mention the shudders, groans and the oft-repeated “don’t talk about it, I hate talking about it!” that often accompany large-scale existential conversations about the universe and the cosmos. “What is out there, really?”; “Where does the universe end? And what starts after that?” But I’m going to leave that particular form of existential anxiety there, a.) because I’m scaring myself, b.) because I’m really not qualified to be talking about physics and cosmology (if those are even the right words…? I have no clue. I need to learn to stop whilst I’m ahead.) and c.) because I think there are more everyday aspects of this type of anxiety that are a tad closer to home, and therefore significantly more relevant.
“Existential anxiety” is usually described as a form of anxiety that “focuses on the identity and meaning of the self”, or that “involves apprehension about the meaning of life and death”. I identify with both of these. I’ve certainly had thoughts such as: “I don’t know what kind of person I am”, and “I really don’t see how anything I do makes any difference if we’re all going to die anyway”. My ability to bat these thoughts away varies depending on whether or not I’ve consumed alcohol the night before, or where I’m at in my cycle. But those thoughts do pop up, and what I’ve come to realise is that it’s perfectly normal, especially at this particular stage in life.
I’m aware that being in your mid-twenties is not old – nowhere close. But there is a difference between early twenties and mid-twenties (other than the obvious difference of the actual numbers). It’s a difference that has suddenly crept up on me, and many of my friends, and it’s a difference that has certainly given me personally a jolt of a wake-up call. There was something about turning 25 that made me question my identity, my existence and my calling in life. “Age is just a number”: but societal conditioning tells us that by age 25 we should have it all figured out; jobs, partners, families, housing – everything. I don’t have it all figured out. I’m doing a Master’s and working part-time, and I have no idea which industry I will eventually enter, or even what I’ll be doing this time next year. I’m single. The thought of me owning property at any time in the next 10 years is ludicrous. And, subsequently, I panic. I panic that I don’t know where my life is going. I panic that I’m not contributing enough to society. I panic that I’m just messing around, wasting time, whilst my contemporaries are making their mark on the world and setting themselves up with financial and familial security (I should make clear here: I am not remotely implying that others in my position should have the same panic. No one deserves to panic in this way – we are all making an impact on the world with every breath we take. But that’s the thing with anxiety: it makes you apply strict and unforgiving rules to yourself that you would never apply to anyone else!).
But what I’m gradually beginning to learn is firstly that everyone feels like this, at one time or another – just as I feel that everyone is sorted except me, everyone else will have moments where they feel lost, or as though they’re being left behind – and secondly, that meaning does not come from a job, or a relationship, or owning property. These things are meaningful, of course they are – they are full of meaning and importance, and help to craft us into the people that we are. But they are not the only areas from which we can derive meaning in our lives. Ultimately, meaning can come from wherever the hell we want it to.
The most beautiful, honest and hopeful description of existential anxiety I’ve ever read was written by a friend of mine for Bustle, about how the book “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” helped her restore meaning to her world after she became an atheist. “When I stopped believing in God after almost 20 years of being raised as a Christian, I lost a lot of things”, she writes. “I lost a sense of meaning or purpose to my life; I lost my feeling of unity with the world; I lost my infinity…Yeah, I wasn’t in a great place.” But then, she read “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower”, and this book – and one particular moment in it – helped her to restore meaning to her life. “Charlie’s infinite moment reminded me that I can connect with this world in a multitude of ways – not just in a church. It might be a song, or a stretch of road; it might be a night sky; it might be a friend laughing into the wind.”
I’m now over my limit of 1000 words yet again, so I’ll leave it there, on that beautiful quote. If you enjoyed this piece , please do follow the blog via email for weekly articles in your inbox every Tuesday!