When we retire or reduce our working hours, we may be brought face to face with an existential angst related to our own mortality. The ‘what ifs’ of the next phase of our lives begin to occupy our thoughts.
At this time of our lives we begin to address the challenging question of what life is all about, reflecting on our personal meaning in the world. We may question whether we have realised our potential and made a positive contribution to the wider society. Will we be remembered and if so, what for?
Existentialism is an aid in grappling with and coming to terms with the finite nature of our existence. Existential anxiety and a sense of meaning is inextricably linked. Having a sense of purpose has a significant impact on our general well-being and degree of happiness or contentment with life.
Kierkegaard, considered the father of existentialism, advocated that the individual and not society and its institutions, are solely responsible for giving meaning to our lives. Such meaning includes living life passionately and sincerely or in the words of Kierkegaard, authentically. We are conscious individuals with freedom of choice to create our own values. This is both empowering and also frightening. It is up to us what we do with our lives and how we react to events and the challenges life puts in our path.
The magnitude of the responsibility for our lives may at some stage lead to an existential crisis. The best response in dealing with such a crisis is to seek out and pursue meaningful activities no matter how small or large.
Life unfolds to us in the present and ruminating about a past we can’t change or worrying about the future merely results in us squandering opportunities and precious time offered by the here and now. The future is unknown and shrouded in uncertainty and allowing ourselves to become paralysed about scenarios that may never materialise impacts on the quality of our lives.
It is a fact that life happens and we will all at some stage or other in our lives have to deal with personal challenges, feel shitty, depressed, in pain, come to terms with loss and so on. Resistance to these events only serves to magnify their impact whereas acceptance helps us to deal with it and move through difficult patches. These things too will eventually pass.
We have an unhealthy infatuation with happiness in the West, seeing it as the overarching goal of our lives. It is human to feel inadequate or at a loss at times but we can take comfort from the knowledge that no feeling is final.
The recent reflections of an elderly friend reminded me of the power of an existential angst as we get older. He was saddened by the realisation that he had many more pasts to dwell on than futures to look forward to.
As we get older it is understandable to become conscious of the possible decline in health, needs of social care, failing minds, remaining independent and coming to terms with our own mortality. As a famous quote suggests, ‘growing old is not for the faint hearted.’
However, as I said earlier, many of the things we fear may either not come to pass or materialise as we expect. All we can do is plan as best we can and then get on with the here and now.
Avoid creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, stop worrying and start living!