A few weeks ago I visited home for my mother’s 50-somethingth birthday. Apart from seeing the family together, my mom wasn’t too pleased about another year passed. When we were at dinner my younger sister Erika, 17, asked her why she wasn’t excited about it. Predictably, she said that all birthdays do when you get to her age is remind her that she’s one year closer to death. In response to this, my dad pulled his square napkin off his lap and onto the table.
“Erika, imagine this napkin represents 100 years.” He folds it in half and creases it, then reopens it. Pointing to the line, he says, “Your mother and I are here.” He folds a crease about at the edge of the napkin. “This is where your brother and sister are.” He folds an even smaller crease. “And this is where you are.” He folds a crease at the end, 25 years or so thick. “This is 75 years, the average lifespan. See the difference?” He said, pointing to all our lines, “We’re running out of napkin.”
“Squandering time is a luxury of profligate youth, when the years are to us as dollars are to billionaires.”
Existential psychotherapy, of which I am no expert, suggests that all our inner conflict—internal struggles with our hypocrisies, our self-perceived shortcomings, our frustrations with our failures to Get The Girl, etc—come from the confrontations we have with the givens of our simplest, most basic problem: the fact that we exist.
Now, this may seem like a fairly obvious posit, but bear with me. The four basic problems, called the Ultimate Concerns, that we face are these:
1. The inevitability of Death
2. Freedom and the ethical consequences of our choices
4. Ultimate loneliness
These are pretty big problems to be sure, but luckily we don’t often confront them. In fact, we spend most of our lives simultaneously doing our best to ignore them completely, and to solve them. It’s only when we come into direct confrontations with our failures to solve them—50-somethingth birthdays, for example—that we get a little anxious.
Humans tackle the challenge of overcoming the Ultimate Concerns in fairly predictable ways. We solve our anxiety about the Grim Reaper by ignoring and then denying his relevance to us, even mocking him by skydiving or hang-gliding or going on roller coasters, convincing ourselves we can conquer the unconquerable.
The problem of freedom of choice is solved pretty automatically by our brains; we justify our every decision as the right one—sure, we screwed up, but we learned from it! Through the biases of our faulty and self-serving memories our brains rewrite our personal histories, shifting blame and spotlighting success in order to make us the heroes of our personal narratives (for what other archetype could we be?).
Meaninglessness is only a problem when we face what seems like severe injustice. How could friend/neighbor/loved one get cancer/have a heart attack/get hit by a drunk driver/etc? He/she was such a nice person… Sometimes we turn to a higher power (who works in mysterious ways) or just have general faith that ‘everything happens for a reason’ to solve our crises.
The final concern, on the other hand, is our most commonplace, and probably biggest, concern. Ultimate Loneliness, the fact that no matter what we do, we are alone in our own heads. Though here too we power through by finding friends and partners (imaginary or otherwise) to reciprocate capital L Love, even if this means that we stay in unhealthy or abusive relationships, allowing others to treat us poorly. Nothing is more frightening or hopeless than being alone.
“To be truly loved, to be remembered, to be fused with another forever, is to be imperishable and sheltered from the loneliness at the heart of existence.”
Even if we push these four problems to the back of our heads, maintaining the facade of daily normalcy with a smile on our faces, our actions in life (and I include Social Media activity in ‘life’) make very obvious our core struggles, even if we aren’t immediately aware of our unconscious motivations.
Every action we take can be seen as motivated by the urge to solve one of these four problems. Tweets, updates, posts, blogs (guilty), shares, messages, are all screaming cries of “I EXIST!” Acts of creativity involve literally placing a part of yourself into the outside world, leaving physical evidence that you matter, you made a difference. Art couldn’t exist in a world of solitude.
“Repeat after me: I exist, I exist, I exist.”
This is all natural, of course. People desire connection and yearn for evidence supporting the internal truism that they are important on this earth, that they, for one, matter. I’m not saying that Social Media is a problem. I don’t want to suggest (or even bring up) the possibility that we may be addicted to instant gratification, notifications, or that Social Media and maybe the internet in general has become a dangerous minefield of click-bait headlines, worthless, fraudulently architectured virility, and inspiration-porn. I wouldn’t know the first thing to say about that.
Luckily, Existential Psychotherapy suggests that we can, in the end, face our problems and embrace the givens of our existence. We can accept our eternal solitude and the inevitability of our own demise. We can celebrate the freedom to choose our own paths and determine meaning. If we can manage this, we can we live our lives without stress or anxiety.
I’d like to think it’s possible, but I have my doubts. I hope so, for all our sakes, because my dad was right—we’re all running out of napkin.
LonelinessWikipedia: Loneliness is a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship. Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connectedness or communality with other beings, both in the present and extending into the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people. The causes of loneliness are varied and include social, mental or emotional factors. Research has shown that loneliness is widely prevalent throughout society among people in marriages, relationships, families and successful careers. It has been a long explored theme in the literature of human beings since classical antiquity. Loneliness has also been described as social pain — a psychological mechanism meant to alert an individual of isolation and motivate him/her to seek social connections. →