Thursday, April 12, 2007

Angst Aid

I'm an angsty guy, and the last couple of posts have inspired me to find out more about existential therapy. In doing so I happened upon an interesting paper, called 'Existential Anxiety and Existential Joy'. How could I resist? An extract:


He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. Friedrich Nietzsche

Many existentialists (although by all means not all of them) concur with the view that life is essentially meaningless. A leading existential therapist (Spinelli), for example, writes:

Viewed from a wide variety of perspectives one could rightly conclude that life itself is a pointless enterprise. (2001, p.9)

On the other hand, a number of existential psychologists point out that humans require meaning to survive (see, for example, Frankl, 1970, 1978; Yalom, 1980). One can easily feel lost in a meaningless world which can be a great source of anxiety. The most frequent reason given for suicide is that the person has no purpose for which to continue living (Farber, 1968). So, even if we agree with Spinelli’s overconfident claim that there is no meaning of life, creating meaning in one’s life needs to be considered.
And the paper goes on to argue that:
existential anxiety can be transcended and replaced with a sense of existential joy. This requires having a frame of mind that is characterised by the synthesis of opposites (such as predictability and uncertainty, being and nothingness, life and death, individuality and belonging, etc.). This is not to say that this frame of mind makes life a bed of roses. A person with such an attitude will still at times experience unpleasant feelings or be unhappy, but if she does not allow herself to be thrown back in the world of opposites, the underlying feeling of joy can be maintained, which would give her the capacity to face whatever comes without anxiety.
So here I nail my colours to the mast. If tomorrow, I were whisked away to a desert island, allowed to live in peace, with a coconut tree on one side and a breadfruit tree on the other, I might attain happiness for a short while. Nothing like the existential joy that the paper talks about, but perhaps for a short time I might be allowed to enjoy, relatively stress free, that singularly unique experience that is, being alive.

However, such a satisfied state will not last forever, and sooner or later something bad is going to happen. My body will age and begin to fail, and then that fear of death kicks back in, leaving me berating existence until the last breath.

I therefore disagree that existential joy is achieved through transcending existential anxiety. It is merely the potential highpoint of a trajectory, from nothing, back to nothing. It is little wonder that people try their hardest to avoid the truth. What choice do you really have?

But at last I can recommend a minor aid to those who suffer existential angst, as I do! One of my symptoms is an incessant grinding of my teeth, as I sleep. I hardly remember my dreams, but I have the strong feeling that I continue my angst into sleep, and after too long waking up with a mouthful of ground enamel (and the realization that I am slowly losing my teeth, through stealth) I was advised to visit a dentist. Who provided me with a gum shield, and now for the first time in a long time, I have been sleeping like a baby. The guard is already a little mangled, but at least my teeth are spared for now!

So although it doesn't give me existential joy, it does give me some minor existential/dental relief...