An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether their life has any meaning, purpose or value. This issue of the meaning and purpose of existence is the topic of the philosophical school of existentialism.
An existential crisis may result from:
- Major depressive disorder
- Dissatisfaction with one's life
- Major psychological trauma
- The sense of being alone and isolated in the world;
- A new-found grasp or appreciation of one's mortality;
- Believing that one's life has no purpose or external meaning;
- Searching for the meaning of life;
- Shattering of one's sense of reality, or how the world is;
- Awareness of one's freedom and the consequences of accepting or rejecting that freedom;
- An extremely pleasurable or hurtful experience that leaves one seeking meaning;
An existential crisis is often provoked by a significant event in the person's life — psychological trauma, marriage, separation, major loss, the death of a loved one, a life-threatening experience, a new love partner, psychoactive drug use, adult children leaving home, reaching a personally-significant age (turning 16, turning 40, etc.), etc. Usually, it provokes the sufferer's introspection about personal mortality, thus revealing the psychological repression of said awareness.
An existential crisis may resemble anomie (a personal condition resulting from a lack of norms) or a midlife crisis. Sometimes, an existential crisis stems from a person's new perception of life and existence. Analogously, existentialism posits that a person can and does define the meaning and purpose of his or her life, and therefore must choose to resolve the crisis of existence.
In existentialist philosophy, the term 'existential crisis' specifically relates to the crisis of the individual when they realize that they must always define their own lives through the choices they make. The existential crisis occurs when one recognizes that even the decision to either refrain from action or withhold assent to a particular choice is, in itself, a choice. In other words, humankind is "condemned" to freedom.
Handling existential crises
Existential crisis is considered to be a direct consequence of depression, being a prevalent symptom especially among children and young adults with above-average intelligence. The issue can be adressed in the same therapeutic and medical manner as ordinary depression, and is usually curable by antidepressants.
Peter Wessel Zapffe, a Norwegian philosopher, provided a fourfold route in his work The Last Messiah that he believed all self-conscious beings use in order to cope with the inherent indifference and absurdity of existence, comprising "anchoring, "isolation", "distraction, and "sublimation":
- Anchoring is the "fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness". The anchoring mechanism provides individuals with a value or an ideal that allows them to focus their attentions in a consistent manner. Zapffe also applied the anchoring principle to society, and stated "God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future" are all examples of collective primary anchoring firmaments.
- Isolation is "a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling".
- Distraction occurs when "one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions". Distraction focuses all of one's energy on a task or idea to prevent the mind from turning in on itself.
- Sublimation is the refocusing of energy away from negative outlets, toward positive ones. The individual distances him or herself and looks at his or her existence from an aesthetic point of view (e.g. writers, poets, painters). Zapffe himself pointed out that his written works were the product of sublimation.
Intense vipassana meditation will usually bring about a set of experiences, referred to as the "dark night of the soul" by Western spiritual traditions, that resemble the typical symptoms of an existential crisis. During the "dark night", meditators become severely discouraged in regard to practice and life in general, although continuing meditation is said to be the way to overcome this difficult stage.
In the 19th century, Kierkegaard considered that angst and existential despair would appear when an inherited or borrowed world-view (often of a collective nature) proved unable to handle unexpected and extreme life-experiences. Nietzsche extended his views to suggest that the so-called Death of God - the loss of collective faith in religion and traditional morality - created a more widespread existential crisis for the philosophically aware.
Existential crisis has indeed been seen as the inevitable accompaniment of modernism (c.1890-1945 and beyond). Where Durkheim saw individual crises as the by-product of social pathology and a (partial) lack of collective norms, others have seen existentialism as arising more broadly from the modernist crisis of the loss of meaning throughout the modern world. Its twin answers were either a religion revivified by the experience of anomie (as with Martin Buber), or an individualistic existentialism based on facing directly the absurd contingency of human fate within a meaningless and alien universe, as with Sartre and Camus.
Fredric Jameson has suggested that postmodernism with its saturation of social space by a visual consumer culture has replaced the modernist angst of the traditional subject, and with it the existential crisis of old, by a new social pathology of flattened affect and a fragmented subject.
Prince Hamlet experiences an existential crisis as a result of the death of his father. This is shown especially by Shakespeare in the famous soliloquy which starts, "To be, or not to be: that is the question...".
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