The Four Ghosts of Existentialism

Ask yourself — if you had to name them — what would number among the deepest, darkest anxieties of the collective human experience? Maybe you come up with the haunting prospect of your life not mattering or of not having “made a difference” as that hallowed line goes. Or perhaps you think of dying, of the immobilizing incomprehensible thought of “being no more”. For others, an abiding anxiety is having their grip on freedom, choice, agency, and personal will broken. Note the visceral sensations crawling through this thought experiment — the loss of freedom, entertained even for a brief moment has a suffocating weight to it, doesn’t it?

Or, suppose you shudder in fear the most about being utterly alone, deprived of the comforts of social belonging, human connection, and emotional consolation. All these fears, in their sweeping universality, are like highways into the underlying makeup of the human soul. The four major fears spelled out here, boiled down to their one-word labels — death, meaninglessness, loss of freedom, and isolation are, in fact, the express interest of existential psychotherapists. Irvin Yalom, arguably the prime modern disciple of this therapeutic orientation heralded these major fears under the banner of the four “Ultimate Concerns”.

Now, existential psychotherapy is not especially popular. That does not mean it occupies fringe status, as it enjoys a long history of practitioners, complete with a roster of arguable philosopher forefathers, including European giants Kierkegaard and Sartre. One reason for this is that the themes existential approaches dwell on can be intimidating and off-putting in their gloomy affect, not to mention their abstract bent. Person-centered therapies reign supreme for a reason; they do not insist on confrontation with mortality for instance. Their affirming nature is comforting, and thus initially more appealing contrasted against the deep dive into human limitation that existentialism necessarily entails.

There is, I believe, is a strong argument to make for the less-obvious (and surprising!) healing properties of the existentialist approach with its knack for hard questions and sage spirit of resignation. Before that reveal, we ought to delve deeper into the four Ultimate Concerns and make an honest attempt at unearthing what about them makes us so squirmy and from there, how we are to live with them and reduce their daunting shadows of anxiety. (You might be surprised to find just how much influence they exert!)

Death

Surely, the finality of our end is psychologically distressing. Having long lived with cats, I have frequently found myself marveling at their aching innocence. One only needs to gaze into their glassy, wide eyes and see that they possess no cognitive knowledge of their impending death, one faster-approaching than my own. Isn’t there something nauseating in the knowledge that we possess the same biological restraints that the full spectrum of plants and animals covering our earth are subject to?

This hits a bit like a slight; a random, callous aberration of the universe. As humans, we have made enormous civilizational strides, transcending our jungle origins but we have never been able to make a dent in the most implacable law of all — our earthly demise (though certainly we’ve managed to extend our stay and carve out greater longevities.) We cannot help it: the stain of death is littered throughout daily life. Our bodies become brittle and decay. Even our minds eventually atrophy, a cruel regression that Nature doles out.

For many, death hovers menacingly in the corners, leveling its cold, flinty, glinting eyes at us, ready to pounce. As if the absoluteness of death wasn’t more than enough to grapple with, so too does its horrifying unpredictability impinge on us. There can be observed a stark divide between elderly persons ready to meet their end and those not. The former espouse a calm resignation and acceptance of their fate. Usually, they have reflected on their life, chiseled meaningful narratives out of their years, and made an effort to tie up loose ends. Then there are their disgruntled counterparts: raging against death, shivering in its presence, angry and yet so vulnerable, visibly in pain, pinched by the humiliation of their powerlessness.

Death is unforgiving, this we know for sure. It spares not a soul. Take a stroll through a graveyard and you will witness the heavy silence of finality. However utilitarian, these hulking slabs of granite have another story, another motivation. They represent the last final stab at permanence. They hiss, I exist, I exist, I exist. Gravestones themselves are calculated monuments. Imposing and corporeal, they serve to vindicate our existence. They are human revenge.

Death can be mortifying for many, with its promise of physical decay and erasure of identity, but know this — it does not have to be. We might turn the tables and consider whether we would truly like to live on earth eternally. This quickly reveals itself to be just as paralyzing a thought experiment. Death gives us a container to work in; we can utilize knowledge of our fate to our advantage, accepting the walls we’ve been handed and committing ourselves to forging freedom within them. The existentialists teach us that it will not do to rage against our universal limitations; better to swallow the bitter pill and grasp what agency we do have.

Here’s what we learn: death hounds but it also grounds. Without it, there would be no arc to our experience, no particular story — threaded through with tragedy, beauty, and victory. Do you want to know the truth? Our lives have meaning precisely because we are doomed. Think about it: life would be tensionless and vacuous absent the pressure of approaching demise.

Knowledge of the surety of death (and subsequent embrace of this reality) allows us an opportunity to step into healthily exercising the powers of free will and self-determination we do possess. Life is more manageable when we can diffuse that anxiety-provoking ghost and fix our attentions on what is right in front of us — a life meant to be lived.

Meaninglessness

Like death, the specter of meaninglessness feels barren and arid, like a long, changeless expanse of trekking in the desert. While flirting with the meaninglessness of life as universal truth, most existentialist philosophers eventually conceded that meaning was subjective and that it was man’s responsibility to author it. Meaning-making is a conscious endeavor, an intentional and important means of dignifying life’s thankless tasks and digesting life’s travails. Helpfully, the individual has the opportunity to reemerge from the fire with greater resiliency than before.

Human nature is highly embedded with the narrative impulse. That is, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. They are our impetus and our lifeline. All of us at some point have found ourselves frozen before that great question, “What if my life is meaningless?” For many this storm arrives in adolescence, shaking the foundations of childhood with its blissful limits to existential pondering. The trick to overcoming this hurdle is to accept that no secret universal meaning will be excavated anytime soon and it is up to us to make our own.

The smorgasbord of world religions is a testament to this meaning-making enterprise. So too do philosophies of life abound and aesthetics to cling to (which offer something in the way of social identification and honoring of the art impulse). And what of the patchwork of mottos and quotes, which we desperately return to in moments of crisis? What are they but frantic attempts at tracing the lines of meaning-making over and over again? We seem to be not so much remembering as constructing.

Meaning-making is a highly personal endeavor. It becomes clear we must be our own sculptors of it, patiently realigning ourselves with its energetic center and fitting events into its redemptive narrative arc. Carl Jung once said,

“Suffering that is not understood is hard to bear while on the other hand it is often astounding to see how much a person can endure when he understands the why and the wherefore.”

Viktor Frankl echoed this sentiment amid his harrowing tales of concentration-camp life in Holocaust Germany. There he lived and witnessed the sheer test in the human will to survive, the capacity to find freedom in captivity, to find meaning in madness.

Maybe cyclicality disturbs us; maybe the Sisyphean is the most frightening of all. We desperately need there to be reason for our struggle, nobility for our sacrifice. We need something to aim at, something not here in the morass of our present pain and gasping futility but out there — above and beyond us and the here and now.

The lesson here? Meaninglessness haunts and taunts, dancing endless circles around us. The possibility that our lives are for naught maddeningly lingers on the fringes of our imaginations. The existentialist prescription would advise relinquishment of the impossible task of uncovering one true universal meaning in addition to vigilance regarding falling into the clutches of a grousing cynicism. The former may be too optimistic, the latter too pessimistic. We must make do with what we have then, and wrestle the project of meaning into our own hands, squarely facing mortality all the while and using it to inform how we act in the world.

Loss of freedom

We humans have a complicated relationship with freedom. It is at once the giddy rush of autonomy and the chilly terror of endless choice. Political freedom is serenaded in Western nations — and for good reason. But it is in the smaller realm of individual private freedom that we encounter pockets of ambivalence.

Existential therapists are some of the most expert handlers of our secretly hot/cold relationship to freedom. Publicly, we may laud freedom; privately, it may inspire a curious vein of dread.

There are two central things we must know about freedom. The first concerns the scenario wherein we are either a) so free that we are paralyzed by the open frontier, unable to take meaningful stock of our options and bravely solider ahead, or b) so free that we grow lazy and dull in the face of freedom, perhaps seduced by thrill-seeking, the whole of our life ultimately embodying one giant, listless shrug.

Freedom requires a counterweight in this scenario. That counterweight is discipline which itself demands responsibility. Perhaps one of the reasons political freedom has this underground river of ambivalence running through it is that its central corollary is confrontation with ourselves. And that’s hard. If our lives are to be meaningful, we are responsible and no one else. From this vantage point, it becomes easy to see the magnetic attraction of religious fundamentalism, cults, the abyss of wars. All dissolve individualism to some extent and absolve responsibility.

The second thing we must know about freedom flips the script we’ve been discussing but is no less authentic to the human experience: naturally, captivity arouses fear in us. An excess of external constraints can quickly make us feel trapped and crushed. It is a visceral sensation and an intuitive knowledge, bound up with that famous fight/flight brain pathway. When freedom is scarce, we must know that we are never without a glimmer of hope, a shred of agency.

Our human brains which have so saddled us with contemplation of our mortality and meaning-anxiety can become life-saving devices in dire situations. Humans have endured unbelievable tragedy, torture, and subjugation — the walls of their daily experience cruel, cold, and bleak and yet they have survived, feeding off scraps of faith and slivers of cognitive autonomy.

Viktor Frankl, in his eye-opening memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote,

“Everything can be taken from a person, but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Freedom, no matter the circumstances and no matter its abundance or lack, is a choice. When external freedom is plentiful, we must muster the courage and accountability to shoulder ourselves with some kind of task, duty, or ambitious aim.

But if the laces of freedom are pulled tight and it is instead in short supply, we must never relinquish our souls — our ability to choose and think for ourselves. Existentialist creed reminds us to accept what is and to make do with what we’ve been given. The fact always remains: freedom is sticky, tricky, layered with our anxieties and desires, forever an existential battleground containing the paradoxical cravings to flee and to fight.

Isolation

The last of the four ghosts. This one, perhaps more than the previous three, has the longest reach of remembered anxiety, stretching back into the primitivity of our early childhoods. There, we despaired over abandonment and fussed for attention and sustenance.

As we grew older, we became conscious of a new fear: social alienation. We worked to angle ourselves into groups and communities that assuaged that dark, damp loneliness growing like moss on the outskirts of our psyche.

It is also easy to anguish over the horrible realization, “What if nobody ever fully understands me?” Ah, but that uncrossable distance, that is the price of identity. Again, another gift/curse of humanity — identity and consciousness. In their inherent “separateness” they produce discord alongside our compulsion to connect with others, to fuse ourselves, to integrate.

The existentialist prescription, again, would advise sitting with this reality: the reality of our singular mind which can never be fully understood by another. It is, perhaps, something to mourn but also something to claim with dignified acceptance.

There is a nontraditional way to think about isolation and it is as isolation within our own psyches. How many times have you felt cut off from a part of yourself? Lonely in your own mind? It can take a surprise healing for our eyes to be opened to the parts of ourselves we long ago shunted out of view where they became embroiled in a silent, bitter struggle for recognition. Perhaps they were too much to deal with, brought up rocky bouts of emotion, or complicated our present goals.

The split self is not so much confused in its fractured state as it is hurt. That is, isolation never just simplifies; it almost always leaves a wound. As humans we must confront our vulnerability in this arena.

We must accept the inherent limitations of our knowability, but sate that hunger for connection regardless, all the while monitoring that push/pull dynamic of isolation/engagement and splitting/integration in that internal labyrinth of our private minds.

After profiling each of the four Ultimate Concerns we probably notice our own swift identification with them. They are universal fears, after all. At the heart of existential therapy is an almost beautifully resigned, “This is what it is to be human.” It strikes hot at the most fundamental anxieties we all have. It would be worth it to wonder how readily our “problems” and “issues” which we undoubtedly wring our hands over and maybe even bring to therapy might dissolve simply by examining our relationship to the four Ultimate Concerns.

If we dive deep enough and get to the source of that cardinal concern — what it is to be human — who knows what will then right itself? We may be surprised to note that what comes on the heels of that deep dive and existentialism’s inevitable resignation is. . . relief and even hope. Freedom lies on the other side of confrontation and acceptance of these grand anxieties. But first, we just have to be willing to look.

Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between. laurennreiff@gmail.com

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