“Oh my god, is she going to talk about religion?”
HAH. You bet!
Peripherally, at least. Now’d be a good time to exit if existential questions make you uncomfortable.
We live in a godless world. That isn’t to say that people don’t believe in God. They do, and that’s cool. In my own hyper-qualified, super sciency way, I believe in God, too. And that’s important. I’ll get to that in a bit. My point, however, is about what we, as modern humans, lack, and the crazy ways in which we try to make up for that.
What we lack is Meaning. Fulfillment. Serenity. Assurance. Gone are the days where we could ease fears about dying with assurances of heaven and limbo and reincarnation. Gone are the days where we can assume we partake in a beautiful story unfolding throughout a grandiose history. Gone are the days where we are hunter-gathering humans who have no concern for these things… because in that case what you do is go about your daily life, return home to your cave at night and make love to your husband(s), and sleep peacefully knowing that your tribe is alive and well.
Today, we worry about things. We question them. We live in a world of hyper doubt. The constant barrage of resources and differing opinions makes living otherwise virtually impossible– and who would want to be a hermit, anyway? What’s worse than that, however, is how we are situated in this culture of doubt. Doubt by itself is no evil thing, but doubt in a world in which feelings of support, love, and communal comfort are generally rare is something I would like to call a Big Fucking Issue.
But just you wait, you say. I like doubts. I like truth. I like having the hard facts of the world laid out in front of me. Even though I know it’s psychologically difficult, I would not have it any other way.
I agree with you. I am the same. I cannot sacrifice truth. I cannot let go of doubt. We are the modern world. We are born of it, we breathe it, and we actively construct it ourselves. Fears about our existence, and uncertainty about purpose….. these are things that we just have to live with, and that’s okay.
The problem is that we don’t live with them correctly. These desperate fears and anxieties are deeply rooted in our psychologies, probably far deeper than we could ever imagine. They worm their way in our brains from early childhood on, and our lives are constant reinforcements of the fact that nothing is ever certain. In some worlds, this might be mangaeable. If we lived in small communities, if we spent time every evening in the company of people we loved, doing activities that we loved, rather than being isolated by computer screens and our obsessions with internet communities, we might feel less despair. We might feel less like something is missing.
If we had more human contact, I think a lot of things would be better in our lives. This is one of the big ways in which we might ease existential fear. Because humans–real, live, squishy humans who rub our backs when we go to sleep at night–these are the things that assure us best that we are not alone. It is crucial for our well-being that we do not feel alone.
But we are, in many ways, alone. And even if we don’t feel alone generally, we spend a lot more time in isolation these days than is probably optimal. And then even if we did have optimal human comfort, we might still be floundering. Meaning still might be missing from our lives in important ways, even though we can construct meaning in things such as hedonism, activism, and the arts (which I do not deride–they are important for our well-being, too). We still might be mired down by questions. Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why is there so much suffering in my life? What is the underlying nature of reality? Is there a god? What is going to happen to me when I die? Oh god, please don’t let me die, please don’t let me die…
I think a lot of these questions lead us to live a bit of frantic lifestyle. Because we are unhappy, and alone, maybe, and because we worry so much about what it means to make a meaningful life, we spend all of our free time doing our best to fill it. We cannot have a still second, otherwise we have to be alone with our thoughts. Or, even worse, beyond that: we cannot have a still second because resting would mean that we are not achieving perfection. We are not getting that promotion. We are not earning enough money for an HD TV. And if you don’t take over the world with your ambitions, (or at least get that TV you promised your children) then what the fuck is your life amounting to?
Will you arrive at your 80th birthday party and have terrible regrets?
Is that not one of your greatest fears?
Anyway. That’s my case for the existential worry. I think it’s in all of us, to varying degrees. I think there’s a big, gaping, hurting hole there, and if we don’t fill it with good things like deities or other human beings, we fill it with negative things like perfectionism, consumerism, and mind-numbing devices like TV and the internet.
It’s a bit much for me to say: “solve your existential crisis, be at peace, and you’ll stop exhibiting disordered eating behavior.” But that is essentially what I am saying. I am not trying to convince you that it’s 100 percent effective (or that people who believe in God don’t have eating disorders– of course they do).* But I can tell you that these kinds of worries, the big deal kinds of worries, underlie a lot of the anxiety that manifests itself in our lives in different ways. And we know that anxiety is one of the biggest triggers of disordered eating. Believe in God:** salvage your digestive track.
Let me tell you a quick story.
I have been an anxious person for 23 years. I don’t think there has been a moment of my life that wasn’t consumed by anxiety of one sort or another, and I think, too, that a great many of those moments were overlaid with pressure, by impatience, by irritability, and by anger. I don’t know if I would have been able to attribute those nasty personality traits to my existential crisis, but I might have ceded the point to you if you asserted it yourself. I was a high-strung, angry person. It sucked.
I did a lot of eating.
For a variety of reasons, many of them scholarly and some of them experiential, I have come to see death as less terrifying. I have come to feel a Buddhist-type release of my attachment to the world, and I have morphed into a more spiritual, less nihilistic being.
My anger has dissipated, my anxiety has floated away, and my eating…
well, it happens less.
I have always known that I ate to fill a loneliness hole. I felt isolated, and the mechanical act of ingesting food made me forget that fact. Now that I don’t feel so existentially lost and afraid, and now that I am at peace with existence and myself when I am alone, I don’t feel the need to fill the void with food.
It’s something to think on, anyway.
*but I can tell you that it is almost 100 percent definitively known that the greater belief one has in “something beyond humans” spanning from apophatic mystic conceptions of God to the Dao to a man with a beard in the sky, the greater psychological stability and well-being he exhibits.