“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”—Vladamir Nabokov.
“What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; “why?” finds no answer.— Friedrich Nietzsche
Meaning is the antidote to an inherently meaningless existence.
We need meaning to give ourselves a psychological footing to stand on. We need meaning to make sense of an incomprehensible universe.
We need meaning to feel that life is worthwhile despite the fact it ends with our inevitable demise – that nothing matters in the grand cosmic scheme of things.
This is how we keep the existential worm at the core at bay. Meaning gives us the mental footing we need to prevent us from falling into the psychological abyss.
Our reason for living stems from a refusal to acknowledge our mortality.
Now, this isn’t some crazy idea I’ve pulled out of my pilots hat! (Although I have a few.)
Ernest Becker raised this point in his masterpiece of a book, The Denial of Death, claiming the why of human existence stems from a vital lie – man’s refusal to acknowledge his own mortality.
And it is a vital lie. Because we are biologically hardwired for survival and yet we know death is inevitable
Biologist Ajit Varki argued the overwhelming fear of death would “be a deadend evolutionary barrier, curbing activities and cognitive functions necessary for survival and reproductive fitness.”
If we didn’t have a way to keep our mortal terror at bay we would be unable to take the necessary risks to survive – we would be unable to find the necessary motivation to carry on living.
Otherwise the worm would lurch forth from our subconscious and swallow us whole.
To manage fear we must feel we are valuable members of a meaningful community.
Terror Management Theory is an empirically oriented offshoot of Becker’s position. Authors Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski spent 25 years researching and testing Becker’s original hypothesis.
They presented the findings in their book, The Worm at the Core, showing conclusively that our unconscious fear of death and the desire to transcend it drives almost everything we do.
They note to manage the knowledge of death humans call on two basic psychological resources:
“First, we need to sustain faith in our cultural worldview, which imbues our sense of reality with order, meaning, and permanence. The paths to literal and symbolic immortality laid out by our worldviews require us to feel that we are valuable members of our cultures. Hence, the second vital resource for managing terror is a feeling of personal significance, commonly known as self-esteem.”
They go onto say, “The twin motives of affirming the correctness of our world-views and demonstrating our personal worth combine to protect us from the uniquely human fear of inevitable death.”
Modern psychology (and most of the self-help industry) is largely aimed at shoring up self esteem for this reason.
We have a massive problem with it in the modern world. Not just because we don’t value our own society anymore, but because the things our society values are fucked.
The cultural values of wealth and status in particular, and the humiliation of not having those things, are sources of anxiety for millions. It exacerbates the issue of heroic individualism – our desperate desire to measure up – that is causing us to all burnout and stall.
Not only do we need to feel good about ourselves, we need to see through ourselves.
But shoring up self-esteem is only part of the puzzle. I would argue this fixation on self-esteem is failing us on some fundamental level. It’s giving people relief – much needed relief, no doubt – but it’s not, ultimately, a cure.
It’s a bit like placing a bandaid on gunshot wound.
Unfortunately modern psychology often falls short of mentioning the worm at the core for fear of angering the hornets nest. I say we need to give the hornets nest a good fucking shake.
Even with the healthiest self esteem in the world, the worm is still buried deep beneath the surface. It’s still pulling the strings. While that’s better for the individual, arguably this is far more dangerous for the world at large.
The beliefs we use to protect us from our own fear of death become the things we are willing to die for.
Here’s where I flip the aircraft upside down and take the paradox of meaning to an even more absurd level.
We desperately need to understand that the meaning we give our lives is rooted in an existential fear of death. We need to understand where our need for meaning is truly coming from.
Otherwise we become incapable of challenging of our beliefs. We become incapable of updating them when we desperately need to.
Not only do we increase the risk of stalling, we run the risk of taking down an entire plane full of passengers with us – quite literally!
Now, the elephant in the existential room known as the universe here is God.
Atheists often deride a belief in God while failing to see the very real psychology security faith provides. Religious people suffer from depression and anxiety in far fewer numbers than non religious people.
The truth is God was an ingenious solution to what Buddha called the big problem of consciousness.
The big problem of consciousness isn’t simply the knowledge we will die. The issue comes from taking the question of why to it’s natural conclusion. The eventual death of all things. Because nothing lasts forever.
That includes the human race.
Our cultures give us a sense of permanence that we crave, but that’s all it is. A sense. When you take the question of why to a cosmic level it finds no answer. Meaning falls away and all we are left with is a cold indifferent truly absurd universe.
Here is where run the risk of throwing out the baby with the holy bathwater in the modern age. This is what greatly concerned Fredrick Nietche when prophesied about the death of God. Something that Viktor Frankl subsequently called the existential vacuum.
God provided us with the belief that our lives meant something as a whole. It was encompassing. The big issue that nihilism presents – what I believe to be at the crux of the modern day mental health crisis – is that meaning of our lives becomes contingent.
It’s contingent on you being a valuable member of your country, or community, or family. Of course theses things are important. They do give our lives a huge amount of necessary meaning.
But the issue arises when we lose our job, when we get divorced or a family member dies. The issue comes when our health fails us – when we suffer a debilitating disease – because then what?
If you can’t fufill your role as a valuable member of your community then what?
This is when the existential vacuum sucks the life out of us. This is when the worm eats whatever remaining life we have left for breakfast.
Friedrich Nietzsche is regularly quoted as saying those who have a why can bear almost any how.
What if the only way to prevent the existential worm at the core from eating you alive is to give yourself up to something? Perhaps we need an unshakable why to counteract the crushing how of existence?
Now there’s a question to chew on.
One of the major things that people struggle with is the underlying sense that something is missing in their lives.
It’s just, they can’t put a finger on it. Even when they have everything on paper, they still feel something is off. The existential grumblings beneath the surface torment them. So much so they can’t even sit still for fear of having to confront it.
But confront it we must. As it turns out, the worm holds the fucking key.
This is part four of a series of posts on the subject of stalling in life.
Part 1: Stalling: The Aerodynamics of Life
Part 2: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift
Part 3: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift (2)
You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://wiseandshinezine.com
You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com
You can also email him directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org