Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Existential Concussions and Meaningless Suffering

Standing on the abyss of nothingness

Existential concussion: A cause and consequence of acute suffering characterized by a lack of meaning. A non-exhaustive list of symptoms includes:

  • Profound disorientation in the world such that a person does not know who she is, where she belongs, or how she fits in the world;
  • Compromised decision making ability such that one cannot make reasonable and informed decisions;
  • Significant difficulty in identifying what is appropriately one's responsibility and what is not;
  • Near incapacity to find meaning in one’s suffering and subsequently transform that suffering.

Existential concussions can happen in myriad ways. They can be self-inflicted, inflicted by others or the conditions around us, or most often some combination of the two. They can happen to people who experience catastrophic loss, live in hostile and oppressive conditions, or most relevant to this blog, have reached a certain point in their addictions. With addicts, we often consistently crash into the same issues and problems in life and repeatedly make the same mistakes. All of these crashes bring about an existential concussion, and that concussion further increases the frequency and severity of our crashes.

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Everyone’s life involves suffering but not everyone experiences an existential concussion. No one is immune from the pain and suffering that are part of living. Suffering just is a part of life. Nietzsche makes the point clearly, “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” It all comes down to the meaning one makes of suffering.

Nietzsche is right that we can and do tolerate all sorts of suffering as long as we can make sense of it in some ways. Some of those ways of making meaning are positive and others terribly negative. The important thing is that meaning is still possible; this is what staves off an existential concussion. What a person cannot abide, Nietzsche claims, is when there is no “answer to his scream of the question: to what end suffering?” Meaningless suffering is intolerable and life destroying. This is the existential concussion.

There are different types of suffering and different types or ways to make meaning. Some suffering is inflicted externally to me and I have no control over it. I cannot control the loss and suffering caused by a natural disaster. In cases like this, people often ask, “how could something like this happen?” We try to make sense of it. In other words, we try to give it meaning. Some people might appeal to God as a way to make sense. For them, God must have some bigger plan that though beyond human comprehension, is taken as God’s will. God provides the context of meaning even if it eludes us. But a person of faith who loses that faith may be prone to an existential concussion if faith is not restored or if he does not find a new framework for meaning.

Some forms of suffering seem a little more in an individual’s control; each of us can make choices that do not increase and perhaps reduce the opportunities to suffer. I can give meaning to my suffering if it serves a higher purpose or if it is done out of love and devotion. I can also give meaning to my suffering if it fits within my understandings of how the world works or is organized. But when those frameworks collapse or are destroyed or I entirely remove myself from them, the result is an existential concussion.

The most severe addicts often no longer know who they are or where they fit in the world. They may have lost the people, projects, and aspirations with which they had most closely identified. Their decisions are driven by their use: how to get what they want and if necessary, how to hide this fact from whomever remains around them. They often trade away their long term interests for short term gains (that is, if they can still draw this distinction).  Severe addicts often cannot take appropriate responsibility for their actions because that would involve being able to take stock of what she has been doing and how her actions affect herself and others. Her intentions may be largely opaque to her. And with so much of her world collapsed, she can no longer see any meaning or value in her suffering. She suffers an existential concussion.

In the most advanced stages of an addiction and with the most severe of existential concussion, a person stands on an abyss of meaninglessness and nothingness. How does she not fall into that abyss? How does she not jump into that abyss? In other words, how does a person with an existential concussion begin to find or make meaning? That’s the subject of future posts.

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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