The Existential Crisis You Are (or Should Be) Having

This pandemic offers the opportunity to face existential angst and grow.

Posted Apr 22, 2020

Alexi Berry, used with permission
Source: Alexi Berry, used with permission

I am writing this as a follow-up to my last post, “What Is Your COVID-19 Story?” At the end of that post, as with many of my posts, I advocated a more mindful approach to the pandemic, culminating in choosing who you are. What I did not write about, though it might be assumed, is the existential crisis that many are, and probably should be, having in this uncertain time. 

The motivation to finally take this step and write about it came from several sources: A friend asked why I haven’t been reminding people they will eventually die, and therefore they should savor life more; in a class I teach, when a student mentioned she was going through an existential crisis because of the pandemic, I replied, “Good,” and that led to a discussion; and a student (in the same class) sent a good article I read about making use of the anxiety inherent in the pandemic. 

I identify as an existential therapist. One of the best books I have read on the topic is by Irvin Yalom, called Existential Psychotherapy (1980). In it, he identifies four main topics in existential psychotherapy: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. It is my intention in this post to discuss how COVID-19, or any pandemic, affects an individual’s relation to these topics. I will begin with the easiest. 

Death, and the reduction of it, is the main reason much of the world is practicing social distancing. Flattening the curve is the goal, and “the curve” is the infection rate. The infection rate has burdened the health care system, which results in more deaths.

It is reasoned the goal of social distancing and the shutdown of business is to reduce deaths. However, people have died and will continue to do so. Though the elderly and those with compromised immune symptoms have the highest risk, no one is guaranteed immunity. Some seemingly healthy younger people, and even children, have died. 

This should raise the thought about one’s own death or, perhaps, one’s denial of death. In existential therapy, there is an assumption that everyone fears death, and if they are not consciously aware of it, they are in denial of it. Denial of death is not healthy. Otto Rank said, “Some refuse the loan of life to avoid the debt of death” (Yalom, 2008). The idea is that one must face the inevitability of their death, the impermanence of their existence, the fact that they and everyone and everything they love and hold dear will one day no longer exist.

This sounds like common sense. Everyone “knows” they will die. Yet few feel it, accept it, or carry it with them. Simon Critchley credits Michel de Montaigne carrying death with him when he “developed the habit of having death not just in his imagination but constantly in his mouth." (2020). Most do not really face their death, which, according to many great philosophers, is necessary. Critchley goes on to quote Montaigne, “He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” All of this supports the philosophy that one benefits from meditating on their death, and therefore lives more fully. This pandemic, as Critchley also argues in his piece, causes us anxiety and, likely, death anxiety. This anxiety “needs to be acknowledged, shaped and honed into an [sic] vehicle of liberation” (Critchley, 2020, p.12). 

Learning to face death leading to freedom is a good segue into the next major topic: freedom. Besides the freedom obtained above, freedom in existential therapy focuses a good deal on the freedom each individual has, and the responsibility for the choices that are made. At the same time, most existential therapists are aware that many choices are made unconsciously, from drives, biases, and as a result of one’s history. As such, the existential therapist seeks to free one from their distorted or dysfunctional thinking, help them to make more conscious choices and stop blaming outside circumstances, and take responsibility for their life. This was a major theme of my last post, and as such, I direct the reader there for any further elucidation. 

Isolation, a theme in existentialism, seems quite commonplace during this pandemic. People, due to the risk of infection, are suffering and sometimes dying alone, in hospitals and at home. Their loved ones are forbidden to be of support. Many more are self-isolating and are either alone or with a limited number of people (and perhaps wishing they were alone). In an existential sense, we are all alone. No one really truly knows another. No one can claim to know all of another’s thoughts and feelings, nor everything there is to know. Many claim they do not even know themselves. Isolation of this sort abounds. 

This pandemic has made that all the more evident. Many a podcast focuses on coping with the loneliness the pandemic has wrought. People are reconnecting, which certainly is positive. But isolation is another existential topic people avoid facing. Friends, family, partners, and lovers cannot mask the fact that every human is truly alone to experience this world as only they will. This pandemic has confronted many with that.

Some have retreated, and some, I am sure, have accepted it and made use of it. A goal of existential therapy is to help the client with intimacy, but also to understand its limitations. One must come to grips with the fact no one will truly ever understand you completely, and with that knowledge, one must endure. 

The final aspect of existential psychotherapy is meaninglessness. Everyone can imagine an individual, real or fictitious, who laments their life not having meaning. Not feeling like one’s life has meaning can lead to psychopathy. Existential therapists attempt to help their clients find meaning in their lives and in their actions.

However, this pandemic has caused many to question their meaning or the meaning of life in general. Many people are unemployed, and for better or worse, many derive their meaning from their work. For some without work, life has no meaning. Many will lose their savings, their businesses, perhaps their livelihood. This will certainly lead to many searching for meaning. 

Even if none of the above occurs, the wealth of time the pandemic has created for many might lead to a search for more meaning. At the very least, I would hope that one looks at their values, what makes life worth living, what has meaning to them. There might be a realignment of priorities that create a more fulfilling life. Questioning one’s meaning in life needn’t be solemn or depressing. It can create focus and a reprioritization of actions.

My goal in writing this post is to challenge everyone to have an existential crisis during this pandemic and not only come out of it, but to be forever changed positively as a result. Crises are an opportunity for growth. It would be a pity to experience something of this magnitude and not grow psychologically from it. 

Copyright William Berry, 2020.

References

Critchley, S., (April 11, 2020) To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/opinion/covid-philosophy-anxiety-death.html

Yalom, I., (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. Basic Books, New York, N.Y. 

Yalom, I., (2008). Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.