We Are in a Collective Existential Identity Crisis

Why this is a good thing.

Posted Aug 28, 2020

Noah Buscher via Unsplash
Human holding up mirror in a field
Source: Noah Buscher via Unsplash

One of the core things that makes us human is our quest to understand our identity—who we are. Try to describe the things that make up who you are and what you love to do. For fun, I will do that now: I am a triathlete, sports aficionado, lover of people, advocate, storyteller, and an avid outdoors person.

Every area of my identity has been touched by this virus. What I have observed since COVID-19 began is that so many of us are struggling to engage with our identities for the sole reason that our identities are being challenged. We cannot function in the same way that we used to. All of my triathlons were cancelled this season; I can't attend sports in person; I am unable to hug those I love that are outside of my household, let alone sit inside with them; when I am working as a community organizer, we are considering room capacity, the weather, and how to communicate the message in a way that is effective due to safety concerns.

The stories that I tell now have changed. Although still human, my perspective is shifting, and I love being outdoors still, but it has turned inward more than it had been before—often dodging people on the trail or spending more time in my garden alone. In fact, I cannot think of one area of my life that looks the same as it did six months ago. Each one of our identities as humans have been significantly challenged since the beginning of COVID-19. 

For some, this is so painful that they are trying to continue life as it "used to be." For example, some people still refuse to wear a mask, refuse to practice social distancing, refuse to ignore prejudice and racism—even on a corporate level, companies are still demanding the same levels of productivity as they had expected us to perform during pre-pandemic times. It is too much for these individuals and companies to acknowledge that they are different, that the world is different than it was six months ago.

Why is that? Well, human identity and purpose go hand-in-hand1. Questions of identity evoke questions of purpose such as, "Why am I here?" "What is the point" and "Does this really matter?" This is where existential crises occur. It is where growth occurs as well. 

If we are courageous enough to ask ourselves if these identities actually matter, we may be met with other existential fears (or I actually think it is more helpful to define them as existential truths). These truths are: groundlessness, our impermanence, isolation and ultimately, meaning. Often we follow a script for life and don't realize that our life is our own until something interrupts our automatic process. In fact, we often do not notice that our life was meaningful until it is challenged.2 

And when our meaning gets challenged, we often work harder at trying to preserve the meaning we once had rather than looking for new and creative ways to cultivate new forms of meaning—and identity. What if we, as individuals and as a collective society, challenged our identities as they once were and were courageous enough to ask ourselves what scripts we were handed and what new identities we are willing to create. I can only imagine the existential resilience3 that would ensure rather than the dogmatic responses of defending our previous identities.

Ask yourself: Do I enjoy what I spend my time doing? Are there institutions or ways of thinking that I rigidly defended in the past? Is there an expectation I had for myself that I no longer desire? Is there something different I want for myself and for my generation? Are my relationships healing and healthy for me? Am I believing this because I was told to or is this my own explored belief? Am I buying into ideas of authority because these are my ideas of what is good or is it what authority has told me to believe? Is there new information I am learning? This is our opportunity to question it all—and that, my friends, is a good thing. 


 1. Van Tongeren, D. R. & Van Tongeren, S. A. S. (2020). The Courage To Suffer: a new clinical framework for life's greatest crises. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.

2. Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2014). Life is pretty meaningful. American Psychologist, 69(6), 561–574. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035049

3. Van Tongeren, D. R. & Van Tongeren, S. A. S. (2020). The Courage To Suffer: a new clinical framework for life's greatest crises. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.