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A Conversation About Existential Angst with Tim Booth

The James front man discusses coping with the fear of death.

Key points

  • There are generally three ways that people cope with existential angst or the fear of death.
  • Some cope with the fear of dying by trying to control aspects of their life to avoid death and others live recklessly to ignore death.
  • A better way to cope with the fear of death is to focus on, embrace, and pursue one's purpose in life.

This week on The Hardcore Humanism Podcast we are talking with musician, singer songwriter Tim Booth of the band James. James has a new album out called All The Colours of You. One of the themes addressed in this album is how we understand and cope with existential angst or fear of death. This fear can be such a powerful force in people’s lives, to the point where it’s overwhelming. In the worst cases, it can cause us to worry constantly, panic, and even fall into depression as we struggle with the concept of death.

Drew de F Fawkes on Creative Commons, used with permission
Source: Drew de F Fawkes on Creative Commons, used with permission

There are generally three ways that we can cope with existential angst. The first is that we give into our fears, and try to control various aspects of our life in the hope of preventing death. So, maybe we avoid riding in cars, on planes or even in some cases leaving the house — anything we can do to control our fears.

Another way of handling our existential angst is to pretend that we don’t care – a “hope I die before I get old” mentality. So, we are reckless, perhaps abusing drugs and alcohol and doing whatever we want to our body and mind in the hopes that we can just ignore our fear of death.

Neither of these ways of coping with the fear of death is generally adaptive because we either have to compromise our happiness by being too controlling or risk our health and well-being by being too seemingly carefree. And we’re not building a life that would naturally take our attention away from death. In these models, we are avoiding rather than engaging in our lives, and not generating any sense of fulfillment and growth.

Then there is the third way to cope with existential angst, which is to recognize that yes, we are going to die. But the best way of managing the fear of death is to focus on, embrace and pursue our purpose in life. By giving our attention to what feels meaningful to us, we feel connected to ourselves and connected to the world around us. This purpose-driven approach grounds us in our life rather than only on our death. As we build our lives with what we hope to achieve, how we enjoy ourselves, and how we connect with others, this naturally draws us in to focus on our life rather than simply on death. As we grow and become the person we want to be, we don’t fear death because we know we are making the most of our life.

Booth talks about this issue in a couple of ways. First, he talks about managing existential angst in terms of pursuing his music. One of the things Tim describes is the importance of improvisation and getting into a state of flow as he and his band create new music and perform. Tim also discusses how he has spent a great deal of his life exploring different methods of coping with feelings like anxiety or depression that may emerge from existential angst. Tim shares his experiences using therapy, meditation, dance and psychedelic drugs under the guidance of a shaman as ways of exploring his emotions and beliefs in his ongoing process of evolving and growing.

One of the most important takeaways that we can have in our own exploration of a fear of death is that there are many possible ways that we can cope. There are medications, therapies, thoughts and behaviors that all may play a role in our unique exploration and management of our fear. And this can be an ongoing process in our life as we pursue our purpose. The key is to be open-minded to different options and see which approach works best for each of us, and which makes us feel that we are living our best and most authentic life.


You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with Tim Booth on the Hardcore Humanism Podcast at or on your favorite podcast app.