A meditation on living with existential dread
Death doesn’t make me as anxious as life—and living—does.
And I know I can’t be the only one. Right?
I don’t know for sure if that’s something everyone feels. Like, I’m sure there are those who know of what I speak, but I’m not sure that’s everyone. So if you relate, let’s talk. And if you don’t, stay with me still: this may help you relate better to some people you care about.
I’m not being unnecessarily morbid. Maybe I’m not even being morbid at all, because this isn’t a meditation on death—on the contrary, it’s a meditation on life. And although it’s a meditation partly inspired by recent publicised suicides—in the larger world and in Nigeria—it’s also something I’ve been thinking about for a few years.
I’ve experienced existential dread for years, going back to my late teens, if not earlier. And by existential dread, I mean, like I said earlier, fear of life—not of living in itself, although that’s part of it, but of its potential meaninglessness.
In such moments, your own existence can feel like an intolerable burden that you didn’t even get a choice about.
In such moments, not existing may seem appealing.
Believe me, I know.
So when people take their lives and everyone asks, “Why on earth would anyone take their life?” I feel a sense of wry amusement. A part of me is like, “Really though?” I mean, I can’t ever say why any particular person took their life, but I totally can see why anyone would. And I don’t just mean because of mental illness, which, while it appears to be involved in the majority of cases, does not explain all cases. (A newly published study by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, found that over half of people who took their lives “did not have a known mental health condition.”)
From available evidence we already know that feeling hopeless, feeling socially isolated and feeling like a burden are strongly associated with suicides. And who hasn’t felt either or both?
So when people claim to be unable to understand suicide I wonder: is it that they really can’t, or they just don’t want to? I sometimes imagine suicide being like someone resigning from a job we ourselves often wish to be rid of, and maybe we resist understanding their resigning because it forces us to remember things we’re trying not to think about. But I may be wrong.
I’m not saying life is like that job, mind you. I’m saying there’s times when life feels like that job. And the problem with feelings is, while they persist, they carry all the gravity of reality.
I’m also not saying an existential dread is why anyone of these people, or anyone else at all, took their lives. Nor am I saying I want to take mine. I am saying only I can relate with wanting to stop existing. And while I’ve never actually made an attempt, I have had moments—several of them—when I’ve like it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to be done with life.
It is in those moments that my Christian faith has been of great help.
There’s a lot of research supporting religious faith as a protective factor against suicide. I can testify. And I don’t mean that in the sense that being a person of faith has made the dread go away. I’m not sure that’s even how it’s supposed to work—it definitely hasn’t worked that way for me.
What I do know, though, is that faith has proved immeasurably helpful in those moments: when the weight of existence feels unbearable it’s helped to have something I believe to be objectively real to hold on to outside of myself.
My relationship with faith is complicated, though, because it comes with its own responsibilities and challenges. I have always been amused by people who imagine faith to be a simple crutch for the emotionally weak. Sure, I see how it looks that way from outside, but from inside? Faith only looks comforting the way parenthood looks cute. The comfort of faith, like the delight of being a parent, lies on the other side of the hard work of long-term investment and practice.
Let’s just say, if comfort was the point, there are easier options, for believers and parents alike.
And the research supports this. (For faith I mean, not parenting.) You see, the research on religion and mental health is quite mixed. Some of it seems to portray religion as protective, while some suggests it may worsen mental health. But “religion” is a very broad category. So there’s been researchers who have further broken it down to intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity. And it appears that when religious faith is pursued for its own intrinsic value, it appears to go with good mental health. But when used as a means to some other end—money, power, social status, and so on—religiosity seems associated with worse mental health.
Like I said, it’s complicated.
Anyway, the point is, existential dread is something I still experience. And I wonder sometimes if some decided to end it all not because they were depressed, but because the weight of their own existence became too much to bear. (Or both, and I can only imagine how terrifying that must be). And I wonder sometimes if, but for faith, I would too.
I said at the start that this was a meditation on life. I guess what I want to say is, existential dread is a thing, perhaps more so for some than for others. And if you relate, I hope you find some comfort in knowing you are not alone. Life really is heavy, and it falls to some of us to feel its gravity more keenly, as it falls to others to know its lightness more easily. Be grateful for those others: we need them to remind us of the lightness as they (however little some may appreciate it) need us to remind them of its gravity.
If you don’t relate, you may be one of those who more naturally appreciates the joy of life. We need you. We need you to bear with us, and we need you to need us, too, even if you find us a bit extra. But most of all we need you to remind us that a weightlessness to life is possible.
I’ll close with an old saying: “Life is hard, but God is good.” Make of that what you will.
If you’re considering suicide, don’t hesitate to reach out wherever you are (the Nigeria Suicide Prevention Initiative number is +234-806-210-6493). If you want to chat about any of this, hit me up in the comments or on social media—or email me (email@example.com).