For a greater part of my later years in high school and my initial years of college I suffered from a bout of existential despair. There were protracted periods of time when questioning my world view and my way of life resulted in an overwhelming sense of futility and insignificance. I was so overwhelmed as an angst ridden teen that I made desperate attempts at suspending introspection. Addictive gaming. Binge watching shows and movies. A couple of months of aggressive smoking. A couple of months of aggressive drinking. Obsessing over a girl. The usual suspects of teenage waywardness.
YouthKiAwaaz Link: If You’re Dealing With An Existential Crisis This Post is Definitely For You
A couple of years into college this existential despair manifested in a particularly spooky manner. At the time, I had secured many of the academic outcomes I had coveted. Perfect scores, a couple of scholarships, significant progress with my passion side project and interviews lined up with the dream firms in my field. Yet suddenly a paralyzing resignation overtook me. That’s when I was forced to confront the spiritual sickness that had been growing inside of me.
Anecdotally speaking, there seems to be a crisis of spiritual happiness amongst folks like us. (Note that I’m using the word “spiritual” in reference to the human spirit or soul). In college I have found that students suddenly losing steam despite knocking over coveted academic and professional goals is surprisingly commonplace. From my experience in school and college, the exhibition of addictive/obsessive behavior (whether it involves video games, money, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, food, a relationship, films, pop culture, or even following sport) seems to be, in part, an expression of spiritual despair. I am even convinced that the prevalence of despair is one the drivers of the mental health crisis plaguing our communities. An individual’s disposition to subscribe to a culture of spite, selfishness, apathy, fickle-mindedness and ignorance also seems to be linked to spiritual despair. Particularly the suspension of introspection due to a latent fear of the answers to existential questions. So what do I mean by “spiritual/existential despair”? And how does one address it?
If you’re reading this post, it’s fairly likely that you had to confront questions like these.
How much did you score in your board/entrance examinations? After that, did you get admission into a prestigious and selective college? After that, did you get a job at a big name MNC? After that, how fancy was your wedding? After that, how did your spouse answer the previous questions? And then, how big is your house? What car do you drive? What is your current net worth? And eventually, how much did your kid score in his/her board/entrance examinations? … the cycle continues.
Those questions were a small sliver of the many identity quantifying questions we are confronted with as we progress through our lives. The proliferation of social media doesn’t seem to be helping.
“The effect, suggested Hanna Krasnova and her colleagues, was a result of the well-known social-psychology phenomenon of social comparison. It was further exacerbated by a general similarity of people’s social networks to themselves: because the point of comparison is like-minded peers, learning about the achievements of others hits even harder.” (How Facebook Makes us Unhappy. Sept 2013. The New Yorker.)
My general point here is that we seem to have a culture that promotes linking our identity/self-worth to certain outcomes. Based on this idea, my experiences, and my conversations with friends and family, there broadly seem to be four sources of despair.
- The despair of disillusionment:
This despair takes root when the goal or outcome you’ve considered to be the light at the end of the tunnel stubbornly leaves you spiritually dissatisfied.
2. The despair of falling short
When your identity and self-worth are linked to certain outcomes and you fall short of those outcomes, a despair characterized by resentment and frustration is inevitable.
Perhaps the mental health crises in elite institutions around the globe is a signal that there is a profound negative consequence to an outcome oriented culture.
“The recent suicides must be seen as a part of growing trend among all the elite institutes in the country, particularly the IITs.” (Getting Things Right About Suicides in IITs. Oct 2015. The Hindu.’)
“Nationally, the suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds has increased modestly but steadily since 2007: from 9.6 deaths per 100,000 to 11.1, in 2013 (the latest year available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). But a survey of college counseling centers has found that more than half their clients have severe psychological problems, an increase of 13 percent in just two years. Anxiety and depression, in that order, are now the most common mental health diagnoses among college students, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.” (Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection. July 2015. New York Times )
3. The Despair of a Bursting Bubble:
You confront this despair when you are forced to question your world view and your way of life due to jolting external events. Perhaps something you witnessed and/or experienced makes you think about the sheer scale of the injustice and suffering in the world. Perhaps the death of someone close to your heart makes you think about the temporal nature of life.
This was the primary source of my despair. A couple of deaths in my family (my father and my grandfather) made me question the meaning and purpose of my everyday activities. At the time I had also discovered that a person who was really close to me was abused. Of course this turned my world upside down and I really wanted to understand how something so royally messed up could happen. I eventually started to aggressively look into social issues. I particularly remember the profound impact that the works of the journalist P. Sainath had on me.
“Who were Nero’s guests? What sort of a mindset did it require for you to pop one more fig into your mouth as another human being burst into flames? What sort of mindset did it require for you to drop those grapes into your jaws as another pathetic person on a stake burned to provide you illumination?
These were the sensitive elite of Rome. These were the poets, the singers, the musicians, the artists, the historians, the intelligentsia. How many of them raised a protest? How many of them put up their hands to say, this is wrong and this should not happen and cannot continue? To the best of our knowledge … nobody did that. For me, I always wondered, who were Nero’s guests? After five and a half years of covering farmer’s suicides, I think I have my answer. I think you have the answer.
I tell you this — We can differ on how to solve this problem. We can differ on even our analysis of the problem. But maybe we can make one starting point. We can all agree that we will not be Nero’s guests.” (P Sainath. From: Nero’s Guests (Documentary)).
4. The Despair of Avoidance:
This despair is a consequence of suspending introspection due to the overwhelming nature of dealing with questions of identity, life, purpose, injustice and suffering. My interpretation of a song called the Unthinking Majority by Serj Tankian, is that we inebriate our minds with metaphorical antidepressants (by obsessing over video games, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, food, a relationship, films, money, pop culture or even following sport) to make our lives more tolerable. (If Serj intended to be critical of the use of medication in treating mental illness, I do not endorse his position).
Dealing with an Outcome Oriented Culture
At its core, existential despair is about questioning one’s identity, world view and purpose. Am I a collection of grades, degrees, awards and jobs? Am I the sum of my assets? Is my self-worth determined by the number of people who know my name and sing me praises? Is my identity the sum total of my “achievements”?
Poetry and TV show lovers like talking about the profound wisdom packed in the poem Ozymandias by Shelley (also the title of an Emmy winning episode in Breaking Bad). To me, the poem seems to imply that, obsessing about social status, and prestige, and power, and legacy, and building business empires, and what not, is almost sad and comical when one thinks on a geological time scale.
So the key insight seems to be linking your identity to how you do things rather than what you’ve done or hope to do. In other words, shifting from an outcome-oriented culture to a process-oriented culture. Does this mean, the outcomes are completely irrelevant? No. The outcomes still inform your process. Yet the process is what defines you. But now the outcomes have been relegated to the role of signals in a constant iterative process of growth. Since your process is your choice and is always under your control (and any negative outcome, only serves to improve your process) you have a constant source of spiritual strength. This is why, though it may seem counter intuitive, I’m convinced that being process oriented gives you a much better shot at getting those coveted outcomes in any case.
When I was in the eighth grade studying in the Rishi Valley School, my class teacher (a brilliant man by the name of Venki Ramachandran) walked into class and declared that we would have unsupervised tests. He said that tests were an opportunity for students to understand their grasp on the course material and that he wanted us to make how we learnt the subject our top concern. Our grades in tests were supposed to help us understand what learning methods/approaches worked and what didn’t. This was a profound lesson for me.
When I eventually transferred to a day school in Hyderabad, it was amazing to see the lengths student would go to, in order to cheat on a test. Bribing examiners, stealing question papers, faking certificates, using “influence” to whisk away question papers and generally coming up with elaborate cheating strategies. But can we really blame the students when they are constantly bombarded with the idea that the only thing that matters and determines their worth is their final grade. Would it really be surprising if this culture remains even after the students leave the classroom? It seems to me that eventually those same students would be willing to adopt any measure necessary when they graduate to the next cultural obsession, the pursuit of wealth and power.
So let’s promote a culture that values how we play the game rather than whether or not we’ve won or lost. (Reference to “Poem Alumnus Football” by Grantland Rice. Used in the Sports Day Pledge at the Rishi Valley School).
Dealing with Our Insignificance (in space and time)
“The Universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettling big place. The fact which, for the sake of a quiet life, most people tend to ignore. Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings, in fact, do. For instance, in one corner of the Eastern Galactic Arm lies the great forest planet Oglaroon. The entire ‘intelligent’ population of which lives permanently in one fairly small and crowded nut tree. In which tree they’re born, live, fall in love, carve tiny, speculative articles in the bark on the meaning of life, the futility of death, and the importance of birth control, fight a few – very minor – wars, and eventually die strapped to the underside of some of the less accessible outer branches. In fact, the only Oglaroonians who ever leave their tree at all are those who are hurled out for the heinous crime of wondering whether any of the other trees might be capable of supporting life at all, or indeed be anything other than illusions brought on by eating too many Oglanuts. Exotic though this behaviour may seem, there is no life-form in the galaxy not in some way guilty of the same thing. Which is why the Total Perspective Vortex is as horrific as it undoubtedly is. For when you are put in the Vortex, you are given just one, momentary glimpse of the size of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation along with a tiny little marker saying, “You are here”.” (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams).
Thinking about the size of the cosmos and the infinitely small portion of time our lives represent on a cosmological time scale can be pretty overwhelming if we take ourselves and our “achievements” too seriously.
This is why I think appreciating our tiny place in the Universe and the fleeting nature of our lives, can be an empowering experience. It’s hard to take our “successes” and “failures” too seriously when we do so. How we live each day of our lives will start to matter more than the “achievements/outcomes” we accumulate. One of the keys to spiritual happiness is in relishing the human experience and in accepting our freedom to choose how we live our lives on a daily basis. In other words, what matters most is how we do things and our choice to do those things. Not the results of what we do. This insight works in tandem with the insight from the previous section. The profound wisdom of Carl Sagan tremendously influenced my outlook in this regard. (Carl Sagan – You are Here (Pale Blue Dot)).
Dealing with a Sense of Futility
The list of social, economic, political and environmental challenges facing our generation is pretty long and pretty overwhelming. So it’s easy to feel a sense of futility when thinking about the scale of the problems, suffering and injustice in the world.
However as discussed in the earlier sections, I find that a paralyzing sense of futility is a consequence of focusing exclusively on an outcome/goal. It stems from a mindset that questions what a single person can really do to solve the big, bad problems facing the world. So when you shift to a process oriented outlook, you derive spiritual strength from making a difference through you’re daily process irrespective of how far away or hard the goal giving you direction is. Consider the wisdom packed into the very last scene in season 1 of the TV Show True Detective. The two main characters of the show talk about the eternal conflict between good and evil by metaphorically discussing the light and darkness in the night sky.
Relishing the Human Experience:
We’ve established that dealing with spiritual despair involves adopting a process oriented outlook predicated on relishing the human experience. Now how does one relish the human experience?
- Nurturing our Innate Inquisitive Nature:
I am convinced that nothing enriches our lives more than satisfying the thirst of our innate inquisitive nature. Exploring new cultures, seeking out new experiences, understanding the world around us, expanding our creative/artistic wings, experimenting with ideas, meeting different people, and so on and so forth. All endeavors that have been fundamental to the human experience and thereby critical for spiritual happiness.
“Curiosity has been identified as a driving force in child development and as one of the most important spurs to educational attainment. The pedagogical literature encourages teachers to stimulate curiosity, provides practical guidelines for doing so, and decries the educational system’s tendency to quell it. Curiosity has also been cited as a major impetus behind scientific discovery, possibly eclipsing even the drive for economic gain. Furthermore, curiosity is seen as a significant response evoked by literature and art…” (Loewenstein, George. The Psychology of Curiosity. Carnegie Melon University. 1994)
2. Civic Engagement:
“Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.” (Gawande, Atul. Hellhole. The New Yorker. 2009)
“The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey of nearly 30,000 found that levels of civic engagement — how much residents trusted others, socialized with others, and joined with others, among other measures — predicted the quality of community life and residents’ happiness far better than levels of community education or income.” (Saguaro Center. Harvard Kennedy School of Government).
Civic engagement also promotes a culture of gratitude, humility and service. If you are reading this post, chances are that you belong to a spectacularly privileged minority in our country. It is easy to lose that perspective in a world where being apathetic to the plights of your peers is unfortunately commonplace. Once you gain that perspective, you develop a greater appreciation for the opportunities in your life and make the most of them. More importantly civic engagement, helps an individual understand the interconnected nature of economic, environmental and social systems. The insight that individual prosperity and collective prosperity only work in tandem promotes a culture of humility and service.
“In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” (In Praise of Gratitude. Harvard Medical School. )
“Be selfless, if only for selfish reasons: do good, feel good — it really works! One of the best ways to make ourselves happier is to make someone else happier. It’s a kind of gratification that never palls. Some people think that this good feeling detracts from the altruism of any virtuous act — but to my mind, the fact that we feel good when we do good for others is one of the best aspects of human nature.” (Be selfless, If Only for Selfish Reasons. Gretchen Rubin. Feb 2015).
3. Building and Sustaining Positive Relationships:
Learn not to be or be around (1) the gossip, (2) the temperamental, (3) the victim, (4) the self-absorbed, (5) the envious, (6) the manipulator, (7) the dementor, (8) the twisted, (9) the judgemental, and (10) the arrogant. (10 Toxic People You Should Avoid at all Costs. Forbes. Nov 2015).
Positive social connections “not only give us pleasure, they also influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking. Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.” (The Health Benefits of Strong Relationships. Harvard Medical School. Dec 2010. )
4. Staying Physically Active and Healthy:
(Happiness Fitness Infographic. Huffington Post. Sep 2014)
5. Spending time in Nature
“In today’s age of high technology, research shows that our hunger for the natural world still endures. In fact, our connections with nature could just be the best medicine for people of all ages—improving our health, happiness, and well-being. Those same connections could also heal the planet.” (Does Nature Make Us Happy? Psychology Today. Mar 2014).
6. Developing Self Control and Discipline
“The more self-control people reported having, the more satisfied they reported being with their lives. And contrary to what the researchers were expecting, people with more self-control were also more likely to be happy in the short-term. In fact, when they further analyzed the data, they found that such people’s increased happiness to a large extent accounted for the increased life satisfaction.” (Study: People with a Lot of Self-Control Are Happier. The Atlantic. Jul 2013).
Implication for Education:
The challenge for elite schools seems to be reframing academic and professional goals such that they allow students to develop a process oriented outlook based on relishing the human experience.
Schools would be better off presenting examinations as a means for students to develop self-discipline rather than a measure of innate ability. I am confident that students will develop an intuitive understanding for the importance of self-discipline for relishing the human experience as students are forced to balance their time between various activities that they enjoy and find enriching.
In general, the negative effects of schools placing excessive emphasis on examinations, and insufficient emphasis on nurturing curiosity/passion and a student’s approach to learning, is something that is exhaustively discussed in public forums.
What some school executives, teachers and parents perhaps need to think about more is why the students that they might label as “spoilt”, “brats”, “bad company”, “rotten apples” and so on behave the way that they do. Whether it is underage substance abuse, inappropriate language, or inappropriate behavior, I think that in a lot of cases students are dealing with questions regarding identity, purpose and way of life. A spiritual void to understand themselves, their way of life, the world around them and their place in the universe. Taking disciplinary actions against such students is always an option, but perhaps it would be wise to consider promoting a learning environment that facilitates self-discovery and philosophical growth. I don’t necessarily think that we should get high school kids to sit through classes on Jean Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard. However I do think that it’s imperative for schools to have educational experiences that promote introspection, collaborative learning and civic engagement. The team that I work with at the Student Think Tank for India is trying to crack this very nut.
Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end of my existential exposition.