It’s not always the case, but a sense of meaninglessness can be accompanied by feelings of anxiety. This might be in any of a hundred different ways. For some it might be an occasional pang, triggered by the ending of a happy family gathering and the departing of guests. For others it might be more constant, perhaps in the form of intrusive questions about the meaning of one’s life. Some may carry it round all day, a small dark hollow deep in their chest, while for others it might flicker into consciousness as they linger on the threshold between sleep and wakefulness, before fading into nothing for the rest of the day.
There are those who may be greatly afflicted by this anxiety, whilst others who are curious about these same big questions may not feel any degree of anxiety at all. Instead they might feel pleasantly fascinated about being alive and a burning wonder about what it might all be about. And for the rest, just like every human experience, there is a spectrum and we all will fall somewhere on it, between the extremes at either end.
For those people that are troubled by feelings of anxiety in whatever form, and to whatever degree, they might take comfort from the perspective of the late existential psychologist Rollo May.
He said that our existential anxiety is one of the things that makes us human, as we are the only species that are aware of, and reflect upon, the inevitability of our own death.
But he believed that it is this awareness of our death that motivates us to make the most of the life we have.
He also believed that anxiety was not simply a symptom that should be removed but instead could act as a gateway for exploration into the meaning of life. He claimed that it is anxiety that drives our creativity and our search for meaning.
If this is true, anxiety is not something we should pathologise or fear. It is normal, it is natural and it is inevitable. Indeed Kurt Goldstein, the German psychiatrist and neurologist, claimed that “Anxiety is not something we have but something that we are”.
How refreshing to think that anxiety is perhaps something that is simply a healthy and normal (for want of a better word!) part of being human. Just because a person has anxiety it does not mean they are weak or inadequate in any way. It might simply be that they are more in touch with the realities of human existence.
And so, as distressing and unpleasant as it can be, it is not necessarily something we should seek to medicate or anaesthetise ourselves from if we possibly can.
Rather, if it is able to stimulate our creativity in finding answers to questions about meaning, and helps us to appreciate the true value of our lives, then might it even be turned into a force for good?
This might seem unrealistic for someone in the midst of acute existential anxiety and this post might be of little comfort. But keep an open mind if you can – one day in the future you might, in fact you almost certainly will, be the other side of the gateway of meaning. And it might just be your anxiety that helps you to get there.