Running to catch the sun
We are all heading for the grave in an indifferent universe. How do we cope with such existential concerns?
So you run and you run to catch up
with the sun but it's sinking,
Racing around to come up behind you
The sun is the same in a relative way,
but you're older,
Shorter of breath, and one day closer
‘Time’ by Pink Floyd
The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973
HUMAN vanity often drives us to exalt our unique intellectual abilities – for language, culture, abstract thought, and conscious self reflection. In part, they are what makes human existence so rich. Combined with an unmatched capacity for thinking about the future, they enable us to draw on past experience and think about our long-term goals, meaning we can function more effectively in the present.
Yet these cherished gifts come at a price. Our self-awareness and unparalleled foresight mean that we humans, unlike other animals, realise that we will all shuffle off this mortal coil sooner or later. This poses a potentially devastating challenge to our psychological equanimity – the prospect of annihilation threatens to rob life of ultimate purpose, and render the pursuit of a meaningful life a futile effort.
Facing up to the facts of life
The fear of death is far from being the only existential concern about which we exercise ourselves. Irvin Yalom, an existential psychotherapist and emeritus professor at Stanford University (see p.584), has described three other potent ‘givens of existence’ or facts of life that can lead to existential distress: freedom – whether we are really in control of our choices, and the responsibility that comes with making those decisions; existential isolation – the need to be connected to others, and the fundamentally isolated nature of our subjective experience of the world; and, finally, meaninglessness – the desire to believe that our lives are meaningful, even though the slings and arrows of life’s fortunes often seem random and in violation of the bases that imbue our lives with meaning.
These issues have historically been addressed by existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and novelists, including Albert Camus, who have tended to rely on introspection and armchair rumination. In recent years, however, the questions posed by these givens of existence have increasingly been subjected to the experimental techniques of modern psychology, and given rise to a new subfield: experimental existential psychology, or XXP as it’s more snappily known.
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