Whenever you find yourself asking “what am I doing with my life?”, you are in an existential crisis - an opportunity to redefine our self.
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This week, I’m sharing an experimental way of writing which I’ve liberally copied from Breaking Smart and enjoyed tremendously: straight up philosophizing. I keep it raw & hot without a lot of edit to show you how fun it can be. Hopefully you can get some inspiration to write and think for its own sake!
Whenever you find yourself asking “what am I doing with my life?”, you are in an existential crisis.
Existentially healthy people are too busy enjoying life; they don't think too much about it.
In the past, spiritual teachings are supposed to help you with this. Now in developed countries, it is commercialized as psychotherapy or mental health counseling.
The premise of therapy is to make you believe that your problems will go away. Good doctors cure you and make you functional in society again. Great doctors make you feel like you aren't sick in the first place.
It's another instance of a mechanical way of seeing a person made up of a bunch of parts. "This part of me is broken, it needs to get fixed".
The real benefit of an existential crisis is that it points us to the illogic of this mechanistic conception of ourselves. The antidote of such a crisis is a purpose, which no modern day doctors can give.
Some shamans may help you discover / recover / uncover. (depending on your philosophy of transformation)
The Discover camp presupposes the existence of A Higher Purpose and says you just need to dig a bit more or pray harder.
The Recover camp is more nuanced. It claims that you were born with a destiny but felt asleep and forgot it somehow. Whenever you hear spiritual sound bites like "enlightenment" or "waking up", you are likely in the vicinity of this camp. Beware, no enlightenment, no problem.
The Uncover camp, an orientation I'm leaning towards, says that purpose is "right under our nose", as in it is in every moment and things we interact with. We make up purposes as we go.
What is tricky is that you can't really see what is under your nose. You've got to sense it, using a different way of knowing. Some calls it spirituality, others mindfulness. I just call it re-defining our sense of self.
Failing to bounce from existential crises leads to nihilism. Life is meaningless, who gives a fug? Nihilists are living zombies. They are often attracted to each other.
So how can we think about this terrible existential quagmire? At risk of writing self-help, I'm going to try prescribe medium-tested insights here.
First, you must recognize that existential crises are "features, not bugs" of living, self-conscious creatures who are yet to be finished. In fact, you can even predict when they will come.
Crisis is opportunity to redefine self-continuity. (said the entrepreneurs who like to quote that the Chinese character for crisis, "weiji", has two parts that mean “danger” and “opportunity)
The trick is to recognize that your life narrative shouldn't make sense 100% of the time. Heck, even 90%.
If you know exactly what you are doing 90% of the time, you are bound to hit crises sooner or later.
It's a sort of faking a line-of-best-fit from fuzzy data. Or like a body builder trying to bulk by eating a lot and doing a ton of bicep curls. Most of the food will be stored as fat around the belly instead.
For example, I've seen many college friends who switch their majors after their first few years. Or going the pre-med or pre-health routes. I was one of them too. Thankfully I recovered from the crisis.
Some people seem to do fine with 60% coherence (think somewhat lazy son of a millionaire who mostly loiters around, and once in a while makes arts in the pursuit of beauty) Venkat would say 80% is the ideal level of coherence for life narrative.
Question: What does that "wasted" 20% go to?
They make up the buffer space, the soft landing pad for those crises. In this place is the extra life materials that you haven't incorporated into your life narrative yet. When something happens that disrupts our main identity, we use materials there to concoct new self-definition.
Example: I'm imagining how my mom must be feeling now that her children are independent grownups. Thanks to her regular participation in the Buddhist community, now she has adopted a new identity as a Buddhist nun. The mother identity takes a backseat.
Another example: Once in while I go to dance, but it is not an essential part of my identity yet. Imagine one day I got into an accident that made me unable to write coherently, I might turn to dance as part of my identity.
In fact, stories of professionals quitting jobs at prestigious firms have become so cliched that we start notice a pattern: most are so focused on building certain identity
Consider the Indian parent cliche "doctors, lawyers, engineers", or high-achieving bankers, save-the-world social entrepreneur and the most sinister form of all, the spiritual seekers. You can tell from their outlook (or "vibe", to use the hippier phrase) certain restlessness behind the driven-ness to figure out their Life Purpose. Unsurprisingly, they don't often make fun of themselves.
Humor reveals a sensibility towards discontinuity. If everything makes sense, it's not funny anymore.
Acting as certain kind of person for too long puts us at risk of mistaking the mask with the person. When that happens, we are getting overly serious.
A social commentary: If anything, crises are hitting earlier. From "should I go to college" to "what should I major in" to "what job should I take" and "who should I date", each of those gut-wrenching moments is an opportunity for painting more strokes on our self-portrait, which is why it's important to develop some artistic sensibility towards one's life.
When old scripts of "good life" are falling apart, the improvisers thrive.
In fact, a trait of a healthy person is to acknowledge that nobody has ever completely figured out anything.
Even the phrase "figuring things out" implies there is an answer. There is none, or there are too many.
This realization may sound devastating at first, particularly so for a reverent young person like me who tends to look up to older people for answers.
That truth is easier to swallow if you remember that those whom we think have "made it" at this moment are still interacting with the world of people somehow. In another word, it is to see that person without their pedestal, a moment of Martin Buber's I-Thou relationship.
One way to encourage ourselves to accept in the not-knowing is to think of it as our question may so big that the world isn't prepared for it yet.
The world is like a teenager going through its puberty. Let's play with this metaphor more.
First, puberty includes the first growth spurt, which shocks everyone one including itself. It feels like a stranger in its own body. This explains why many people, especially in the developed world, don't have a strong sense of rootedness beyond two or three generations. Who asks the most question "Who am I?" but angsty teenagers?
Second, with puberty comes sexual awakening, (facilitated by a tons of hormones) In human terms, it's desire to get to know each other, to express ourselves. Sexuality at its core is the desire to see and be seen.
Third, self-doubt is the pre-dominant attitude. Questions like Are we doing it right? What are we supposed to do? Can we even make it? Many activists tap in this self-doubt to motivate people to act "The world is coming to an end unless we do something".
Anyway, to re-iterate the larger point: despite whatever bigger stories people are telling us, everybody is just winging it, and that’s great.
This is not just my theorization. Many others have said the same thing, such as David Whyte in his poem What to Remember When Waking:“What you can plan is too small for you to live / What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough. / To be human is to become visible while carrying what is hidden as gift to others”
On one’s social visibility, remember the saying "a candle burns twice as bright lasts half as long"? What it ignores is whether the bright burning is enough to attract more fuel.
To burning bright is to become visible. You don't have to be too visible (think of the nuisances that go with too much fame), but you need enough visibility to sustain your needs, both psychological (the needs to be seen and acknowledge as a unique person) as well as financial (people who value your contribution enough to pay your living).
I've written before that thinking too little or too much about oneself is still thinking about oneself. One must think about one’s life just enough in terms of importance.
Which leads to a last question for today: Have I become visible enough within the communities I am a part of?
This is not egoistic hunger for fame. It's acknowledging of how humans came to be this way: social creatures who need to be recognized as unique. Even the most saintly people have a close circle of intimate friends and partners for whom they could be seen as a more complex person rather than the saintly image.
Finally: a different metaphor for life is dance. Am I still dancing? Does that dance feel good? How can I keep dancing? Alan Watts says it better here.