Usually this time of year, my dark shadow begins to dissipate slightly. After all, winter’s dreariness is dissipating, the sun is out more consistently, and at least to my senses, semblances of the season of cold and death are slowly but surely going away. The signs of new and continued life begin to peep to the surface.
However, this year is different.
February is usually my darkest month. Rarely does my shadow follow me into the blooming spring of March. Yet, this year is different. A pandemic, personal strife, family health, alienated friendships -new and old, and profound existential and personal loneliness has led to continuing shadows. This year, the shadow feels more like that of Peter Pan’s. A shadow that once came and went with exposure to sunlight seems permanently sewn to my foot. It seems unable to disappear even with exposure to ultraviolet rays. This dark shadow, or what is clinically and existentially known as anxiety, is really more than just a shadow. It is a dark unwanted stranger that haunts my very steps. And with it comes a crippling sense of stoic existential frozenness.
In the throes of a world that seems spinning out of control, and my place in it forever out of my hands, I feel stuck. Helpless. Incapable of tearing the shadow from my foot. I know I’m not alone, stuck in this current world. I’m not the only one wrestling with an ongoing situation where basic day-to-day control is not an option. Where it is surely not a tangible thought. No, a global pandemic, economic aftermath, and everything in between was neither a predictable event nor one that we can will out of existence.
In times like these, I find myself drawn to the works of philosophers, poets, existentialists, and fictional authors of great literary works. I often think about the “why” and perhaps even the meaning of my existence. When diving into each, it’s shocking how many current and ancient academics and authors struggled with anxiety. Many wrestled with the concept of cosmic and existential control.
In so many ways, the means by which we attempt to work and find meaning are relatively stripped away when our work, friendships, even family members and favorite pastimes are taken from us or forced to stand at a sizable distance. In the distance, and often silence and solitude, we are forced to ask questions. We are forced to ponder the meaning or meaninglessness of our day-to-day lives. And in many ways, when life is like its current state, as humans we truly only have two options. We can accept the totality of life and all it brings, or resent it.
Ironically enough, an ancient Jewish poet and philosopher came to this conclusion. He penned a book included in the modern Christian Bible called Ecclesiastes. His discourse on life and meaninglessness deal directly with the idea that we, as humans, have little-to-no control over our lives or destiny. The writer concluded that we do not control how and when we were born. We do not control when and how we die. And holistically speaking, we control very little in between. Life brings with it sorrow, joy, and everything in between.
For this author, he came to a particular conclusion on life. Accept the fact that life happens and unfolds. Accept that we have little-to-no control over our present or future destiny. And as a human, we must accept all of life – the controllable, the uncontrollable, the good and the bad. For the writer, this a realistic way to looking at existence. To looking life, birth and death, joy and sorrow square in the face and existentially accepting the uncontrollableness of it. It is also, therefore, accepting its perceived meaninglessness as our inability to understand fully that which we cannot control, from the little to big things in our lives and world.
The American Dream?
It’s funny how stark a contrast the American dream is to this concept. The “dream,” in my opinion, has led to me and countless others wrestling with our dark shadow. The American dream likes to paint a picture of ultimate control and destiny. It plays out like a choose-your own-ending sort of story. If you work hard enough, apply for the right jobs, go to the right colleges, and make the right moral and ethical choices and decisions, you will ultimately find existential meaning and fulfillment. Our country’s entire economic system banks on it.
Yet, the very fabrics of this dream are fading quickly, due to a failed economy, perpetual wealth inequality, a system unfit to handle a few months of instability, and an infrastructure that is not prepared for people to stop consuming and contributing to it through the generation of individual income. The American capitalistic system and an American dream mantra have been exposed by this pandemic as neither lasting, fulfilling, or able to stand the test of crisis or time. Like the ancient author of Ecclesiastes suggests, so much of the pursuing of the American dream and a here-and-now reality has been exposed as primarily lacking meaning, and ultimately, leading to resentment rather than acceptance.
We still have a plethora of consumeristic means to numb our fears and even partially hide our dark strangers in the comfort of our homes and throes of immediate entertainment and distraction. Yet, for many of us, questions about today, tomorrow, the months or even years ahead lead to the continuing attachment by our dark stranger.
Famous science fiction author HP Lovecraft believed the key to freedom from existential anxiety was to embrace something he called cosmic indifference. In most ways, Lovecraft’s questions surrounding existence, anxiety, and meaning are similar to that of the ancient author of Ecclesiastes. Lovecraft, however, went down a slightly darker path. For Lovecraft, our existence as humans is solely at the hands of a cruel, unfeeling, suffering-inducing universe. In his eyes, the universe in its totality is a large, cruel place, and in its wake, we are truly insignificant.
Are we nothing more than insects?
Through the genre of cosmic horror, Lovecraft paints a world, bordering nihilism, that suggests that in light of the vastness of the universe, we are but insignificant insects. In fact, in many of his works, humans are painted like meaningless spiders and cockroaches, easily controlled and destroyed by evil cosmic forces outside of the control of his characters. And unlike the cosmic perspective of lovable American astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, Lovecraft believed that humans were always subject to the worst and seemingly most meaningless events that the universe would throw its way.
The universe is indifferent towards us, and therefore our existence is meaningless and almost robot-like. Due to our lack of control, we have no choice but to respond mechanically to a universe that cares nothing for us (like, for example, a pandemic currently plaguing our world). For Lovecraft, true existential freedom comes through meaninglessness and accepting with indifference the cruelty which the universe will undoubtedly bring our way, whether through suffering or death. For Lovecraft, the best way to deal with existential and general life anxiety is to give up on looking for or pursuing meaning in anything. Instead, recognize and embrace our meaninglessness and we will, therefore, rid ourselves of our dark shadow. We will then instead live an almost stoic lifestyle, embracing our imminent deaths and the meaningless toil of day-to-day life and existence. For him, this is freeing, and ultimately courageous, recognizing and constantly facing our mortality.
As much as I resonate with Lovecraft and his painting of the cruel nature of the universe, I can’t help but think of the unrealistic nature of his discourse. Rarely does intellectual enlightenment, nor the acceptance of meaninglessness, lead to relief from anxiety. If this were the case, then clearly the nihilists amongst us would be the most existentially, emotionally, and perhaps even spiritually content. The enlightenment of my meaninglessness does not prevent me from the care-induced worry for my wife and children.
And for those of us that struggle with anxiety, there isn’t much we can do to prevent the waves of “what ifs,” “whys,” and “when will this end?”, and certainly not through the means of pure enlightenment.
A Dark Friend?
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had an interesting take on the anxiety-inducing existential nature of humans in his day and age. In the late 1800s, Kierkegaard recognized anxiety as a key part of the human experience. From his perspective, the questions surrounding human existence and meaning should find their root in fear and trembling. For Kierkegaard, the human experience should be framed, in many ways, by our fears and even anxieties. Kierkegaard believed that anxiety informs our choices, our self-awareness, and forces us to wrestle cosmically with the totality of ourselves and our place in this seemingly never-ending, gigantic universe. He believed that our true potential is realized through our anxieties about our working out of our existential nature.
In many ways, Kierkegaard’s framing of a sewn-on shadow seems less dark and shadowy. But rather, a dark friend who can be utilized to better know and learn ourselves and our place in an uncontrollable world. If we yield anxiety as a weapon working for us, we can instead use it to form our meaning rather than allow it to aide us in disregarding it.
But anxiety as personal weaponry in a war against oneself rarely accounts for the physical effects, nor the nature, of events that surpass small day-to-day crises. No, anxiety as a weapon, in a modern sense, seems more counterintuitive to the short-term desire for relief. Kierkegaard’s stance seems to take out of account the cruel, physically and emotionally degrading effects of ongoing bouts with anxiety. Especially amongst those of us that experience it for long periods with little-to-no relief.
Trapped in Time?
I’m sure I have raised more questions than answers surrounding how to live life day-to-day in a panicked world, especially for those of us with anxiety. And I doubt there seems to be a concrete answer on how we can rid ourselves of dark shadows in low personal, and even global, moments.
But during times like these, I find solace in the conclusions of the author of Ecclesiastes. He ultimately concludes that we, as humans, cannot truly understand the total meaning of life and human existence because we are trapped. Trapped in something called time. Time, in a sense, is like a tidal wave, and we are like ants, stuck on a beach. The waves hit us and wash us away at their will. We have no choice but to go along for the ride.
And as those trapped in time, washed about by the waves, we can look under every rock, every tree, and through every experience, or philosopher, author, or even entertainment to find out why this is happening or attempt to find control. But we can’t. Because we are trapped. Time, from the moment of our birth, moves us second by second closer to death, a death we cannot control.
Yet, the author of Ecclesiastes found solace in something. The author believed that if humans were trapped in time, our perspective of what happens within time must be skewed. Therefore, there could be perceived meaning regarding ourselves and life. The author assumes there is meaning to life, yet he recognizes we will never fully know what it is.
We are stuck in time, but there is someone or something that isn’t. He believed there is a view of life and meaning that makes sense. The problem is we don’t have it. As humans, we all struggle to wrap our arms around our experiences and our anxieties. And the struggle is to wrap our arms around all of it, both the good and the bad. Whether we understand the “why” or not.
For the author, he was left with no other choice: Fear a deity. In His mind, this was the Jewish God, Yahweh. The only step to meaning was fear of God, which brought solace and at times potential relief from his existential anxieties.
We rarely use the word “fear” today. Honestly, this isn’t the type of language we use about deities and haven’t for a while now. Outside of a handful of perhaps far-right perceived religious nut cases, the notion of “fear of God” as the remedy of anxiety seems significantly less appealing than a nihilistic or perhaps irreligious, nonspiritual worldview.
Meaning in the Meaninglessness?
Yet, another philosopher and teacher shines a greater light, through a more applicable modern lense to this ordeal. From the same tradition as the author of Ecclesiastes, a poor, peasant rabbi from a small town, known as Jesus from Nazareth, spoke to this very same issue. From Jesus’ perspective, there is meaning to what is meaningless – even while it remains a mystery to us in many ways. He provides perhaps, at least from my perception, the best relief from the day-to-day dark shadow that haunts me.
Rather than a deity who reigns over time as a heartless being, forcing his minions to engage in meaningless work and strife, for no apparent reason but to be entertained by Frankenstein-like creatures that are forced to deal with the cruel beginnings and ends, Jesus tells us a different story of existence.
A Christian tradition, through the frame of Jesus and even Ecclesiastes, would teach that rather than purely reign over time, God enters it. Eternity and the eternal perspective of meaning bulge into it. And in and through it, humans get a small taste of meaning.
Jesus, who claimed to be the Yahweh feared by the author of Ecclesiastes, shows us small pieces of a puzzle we struggle to put together through the working out of our lives during the pursuit of existential meaning. The seemingly eternal perspective as painted through Jesus shows us this: meaning in life is found and shown through the passionate giving of love. That life, in its totality (joy, sorrow, and everything in-between) is a gift meant to be given to the other.
It is seen in the life of Jesus who claimed to enter time and space. And it is seen in the death of this same Jesus, who suffered and endured an unjust death, abandoned by his closest friends and killed at the hands of an unjust state. He claimed that His love, shown through selflessness for the other, endures all things.
Jesus’ claim, similar to that of both Lovecraft and the author of Ecclesiastes, is that pleasure, work, toil, wealth, money, and even personal health won’t endure. Like Lovecraft, Jesus recognizes the ephemeral, yet seemingly unrelenting, meaningless nature of our day-to-day toil, as well as the human entrapment in time, subject to the hands of a cruel, unforgiving universe. And yet, through Jesus’ lense of the world, His answer to this existential crisis and the human pursuit of meaning is to enter time.
And in entering time and bestowing love through a selfless life and death, He claims that our life has meaning. Because He claims we are deeply loved. And all our joys, all our sorrows, all of our worries, fears, and anxieties, they are personal communications from a personable God. A God that both authored life and entered into it. Love is suffering with us, and for us, past, present, and future, in and through this God.
And, one of the claims of Jesus, and Christianity as a whole, is that if we truly and fully resign ourselves to this realistic way of looking at life, that we may find a small sense of relief from our anxieties. Resigning ourselves to the acceptance that life is full of joy and sorrow, good and bad, life and death, health and pandemics, will turn what is seemingly mysterious, void of meaning, and rather hopeless into hopefulness and perhaps even joy.
Jesus claimed that neither death, nor life, nor sickness, nor anything in the seen or unseen order could separate us from himself. And some days, if not most days, this brings some relief. That somehow, in some way, there is someone. There is something that intimately knows the mystery of all of my life. He knows all the mysteries and intricacies of the world. It’s an absurd claim, from an unexpected person, making many unexpected and unfathomable claims.
It may seem that having an “eternal” perspective could be living a life void of courage, and in fear of death and mortality. But truly, a claim that finding true meaning comes through accepting life AND death, joy AND sorrow, seems both realistic and perhaps even more in alignment with the totality of the human experience. Accepting this reality, in many ways, brings relief. The dark shadow is a lessened reality, and accepting life, rather than fully rejecting it, leads to dissipating anxieties, worry, and at times, even existential freedom.
A Jumbled Mess
But this isn’t a catch-all cure. No, it would be naive to think that one day there is a foolproof remedy to existentially and personally be rid of anxiety. I commonly find myself oscillating between a Lovecraft reality, a Kierkegaard reality, an Ecclesiastes reality, and a Jesus reality. Such is the mystery of the meaning of life, to those of us unenlightened to its truest meanings and forms. But at times, accepting life in its totality, the good and bad, helps. Experiencing and recognizing a potential reality, in which someone who knows and understands the meaning of all things entered time to show us a glimpse of it, helps.
Even in writing this, my head, heart, and emotions are a jumbled mess. One of my favorite artists, a songwriter names James Spaite, helps bring some clarity. In his song Snakes, he writes:
Will my fears have the last say?
Will the tension in my dry bones be washed away?
Can laugh undo the riddles that time has made?
Or will love undo the rhythms that time has made?…
My eyes have yet to see how love liberates
So far as I can tell
It has been, is now, will be love that sings.
Perhaps this is wishful thinking. Perhaps it’s embracing reality. Regardless, today, love helps unravel the ties of the dark shadow. For now, at least.