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Four Existential Principles

Updated: Jul 1, 2022

It is said that when you’re young you have time and you have energy but you have no money. When you’re middle aged you still have energy, and now you have some money, but you have no time. When you’re old, well, finally you have the time and the money, but alas you have no energy!

I turned 40 in December, and to be honest I still haven’t got over the shock of it. I know: it’s ridiculously middle class of me. But I almost felt like my identity was rudely and involuntarily shunted into another phase because all of sudden my age began with a different digit. When I turned thirty I could still tell myself I was young. But there isn’t any getting away from forty. I am no longer young; I am indeed middle aged. It was surprisingly impactful. I’m a therapist after all - aren’t I reflecting on this stuff all the time?

Time is indeed a core factor. I have, frankly, treated my twenties and my thirties as a stepping stone towards a life I was working for. I began to notice after a few years of putting work first that much of my consoling talk was future orientated: “when we get to x”, or “when y happens”. My wife and I were always on our way to somewhere else, and ‘delaying gratification’ as the psychologists would put it: a sacrifice of the present for the promise of a future.

Turning forty I am starting to realise, in a bittersweet kind of way, that this moment is precious in and of itself, not a stepping stone to somewhere else. There is no destination which is somewhere else. There is no destination.

So I have had – and perhaps am still coming out of – an existential crisis. Certainly not the first, nor the last I’ll ever pass through. Thoughts about existence, impermanence, mortality and death have been an obsession for me since I was fourteen. I have always been - and long before the word had any meaning for me - an existentialist. And I think that of the various gifts I can offer my clients, my existentialism is the richest and most developed of them.

I have now been in practice for eleven years. I have had the privilege of journeying with hundreds of people at different stages of their own life story. And privilege is the word – what a profession to be in! I know fellow therapists who share this feeling of awe: to be a kind of midwife for the emerging self.

During this latest disillusionment I managed to reduce my existentialism down into four principles, that not only help me to make sense of my own process, but which I also implicitly model for the clients I journey with. I would like to share them with you here.

1. Impermanence and incompleteness are perennial conditions in life

I’ve written about impermanence and incompleteness in previous blogs. I see them almost as rules of nature – they shape our entire lives. By impermanence I mean the simple fact that everything is impermanent, and everything shall pass on – both the joy and the pain, and indeed this life and all the lives that matter to us. It is heartbreaking and it is true. Incompleteness is the twin reality, alluded to above, that there is no point within one’s life where it might be said that “my life is now complete”. Rather life is only ever in a state of emergence, and that if we try to cling onto any one set of circumstances these will slip through our fingers.

I think of the many thousands of young people who had trials for professional football, whom had built an identity around that idea, but for whom 99% would find themselves eventually dropped. And for some of these the impact on their mental health is huge. Similarly I think about young musicians who get record company interest and play a few big gigs, and dare to believe that they might be one of those that ‘make it’. The majority of whom will reach some critical juncture at which they realise that they are not going to make it. We might similarly think about someone going through a break up, or prematurely bereaved, and how it might feel as though life is over; that the heart has been ripped out of all life.

These are some painful examples of impermanence and incompleteness. But all of nature taking its course – the cycle of the seasons, the rising and the falling, the ebbs and the flows of all life - may be seen through the same lens. We are able to enjoy most of this ecological symphony in a state of joyful acceptance.

2. We seek to sublimate our incompleteness and impermanence through connection and continuity

We find new ways to connect – whether through our relationships, or through the acts we immerse ourselves with in, the identities we embrace, or the meanings we uncover. Starting a new job, making new friends, or entering into a new romantic relationship, might transform how we view ourselves, and our futures. The world may quickly take on a very different hue. I’m thinking also of the creative with writer’s block, who finally regains their flow. Or an ecologist working out in the field discovering a new pattern in nature. Or the way one might discover a new sense of mission, something worth campaigning for, fighting for – a purpose beyond themselves worth giving their life to. In each instance the acute sense of impermanence and incompleteness subsides (or is sublimated) as our consciousness is flooded by new connections and new meaning.

3. We realise connection and continuity by decentring: the experience of being a part of something greater than ourselves

Decentring is the psychological process by which we reframe our experience so that we are not at the centre - that we are not centre of the universe, centre of this scene, but rather one part of a much greater pattern. This could mean for example feeling a part of a generational chain, by which I mean any pattern passed on through the generations. This could include the biological project e.g. that we couple off and perhaps raise children much as our ancestors did. I often have that feeling attending weddings or funerals – hatches, matches and dispatches – we’ve been passing through these same rituals for generations. The generational chain might be education – teachers passing on their wisdom to the next generation, raising them up in and almost maternal or paternal way. It might mean environmental stewardship – that we receive our natural environment, and the non-human inhabitants of it, from our ancestors and that we are called to care for these, and to pass them on in a good state to our descendants. The generational chain might be centred upon science or the arts, where we receive from the previous generation the richest, most sophisticated knowledge or forms, and we modulate these and perhaps develop them further in our own generation before passing them on. Other generational chains might include the traditions of our communities, religion, spiritual practices, or a devotion to institutions or nations.

There is an unfathomable amount of information transmitted from each generation to the next, and whatever the quality of the generational chain we find ourselves within, the information is implicitly existential, because it provides the language and the scaffolding through which we find new connection and continuity.

4. Those who are in a relative state of connection may create bridges for those in a relative state of alienation

When we find ourselves within a state of connection, whether in family life, or in our friendships, or in our communities, we might notice others who are disconnected or alienated, searching and struggling. We might create a bridge back into connection for them. This is perhaps more likely to be something elders will do for the young, but it doesn’t always work in this direction. It is not always so straightforward to build bridges, and some are much harder to reach than others. But in performing this act of service, to be a bridge builder, we may also sublimate some of our own impermanence and incompleteness, because the event is meaningful for both the person reaching out and the person reaching back.

These four principles are enough for me - almost ironically they provide a sense of completeness which will no doubt prove to be transitory. But coming into my consciousness they helped me to understand that the pangs of meaninglessness or emptiness or disillusionment or sheer horror that I’ve felt contemplating my own existence, were not pathological; a sign that something had gone psychologically wrong. Rather, I have been able to accept these pangs as part of my human condition – of nature taking its course through me and mine, and the world we inhabit. It really is bittersweet, but there is always hope.

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