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Existential Angst & Why It’s Okay Not to Feel Okay

“When you feel happy, really happy, it somehow seems that you’ve always been happy and that you’ll always be happy. The same is often true when you feel sad, or lonely, or depressed, or broke, or sick, or scared. Something, perhaps, to remember.”

A couple of weeks ago I had a sudden and sort of inexplicable spell of what I can only describe as existential angst. It was right after a great weekend. I’d just traveled to Seoul, seen all sorts of ridiculous and fascinating things, and spent time with a group of swell people.

I was heading back to Busan (my home in South Korea), sitting alone on a bullet train, having just said goodbye to a couple friends, when unexpectedly I became somewhat pensive. I thought about how goodbyes always feel so quick and insufficient. This thought evolved into a series of considerations about how rapidly time slips away, about how we’re always saying goodbye to something, always being swept forward into new scenery.

I reflected on the four months that I’d spent in South Korea so far. I wondered, ‘What does ‘four months’ mean?’ The simple phrase seemed like a tidy box of nothing, a mere two flicks of the tongue that overlooked so many experiences and struggles. I felt at once like I’d been here for so long and also for no time at all.

These feelings then extended to the two decades and change that comprise my entire life. It seemed again as if it had been an eternity and also an ephemeral bit of nothing. I recalled long days that I’d slogged—haphazard memories like dusty souvenirs—but the years felt light as feathers. All of this lead to a general uneasy feeling, a sort of What Does It All Mean period of nebulous uncertainty.

I looked around at all of the other passengers on the train, imagining their thoughts. Maybe their minds were occupied with ideas of the waning weekend, the upcoming Monday mo(u)rning, or some indistinct worries about things past, things unforeseen. Where were we all speeding off to—on this train, in this strange existence? What was the point?

Counterproductive

Over the next few days, I continued to feel somewhat down about this episode of existential anxiety. Things seemed a bit grey and muted, and I wondered why it had to be that way. I’d been feeling exceptionally well and “in the flow of things” for several weeks prior. What changed? Why did this interruption occur? What was wrong with me?

These sort of questions were hardly of service to me in this situation. To assume that to feel bad is to be somehow wrong or to scrutinize and scold ourselves for not feeling “happy”—these ways of thinking are counterproductive and tend to exacerbate whatever we’re going through.

For a few days, I forgot about this. I felt guilty about experiencing some rough mental terrain, and it only made me feel more downtrodden and less hopeful. Eventually I realized that I was doing this—running myself through a guilt-trip—and remembered that it isn’t feasible to feel “up” or joyful all the time. Everyone feels crappy, meh, uninspired, depressed, worried, and blah some of the time.

Once I remembered this, I started to feel okay with the situation. I stayed with the feelings in a somewhat detached way and let them run their course, adopting a kind of Taoist, “this too shall pass” mentality. Indeed, the feelings soon dissipated.

Uncomfortable

I’ve explained this anecdote because I think it reveals something about Western culture—something I touched upon in a previous essay in this book but wish to explore more in-depth here. Most of us reading this live in societies that put “happiness” on a pedestal and constantly bombard us with images of eerily perky people who can’t stop smiling.

full-time-job-from-home-1-reccomendation

“You too can be this person!” we’re told. “Just a little more productivity or self-development or money or lawn ornaments and you’ll reach a never-ending state of bliss.”

We’re conditioned to feel that we’re meant to be “happy”, and that to be happy means to feel almost ecstatic all the time, to be so proud and satisfied with our lives that we can’t help but have a spring in our step. This is the subtext of so many of the advertising and other media signals that are constantly seeping into our lives.

And so we become obsessed with being “happy”. We consider it the end-all-be-all, the overarching goal of our lives. We start asking, “Am I happy?” and feel vaguely nervous, uneasy, or ashamed if the answer is unclear. Media conditions us with a false and unrealistic image of “happiness” which, ironically, will enervate us if we unconsciously integrate it into our worldview.

Most of us can’t escape these media signals, but we can become cognizant of the ways in which they are designed to condition us. We can become more aware of how we’re thinking and notice our guilt-ridden thoughts. We can reassure ourselves that no inner state warrants shame or self-loathing, that it’s human to feel bad sometimes, and that no feeling is final.

This doesn’t mean that we should entirely ignore all bad feeling. Often our conscience or our bodies are actually exclaiming that there is some sort of dissonance in our lifestyle, and I think it’s imperative to be in touch with those feelings. The point is that we can notice our bad feelings but not judge ourselves for them. We can be with them and spend some time considering their causes, but we should accept that some funks are native to the ebb and flow of human feelings and simply need to run their course.

Shadows

One insight that I think is useful to keep in mind when we aren’t feeling especially well is this quote from Nietzsche:

“Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings — always darker, emptier and simpler.”

When we notice our internal state, we often try to categorize our feelings using our available repertoire of language-based concepts that describe how a person might feel. A problem with this is that our concepts of feelings tend to be fairly polarized—good/bad, happy/sad, depressed/blissful, etc.

These labels can lead to us feeling like we’re experiencing something more extreme than we actually are, especially in a culture that tends to exaggerate and over-dramatize feelings in the first place (“I am so f***ing pissed at Blaine!” Are you really that upset?).

These concepts of feelings are also necessarily emptier than our more personal feelings. We often think of words as capturing universal human experiences, but this is hardly the case. Not only does every word mean something different to every person (one person’s “depression” could be worlds apart from another’s), but words also simplify and reduce complex sensations, allowing the mind to process them. So to classify our feelings might be to diminish them—to pigeonhole them within a preconceived system that does not adequately describe them.

I submit that we’re better off not indulging in a labyrinth of thought about how we feel. We’ll likely miscalculate and make ourselves feel worse. A more honest and effective approach is to just be with the feeling; try to see how it really feels instead of immediately categorizing and articulating it.

Always

Somewhat related to the previous insight from Nietzsche is another quote (from the well-known email newsletter Notes from the Universe) that I found a while ago:

“When you feel happy, really happy, it somehow seems that you’ve always been happy and that you’ll always be happy. The same is often true when you feel sad, or lonely, or depressed, or broke, or sick, or scared. Something, perhaps, to remember.”

Every time I reach a point where I’m feeling really good about things, I get the sense that I finally “cracked the code”. I feel like life was easy all along, and that all I needed to do was to realize something or make some small change in order to discover a Perpetual Cakewalk. It seems as if I will be endlessly joyful.

Conversely, when I feel not-so-good, I can hardly remember a time where I felt swell, and it seems as if there will be no end to my struggles. I’m not sure why it’s like this for me (and probably many others), but it is. Seen from afar, these feelings are obviously misleading and make for a cycle of disappoint. That is, the highs are taken for granted when we think they’ll last forever, and the lows are harsher when we feel as if we’ll be forever trapped within them.

So, again, bwith your feelings while knowing that they are never final. If you take the Taoist’s view that I keep advocating, you can perceive your feelings in terms of a cycle that is not to be resisted. The waves will keep on coming (the troughs allow us to experience the crests, and vice versa), and the only way to coast is to accept whatever wave arises—to embrace whatever we’re experiencing, to not attach ourselves to delusions of permanence, and to have few expectations.

If we can do this—accept our feelings without judgment, know that they aren’t final, and realize it’s okay to not feel okay sometimes—we’ll be much more well-equipped to manage the not-so-shiny-yet-very-real, harsher aspects of life that our culture tends to photoshop away.

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