“We can all agree that the unexamined life is not worth living…but if all you’re doing is examining, you’re not living.” — Adam Leipzig
The hardest part of having an existential crisis is that it come as quiet as a teenager sneaking in after curfew. It’s the uncontrollable need to ask questions over and over again, never resting, about one’s meaning and place in life. Sarah Fader wrote an amazing piece explaining this in depth What Is An Existential Crisis And How Can It Be Resolved?, if you want to read more.
This morning, like many mornings, I mull over these questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I belong? Am I lovable despite my flaws? Are we meaningless specks? Will any of us be remembered? Is this life imaginary, am I? Are my thoughts my own and how do I know? Will I ever stop thinking about this?
Then I think to myself, you’re doing just fine. Give yourself some time. Put your hiking shoes on and flee Buffalo for the day. I head to Stony Brook State Park. I need to feel alive.
The easiest and most scenic Gorge Trail is closed for construction, so I head to the Rim Trails’ towering stairs. The woods are speckled with florescent signs, “Wear a mask in public” and is mostly empty due to the global pandemic. I think, if I can climb hundreds of stairs in a mask, the anti-maskers can handle wearing it in the grocery store. Why are so many people so unthinking and uncaring in their interactions with others?
I climb away from the others. Just me and the chipmunks. They play tag as I pant and grunt past waterfalls and unbelievable rock formations. I envy the chipmunks for they can’t see the true depth of the woods. The humming waterfall echos in my heart and distracts me. I want to write about it, but I’ve forgotten how to restrain my inner editor.
In my backpack I carry sunscreen, water and paranoia of aging past 30: I don’t know what the hell I am doing with my life; everyone knows I am an imposter; and how did I get this far? My backpack is heavy and the trail is much harder to climb than anticipated. I need to throw my ego into water, but it’s like a leech kissing my brain.
When I reach the top, after polishing each thought like a new gem, and my brain is making the sound of a violin being tuned, I come face-to-face with this mural: “Learning to love.”
“This is a turning point. You are on the brink of enlightenment,” my former therapist said, almost two years ago, when I first acknowledged my crisis.
I remember the exact moment of realization, drinking my coffee by the window, on an ordinary day, beside the dogs: Does life only have meaning if I give it meaning? Am I giving it enough meaning? Am I trying hard enough? I was much like the chipmunks: unable (and unwilling) to see the depth of my own woodlands—until that day.
These aren’t new questions. The first time I remember obsessing over my existence was in the eighth grade. At an away game, when I was being “too shy,” my volleyball coach told me, “just be yourself!” A teammate had to console me as I cried on the bus, explaining that I didn’t know if I was being my “true self” or just a “pretend version” of myself. She shrugged her shoulders and offered me a blue Gatorade.
Little did I know I would be so messy and weak and incoherent for so long.
In the trees, I do not stifle my soul or feel alone. I do not accidentally project my negative feelings onto them and regret it later. I sit for a while. Their leaves shutter, but do not scuttle.
I wonder if they feel my presence. They deaf clap at me. I carry on. I must cross a bridge much like this one:
I am shaky and weak in middle of the bridge. What’s on the other side? Freedom of distorted thinking, freedom to trust my choices, freedom to take accountability, freedom to be grateful for what I have and where I am.
I don’t cross the bridge on this hike, but I find some peace on the long way down because now I know I want to cross the bridge. I know I need to cross the bridge.
I’ve been looking at things from one angle my entire life, but on the bridge, I’m looking at life from new perspectives I didn’t previously realize existed. This crossing will take time.
Did you know you can build zen gardens upon rotting trees?
That’s right! I can build zen gardens upon rotting trees or I can fall victim to my past, thoughts and feelings. I know what I need to do. I think I might even know who I am.
I am a good person just trying to find her way back onto the trail.
Have you had an existential crisis? What was your experience? How did you push through? How long was recovery for you?