I began the year with three and a half exhilarating weeks at work, followed by a massive setback/roadblock/slam into a brick wall that had me screaming, not just into a pillow, but into my headset on a Teams call—my director slid off their headphones so as not to puncture their eardrums—and plunged me into severe existential angst. Ever have days like that, months like that?
No, I figured not, just me. 😉
I’m working through the existential angst the way I always do—by walking for miles, writing down all the unsayable things, re-reading risque romance novels (K.J. Charles, thank you, from the bottom of my aching heart, for all your books, especially the Sins of the Cities series), smoking sheesha, arguing with Julia Cameron and reminding myself of my responsibilities to my children and other important people in my life… and also daydreaming about running away to Cuba and being Ernest Hemingway—but hey, he didn’t end so well, so perhaps he is not the role model I should be looking at right now, or ever.
(But, man, could Papa ever craft the world’s most perfect sentences.)
My bouts of existential angst always boil down to the very simple question of “Why am I here?” … and “to craft a collection of perfect sentences” seems like a pretty inadequate life purpose.
Maybe I’m confusing skill with purpose, talent with meaning.
Because the human brain is wired to look for patterns (and stories) in the randomness thrown at us by our senses, The Marginalian’s Maria Popova chooses this moment to pop into my inbox with Thich Nhat Hahn’s epiphanic loss of self—and discovery of his true nature:
Yet every time we survive such a storm, we grow a little. Without storms like these, I would not be who I am today. … when such a frenzied hurricane strikes, nothing outside can help. I am battered and torn apart, and I am also saved.
I, too, will soon disappear.
Some life dilemmas cannot be solved by study or rational thought. We just live with them, struggle with them, and become one with them… To live, we must die every instant. We must perish again and again in the storms that make life possible.Thich Nhat Hahn, Fragrant Palm Leaves
Ok, Maria, not helpful. I don’t want to just live with my dilemmas, dammit. I want to solve them.
The thing about creative work is that while you’re engaged in it, you can’t think too much—at all?—about reception. The inner critic is hard enough to silence; if you let the outer critic shape the work as you’re drafting, you will never finish anything worth sharing.
And once you share it, when the outer critics start second-guessing you… while you’re listening to them—and you have to listen to them, because critical feedback is, you know, critical—it’s very difficult to shut them, and the inner critic, out on the work you haven’t yet shared.
But I digress. I’m just chasing thoughts where they want to go.
I’m going to give them free reign for a few more hours.
Then, I will shape them.
The thing about creative work that “aspiring” (I hate that adjective) writers and artists don’t understand is the amount of discipline it requires.
Moving out of existential angst requires a similar type of discipline.
I’m trying to find mine in a cloud of smoke.
Discipine, and that exercise of will, requires a clear sense of purpose. What I have learned over my decades (when did I get this old) of battling existential angst is that it doesn’t have to be the purpose.
It just has to be a purpose.
Sometimes, that purpose just needs to be—I need to get through this day, this hour, this minute.
But it helps if it’s a little bigger, more constructive than that.
Constructive is a good word.
We construct meaning. Purpose. We create our stories and our narratives before we live them.
Well, I suppose we can live them without construction, but I’ve never been capable of that kind of in-the-moment existence. Have you?
I chase clouds of smoke, looking for a way to shape the narrative.
The nice thing about my existential angst is that it has been my fairly constant companion since age four, and the nice thing about being a storyteller is that I have a lot of experience in shaping its narrative. Bending it to my purpose.
I’ll do it again.
In the meantime, I’m going to read some K.J. Charles and meander through another cloud of smoke.
See you on the other side.