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I haven’t heard the term  “existential crisis” used lately. I don’t think that is because they don’t occur any more. I suspect they occur more today than they did in earlier times.

An existential crisis is defined as a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life.

Despite having no proof to point to, I believe this questioning is as old as mankind.

Existentialism was a term that come into being in the late 19th- and 20th-century via a group of diverse European philosophers. It may seem odd that this “crisis” is attached to philosophical thinking whose predominant value is commonly acknowledged to be freedom.

Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it “authentically.”

I came to know the term in my teen years through literature. Reading books by Jean-Paul Sartre (such as Nausea) and works by Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot and Herman Hesse, and then reading about them, existentialism kept being referenced.

I started to see it in many things I was reading. That “crazy cliff” that Holden Caulfield wanted to save people from falling off by being a “catcher in the rye” seemed existential to me. I started to see my own life that way. I can’t imagine getting through your teen years without an existential crisis.

Existentialism came into popular use after World War II in philosophy but also in theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology.

I’m sure that when I learned about an existential crisis I thought I was going through one. Mental health hypochondria is pretty common.

An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life. Does life have any meaning, purpose, or value? It is commonly wrapped up in anxiety and depression.

I have a vivid memory of seeing the film The Graduate for the first time and then again in college and when Ben was floating in his parents’ pool and feeling of a lack of purpose in life, I was floating right there with him.

But a true existential crisis is big. Questioning Life means questioning relationships, decisions, and your motivations. It is an illness. A serious one.

Currently I hear the term being used on more temporary states of mind. I did some searching online and found it in an article about spending too much time on social media. It was referenced in an article about suddenly not wanting to spend time with people and wanting to be alone. I found in searching this blog that I have used “existential” in several posts.

If an existential crisis is really a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life, it doesn’t seem like ending a relationship qualifies. Or does it?

An article that I read but won’t link to suggested that some warning signs of the crisis include drinking lots of coffee and using alcohol and cigarettes as a crutch and solution instead of coffee.

Very few of us have not felt a lack of motivation, unable to be productive to the point of depression. Mental fatigue can transform into physical fatigue, which drags you down further.

Is that an existential crisis?

Or is when it when you start to think about death, talk about death and live in the shadow of death?

When I went through a bad depression (which I and my therapist never called an existential crisis) one of the signs was that I began to cry easily for not very “valid” reasons. Movies, abandoned dogs on the drive to work, leaves falling from trees, a sad-looking woman drinking coffee at a nearby table, seeing homeless people or just sitting in the car at a red light would start me off.

Obviously, someone in a real crisis needs professional help and the support of those around them. I found that one treatment known as existential-humanistic focuses on your personalized concerns for your future. It is an approach that asks about the meaning of life.

I have probably written more about solitude than loneliness and I now view solitude – that choice to be alone – as a gift.

We all have our “dark nights of the soul” but when the night carries in the daylight and for more days and nights, I think it is a crisis.

I titled this piece “Just Another Existential Crisis” not because I trivialize the term, but ironically because I think we too often toss off depressions of other people and ourselves too lightly.

When I taught Romeo and Juliet to middle school students I became very sensitive to teen suicide. Of course, I didn’t want the play to be seen as saying that suicide was a solution, but in my research I found that it is very dangerous to not take seriously teen crises. As an adult, it is easy to dismiss the end of a seventh grader’s romantic relationship that lasted only two weeks as not being anything serious. That is a mistake. It is the same mistake that the Capulets and Montagues made. Call it existential or not, a crisis is real.

Holden Caulfield may have remembered the Robert Burns poem incorrectly, but his wish to save others in the midst of his own crisis was correct.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
– from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

All the gardeners I know, including myself, feel better when we are working in the garden. Some people say it is a meditative experience – a way to separate yourself from the troubles of the everyday.

I love getting my hands into the soil. I rarely wear gloves because I like the feel of the soil.

Recent research has given some scientific basis for that good feeling we get in working the soil. Contained in soil is Mycobacterium vaccae, a nonpathogenic species of bacteria. It occurs naturally. Researchers have been studying how killed Mycobacterium vaccae vaccine might be used as immunotherapy for allergic asthma, cancer, leprosy, psoriasis, dermatitis, eczema, tuberculosis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis – and depression.

That last area of research is what brings me to happy soil. It has recently been hypothesized that exposure to Mycobacterium vaccae may result in an antidepressant effect, because it stimulates the generation of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. There may be some natural Prozac in that dirt.

Lack of serotonin is linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar problems. Many antidepressant drugs are ones that trigger the production of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain.

Now, don’t go out in the backyard and start eating dirt. Working the soil means we make contact with the microbes through the skin and also by breathing some in as we stir up the soil.

The research shows that these microbes cause cytokine levels to rise and that results in the production of higher levels of serotonin. In the studies, the bacterium was tested both by injection and ingestion – but that was on rats. The natural antidepressant effect can be felt for up to 3 weeks.

Maybe those pigs and other animals rolling in the dirt were doing more than keeping cool and keeping off insects.

Sources
healinglandscapes.org/blog/2011/01/its-in-the-dirt-bacteria-in-soil-makes-us-happier-smarter/

gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/soil-fertilizers/antidepressant-microbes-soil.htm

It has been hot and dry for the past month, but I am still feeling a damp November in my soul. Like any despondent Ishmael with nothing particular to interest me on shore, I am sitting here looking at a pond, paging through this book again, and wishing I could be in a watery part of the world.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

Last night, looking up at the night sky, I saw indefiniteness, voids, and the immensities of the universe. The white depths of the Milky Way made me think of the albino whale. “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

ahabOn the way here this morning, I passed a Starbucks store which only made me think about Starbuck watching the old man at the edge of the ship heavily leaned over the side. “He seemed to hear in his own true heart the measureless sobbing that stole out of the centre of the serenity around. Careful not to touch him, or be noticed by him, he yet drew near to him, and stood there.”

Staring over the railing of the bridge at this pond, I see “that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without…”

There is a storm brewing to the south that may move this way over the Labor Day weekend. I don’t want to be knocking people’s hats off. I fear the pistol and ball and falling on my sword. Maybe rain will wash away some of the dust, and the leaves and grass will green again and slip into a better September of the soul.

hemingway gin
When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, I had a little drinking problem. I also fell into several deep depressions.  I blame both, at least partially, on being an English major.

It seemed like every writer I read and admired had a problem with alcohol and went a bit crazy. A few drank themselves to death or ended up fully crazy and suicidal. It seemed like these were things you had to do to be a writer. You had to suffer. It was Romantic with the capital R fully in place.

Thankfully, I got past all that, but I still find articles all the time like “Nine Famous Authors Who Did Stints in Mental Institutions”  and  5 Writers Who Suffered from Mental Illnesses & the Impact It Had on Their Art and Great American Writers and Their Cocktails.

What a club – Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf,  Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Richard Brautigan.

Some early research in 1987 connected creativity with mental illness when researchers noticed a higher occurrence of bipolar disorder in study participants from the Iowa Writers Workshop than in a control group. Did they get crazy by trying to be writers, or did they become writers because they were crazy?

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Arnold Ludwig found that those is the arts are more likely to have mental illnesses than those in non-creative professions.

I read the book A Confederacy of Dunces and loved it before I ever knew anything about the author John Kennedy Toole. He couldn’t get the novel published. He got depressed. He drank more and more. He acted crazy. He killed himself. The novel was published posthumously. I had never read a novel like Dunces but I had read that bio plenty of times.

Ernest Hemingway is my favorite of all these writers and he is a classic example – depression, alcoholism, narcissistic personality, bipolar disorder and finally psychosis and suicide. Before the doctors and clinics, he “self-medicated” with booze. He liked risk-taking activities. He wrote as therapy, and when he couldn’t write anymore (largely because of the alcohol), he got electroshock treatments. For someone whose life was writing, not being able to write meant he had no reason to live.

Plus, for Hemingway, it was in his genes. There is some science to it. In 2009, an article published by the Association for Psychological Science showed a definitive link between creativity and the neuregulin 1 gene, a gene that is also associated with psychosis.

Some writers even have drinks that we associate with them. Hemingway is associated with lots of booze, including the Mojito, a drink invented at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba, where Papa drank them. When I was in Key West, Florida last summer, the bartenders at Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s said that he didn’t drink Mojitos in Key West.

From Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow”:

 “I’m a little drunk now,” Nick said.
“You aren’t drunk,” Bill said… Bill poured the glass half full of whiskey.
“Put in your own water,” he said. “There’s just one more shot.”
“Got any more?” Nick asked.
“There’s plenty more, but Dad only likes me to drink what’s open.”
“Sure,” said Nick.
“He says opening bottles is what makes drunkards,” Bill explained.
“That’s right,” said Nick. He was impressed. He had never thought of that before. He always thought it was solitary drinking that made drunkards.

Hemingway said “Write drunk. Edit sober” but also claimed he didn’t drink until after his morning writing sessions.

William Faulkner drank while he wrote. He claimed, “I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach.”

Another Southerner, Carson McCullers liked to write and drink and her drink of choice was a mixture of hot tea and sherry that she kept in a thermos. She called it “sonnie boy.” It is said that while at the writer’s colony, Yaddo, she started the day with a beer after breakfast, wrote, moved on to “sonnie boy” and finished the day with cocktails.

In those sometimes Roaring Twenties, F.Scott Fitzgerald was almost as famous for his drinking as his writing. “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you,” wrote this gin drinker. He didn’t hold his liquor very well, something his sometimes friend, Hemingway mocked him for. A “cheap drunk” he got very drunk very fast. He liked a Gin Rickey: 2 oz. gin, 3/4 oz. lime juice, topped with club soda and a lime wheel.

Detective-fiction master Raymond Chandler liked a Gimlet – basically a Rickey minus the soda. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character introduced the Gimlet in The Long Goodbye and popularized the cocktail.

Chandler wrote, “A real Gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.” The modern version is 2:1 gin and Rose’s Lime Juice with a lime wedge.

Keep in mind that alcohol is a depressant.

A number of recent studies have looked at the neurological similarities of mental illness and the creative mind. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia appear to be focused within the frontal lobe of the brain and they typically manifest with rather peculiar connections that are similar to some types of connections that would be admired in poetry and other creative writing.

Is there a relationship between poetry and psychosis?

A 2002 study of 1,629 writers found that poets – and specifically female poets – were more likely than even non-fiction writers, playwrights and fiction writers to have some type of mental illness. This became known as “The Sylvia Plath Effect.”

Poet Sylvia Plath’s mental illness has been written about quite a bit. She wrote about it herself in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. She was clinically depressed for much of her life. She had electroshock therapy, attempted suicide, was admitted to a mental institution for six months, got more electric and insulin shock treatments and still the depression ended her life in suicide.

In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character, Alvy,  warns Annie that Sylvia Plath was an “interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.”

Another tragic female poet, Anne Sexton was in and out of mental institutions  for much of her life. Bipolar and suicidal. She started with poetry as therapy at the suggestion of her therapist. Her poetry is full of madness and pain and, like Plath, Sexton took her own life.

It seems like researchers have gotten caught up in those same stories that intrigued me in college and they are looking to connect genius and madness.

Since I spend a lot of time with poets and poetry these days, I was attracted to a new British study that included 294 poets (almost all “published” poets) in an anonymous online survey. The poets scored above average on the “Unusual Experiences”, “Cognitive Disorganization” and “Impulsive Nonconformity” traits. If the poets self-identified their work as “avant-garde,” they scored even higher on “Unusual Experiences.”  2 poets reported schizophrenia, 15 reported bipolar disorder, 152 reported depression and 80 reported anxiety disorder.

Does that sounds about right for poets? Well, actually those percentages are not much higher than the general population.

Since these poets were all self-reporting, it’s possible that they had bought into the madness and writers archetype. Or did their “abnormal” psychology lead them to be writers?

Solitude might be defined as a state of seclusion or isolation. No matter where you find solitude, it always means a lack of contact with people.

I know it can be associated with bad situations – relationship issues, loss of loved ones, disease.  But in the short-term, solitude can be seen as a good and valuable thing. It can be a  time when you can work or think or rest without being disturbed. It can be privacy in a world where privacy is eroding.

Most people who give this topic any serious thought see a distinction between solitude and loneliness. For me, solitude is a good thing, while loneliness is the pain of being alone.

I heard a piece on the radio about three novels about solitude and writers and that got me thinking about the subject. As I sit here at my desk typing this, I am alone in a room. My wife is upstairs in her workspace. I don’t feel alone and I certainly don’t feel lonely. But I do want some solitude to write.

Writers tend to cherish their inner space. These are generalities (not stereotypes) but I find most writers to be outgoing and nice to be with in social situations. The solitude they crave comes at other times, and when they need it, don’t impose on that space.

We like voluntary isolation.

In those novels (I am reading one of them now), you have writers writing about writers who are dealing with solitude in some way. In The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am,  the writer has “lived so quietly that the most she thinks of human connection is that ‘someone might notice me on the way to the store’.” It is in the reading of some obituaries where she finds the stories of some people younger than she is, that she decides to get back into the world  and contact with people again. This is a Norwegian novel and in my mind people in places like Norway deal more with solitude.

Amy, the writer protagonist of Amy Falls Down, seems to have accidentally fallen into staying away from people. An accident brings her back into the public eye and she begins again some social interactions. The book’s curious description says that “While she still has writer’s block, she doesn’t suffer from it. She’s still a hermit, but she has allowed some of her class members into her life. She is no longer numb, angry, and sardonic: she is merely numb and bemused, which is as close to happy as she plans to get. Amy is calm.”


It is not so accidental for Celia, the protagonist of The Affairs of Others, who retreated from the world after her husband’s death. Her isolation feels to me more of a loneliness, even if self-imposed. She owns a small apartment building and chooses tenants for their ability to respect one another’s privacy. Here is someone who likes boundaries, solitude and being at a remove from a new tenant named (ironically or hopefully) Hope. Things get noisy. I haven’t finished the book, so no spoilers, but I hope for solitude and pleasure to triumph.

These writers have space that is sometimes public and sometimes private, which may not seem to be the case for many of us. But we do have public lives at work or school, even if there is no “fame” associated with it. We know that we can’t quite live without one another.

We don’t really want to be the castaway on the desert island, even if that sounds rather appealing at times. We would want to be rescued or even have the boat that can get us back to the mainland when we need that.

In my college days, I read a lot about solitude in religious contexts. The saints and the monks wanted  silence and found a kind of pleasure in it. Buddha attained enlightenment through meditation and deprived himself of sensory input, bodily necessities, and external desires, including social interaction.

It seemed to me that solitude was pretty much required to find yourself or your place in this world or the next one.

That pleasure from solitude seemed to be from within. This led me to many weekends of self-imposed solitude spent smoking, drinking and writing. This Romantic (but only in the English class sense) attitude eventually started to feel lonely. The idea that I needed the solitude to recharge my energy or creativity stopped working for me.

solitude

‘Solitude’ by Frederic Leighton

I know now that this path affects your physical and mental health, both positively and negatively.

Symptoms from complete isolation, called sensory deprivation, often include anxiety, sensory illusions, or even distortions of time and perception.

Now, that is an extreme case from no sensory stimulation at all and wouldn’t occur to those levels by just avoiding contact with people. However, any long-term solitude is often seen as undesirable. The solitude becomes loneliness. It gets harder to have relationships.

I found that depression led me to isolate myself, and isolating myself led to depression. A very nasty kind of Catch 22.

That doesn’t mean that solitude is depressing.  But it is a place right next door to depression and loneliness.

We know that sensory deprivation and solitary confinement are used with prisoners and are a way to torture and break them. So why would anyone impose it, even for a short time, on themselves?

But we do. And it can be a good thing.

I have concluded in my own personal study that the important factor is time. Sometimes I need a few hours. It can be in the late night and early morning hours when the house is quiet and my wife and the world are asleep and I turn off the TV and Internet. It can be an afternoon spent walking in the woods alone and avoiding the occasional other walker.

My wife has been away for a few days and I find the empty house a very good place. Of course, I know she intends to come back. I know my solitude has an expiration date and so I place great value in the solitude. In those times, I find that even when I go out to the park or a store or even some place for a drink or food, I tend to isolate myself.

You can feel lonely in a crowd. Not a good thing. You can also find solitude in a place full of people, but it takes some effort.

In solitude I find freedom. I find spirituality. I rediscover my creativity. I do feel a recharging of energies.

My solitude is voluntary.  When that isolation is involuntary or undesired at that time, I don’t see it as solitude. This is not just the semantics of the word.

I don’t think that this involuntary isolation will lead to any feeling of freedom or creativity.  While solitude can help in the development of “self,” when it lasts too long or is not by choice, I think it can hurt the self and our own self-concept.

If I know someone who seems to be depressed, my first advice and intervention is to try to get them into the world, even though that feels like the worst possible thing to them in that moment.

Now that I am much older, I am thinking about solitude and age. I don’t think children who experience solitude a lot are really experiencing what I want solitude to mean. Those children are probably not choosing to be alone. Kids need some solitude, but think about how we use “alone time” or isolation (Go to your room!) as punishment – like those prisoners. In children too much alone time probably leads to someone unsure of how to interact socially with others. And that may cause them to prefer to be alone, which leads to a shyness that leads to social rejection. A nasty circular path to walk.

As a teenager, I craved social interaction and friends, and I craved solitude. I isolated myself in my room when relatives came. I buried myself in books. I went out and found places to be alone. I made myself lonely in some distorted attempt to find something else.

It took me a lot of years to find the right balance. Now, I am much better at finding solitude and knowing how much I need before I fall off a cliff into depression.

I find a clear and empty horizon to be a very beautiful place. That is especially true when I know that I can turn around and see the people I love and know that I can get back to them. That is a place that I wish for you too, reader.

coverLIFE.com Hemingway in Cuba, 1952 
and an interesting story behind Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photos.

In 1950, Ernest Hemingway had been working on a long novel tentatively titled The Sea Book. The writing was difficult and he felt his abilities were diminished. He only published a section of the manuscript during his life as The Old Man and the Sea (1952).

Despite the fact that the book was well reviewed and won the Pulitzer Prize, he was disappointed with himself for only being able to finish that short novella.

In 1953, while in Africa, a plane he was in collided with a flock of birds and crash landed on the shore of the Nile River. Hemingway sprained his shoulder but boarded another plane which also crashed, fracturing his skull and cracking two discs in his spine, and causing internal bleeding.

The crashed plane wasn’t immediately located and Hemingway was reported dead by the press. He later said that he strangely enjoyed reading the obituaries in a Tom Sawyer-ish way and saved them in scrapbooks.

The injuries never fully healed and he increased his alcohol consumption as a way to self-medicate.

He wrote a lot, but published none of it.

A trunk of old manuscripts and notebooks from his days in Paris gave him the rough materials to write his memoir A Movable Feast  but that was published posthumously in 1964. It is usually considered his best book of non-fiction. Still, he was disappointed in it when he finished the manuscript because he was not writing fiction and the book was the result  of reworking old material. He was a harsher critic of his writing than others.

He battled insomnia, pain, depression, failing eyesight, and the vanity of losing his hair and general old age. He became very paranoid and was convinced that he was under FBI surveillance. His wife thought he was losing his mind.  It was revealed later that he actually was under surveillance.

He entered the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and was given electroshock therapy which did not help and probably made things worse as it affected his memory and made writing even more difficult. He believed that he was alive to write and that if he could not write, there was no point in living. He talked about suicide.

Back in 1928, he had received a cable telling him that his father had committed suicide by shooting himself. He was devastated, particularly because he had earlier sent a letter to his father telling him not to worry about his financial difficulties. That letter arrived minutes after the suicide. He commented at the time that “I’ll probably go the same way.”[*]

Ernest Hemingway’s behavior during his last decade was similar to his father’s final years and it has been suggested that his father may have had the genetic disease hemochromatosis, in which the inability to metabolize iron culminates in mental and physical deterioration. Medical records made available in 1991 confirm that Ernest’s own hemochromatosis had been diagnosed in early 1961.[*] His sister Ursula and his brother Leicester also committed suicide.

On this day, July 2, in 1961, he got up early, loaded his favorite shotgun, and shot himself.

 

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All around I fear that Jonathan's (and most modern) satire is lost in a world that is itself a satire. The corporation side. All fall down The chenille is blooming its odd flowers again. It's August in NJ.

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