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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

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I try to take on Big Questions on this site, so it was inevitable that I would have to take on the meaning of life at some point. And give an answer.

It’s a philosophical toughie. It’s the hardest possible essay question on The Final Exam.

According to existentialism, each man and each woman creates the meaning of his and her life. Life is not determined by a supernatural god or an earthly authority.

Of course, philosophies often evolve into religions.

In the Judaic world view, the meaning of life is to elevate the physical world and prepare it for the world to come. Christianity has its roots in Judaism’s ontology, but its central beliefs come from the teachings of Jesus Christ, as presented in the New Testament. As with Judaism, life’s purpose is to prepare for the next life. I this case, by seeking divine salvation through the grace of God and intercession of Christ.

In Islam, man’s ultimate life objective is to worship the creator Allah by abiding by the Divine guidelines revealed in the Qur’an and the Tradition of the Prophet. Once again, our life on earth is just a test that determines one’s afterlife. Like Christianity, that afterlife can be Jannah (Paradise) or Jahannam (Hell).

Even Wikipedia offers a page on the meaning of life. In fact, the question is so incomprehensibly big that it not only requires serious study, but invites humorous, throw-up-your-hands reactions too.

In Douglas Adams‘ popular series Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is an answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” The answer is “42.” This was obtained after seven and a half million years of calculation by a giant supercomputer called Deep Thought.

The public is not satisfied with this answer, even if it is correct. The supercomputer explains that “I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is. I agree.

Adams continued the story and he suggested that the question was actually correctly asked by Bob Dylan: “How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?”  Is that a reference to reincarnation?

In another of Adams’ books, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, he writes that the question is “What is 6×9?”   Yes, 6 x 9 = 54 – but only if you re using base 10.  In base 13, it does equal 42. So…


The Monty Python troupe made a film titled The Meaning of Life.  At the end of the film, a character played is handed an envelope containing “the meaning of life.” When he opens it, he tells the audience that “It’s nothing very special. Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

But these answers (and questions) may not satisfy your old philosophical or spiritual seeking.

Then, I turn to The Simpsons.

homer-godUnfortunately for all of us, in the episode (“Homer the Heretic“) where God finally agrees to tell Homer the meaning of life, the show’s credits begin to roll just as he starts to say what it is. D’oh!

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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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