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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

Advertisements 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.


Hemingway on his beloved boat, Pilar, in 1950.

Sixty years ago, in September 1952, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was published. It was the last book that Hemingway published during his lifetime.

For Whom the Bell Tolls was his last major publication, but that had been published 12 years earlier. His book Across the River and into the Trees got poor reviews in 1950 and sold less than 100,000 copies.

The general feeling of critics was that his best writing was in the past, and that feeling surely made its way back to him.

The Old Man And The Sea was a book that changed that direction, although only for a short period.

It was originally meant to be part of a longer work that he referred to as “The Sea Book.” Some of the other parts appeared posthumously in Islands in the Stream . (A book that I like a lot – more than most critics, I am sure.)

It was decided that he would publish a part of it (only 27,000 words) as “The Old Man and the Sea” in the September 1st issue of Life magazine.

The magazine cost 20 cents and it was a bit of a gamble to publish it there because it was also due to be published as a book by Charles Scribner’s Sons for $3 the same month.

The gamble worked. The Life issue sold more than 5 million copies in two days, and the book version was also a best-seller.

The story received excellent reviews and buoyed Hemingway’s reputation and spirits. It received the Pulitzer Prize in 1952, and was cited when Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. The book and awards made him an international celebrity.

Henry “Mike” Strater and Hemingway with “apple-cored” marlin in Bimini, 1935. The photo shows the remaining 500 lbs of an estimated 1000 lb marlin that was half-eaten by sharks before it could be landed.

The Old Man and the Sea is the story of an epic battle between an old, experienced Cuban fisherman named Santiago and a large marlin. Santiago has gone 84 days without catching a fish and is now considered bad luck to the other fishermen. Santiago’s state is often compared to Hemingway’s condition as a writer at that time – unable to bring home the big one.

Santiago finally catches the big one, but sharks tear it apart. When he gets back to shore, it is a skeleton, but from its size the other fisherman realize what a catch it was and what a battle the old man had fought.

Critics may interpret “The Sea Book” as Hemingway’s big fish that he couldn’t quite catch. Then The Old Man and the Sea would be the magnificent skeleton. And the critics themselves are the sharks.

When I read the book as a young teenager, I thought for sure that the old man would die at the end. But Santiago’s young apprentice (who had been told not to fish with the jinxed old man) finds him safely sleeping. The boy brings him newspapers and coffee and when Santiago wakes, they promise to fish together again. Santiago goes back to sleep and dreams, Hemingway-like, of his youth and of lions on an African beach.

“The shark swung over and the old man saw his eye was not alive and then he swung over once again, wrapping himself in two loops of the rope. The old man knew that he was dead but the shark would not accept it. Then, on his back, with his tail lashing and his jaws clicking, the shark plowed over the water as a speed-boat does. The water was white where his tail beat it and three-quarters of his body was clear above the water when the rope came taut, shivered, and then snapped. The shark lay quietly for a little while on the surface and the old man watched him. Then he went down very slowly. ‘He took about forty pounds,’ the old man said aloud. He took my harpoon too and all the rope, he thought, and now my fish bleeds again and there will be others. […] It was too good to last, he thought. I wish it had been a dream now and that I had never hooked the fish and was alone in bed on the newspapers. ‘But man is not made for defeat,’ he said. ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated.'”

Although the first installments of  “The Dangerous Summer” were published in Life in September 1960 to good reviews, Hemingway’s physical and mental health were deteriorating. Hemingway knew that he could no longer write at a level that was acceptable to himself.

Destroyed and unwilling to be defeated by other means, in the early morning hours of July 2, 1961, Hemingway shot himself with his favorite shotgun.

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