Your Existential Despair–Treat it Like a Creative Gift

This is an essay by Aaron Pederson.

This article is about learning to see our existential despair/discontent/anxiety (whatever you want to call it) as a creative gift, rather than something to be psychologically burdened with.

Note that I’m not talking about neurotic (obsessively self-focused) despair. Existential despair is much different—it’s about how one feels in relation to one’s existence.

I experienced existential anxiety recently, when a couple friends and I were driving home from a night out at a club. We had had our fair share of banana rum and liquid cocaine shots. The driver, of course, was sober. As we were driving down a main road, I noticed a full red moon hanging low in the night sky.

“You know,” I said. “On a night like this, people everywhere are looking at this brilliant object, and most won’t even think twice about it. That thing that seems so close to us is in space right now. It’s so hard for me to fathom that.”

Silence.

“How did that giant rock that so perfectly lights up the night sky even get there in the first place?” I continue. “People rarely ask these types of questions—they just go on with their night…. thinking about work tomorrow or football on Sunday.”

I was speaking anxiously—my hands waving in the air as I scrambled to convey my point accurately, as if the right words were floating in front of my face and I just couldn’t snatch the right ones.

My friends didn’t say much. They suggested that my thought was strange. Perhaps they had missed the essence of what I was trying to capture in words. Had I miscommunicated my point? Should I swig some water, rest my head against the seat and call it a night?

I don’t know. Maybe I was just being weird.

The next morning, though, I remembered something I had read about Sigmund Freud. Let me explain.

Freud believed that people who came to therapy were not crazy, were not ill, but were actually personal previews of the angsts and anxieties the general population would soon face.

In other words, the sensitive people of the population—those who were worse than most at rationalizing their discontent/ despair/ anxiety—were the first to talk about their dissatisfactions, their repressions—but they weren’t the last. Soon enough, the majority of people would be experiencing the same inner conflicts. And that’s when major change happens in a society—a shift in values is really just an attempt to alleviate mass anguish.

For example, before the Renaissance was born out the disintegrated Middle Ages, there were probably a few individuals who predicted a great societal change, who experienced existential angst before the rest of society, who felt that, say, science needed to make greater leaps or the arts needed to become less stiff and more appreciative of nature.

Slowly, more and more people would experience this same discontent until it became a widespread shift in attitude. Suddenly, new values like materialism and human achievement and being a “Renaissance man” would trump the mere worshiping of God.

My point is this: if you currently experience existential angst and are kept up at night with deep, dark questions about life, and nobody seems to understand you, then realize you’re not crazy. Instead, you’re just ahead of the curve than the rest of us.

If anything, you’re more normal and saner than the rest of us—we just haven’t caught up.

Now, you may be wondering how this relates to “creativity.” Well, the great poet Ezra Pound once called artists the “antennae of the human race.” Or as psychoanalyst Rollo May says, “…. they [artists] give us a ‘distant early warning’ of what is happening to our culture.” What Pound and May mean, I think, is that artists often see (negative) things coming before anyone else, and this allows them to comment on society’s discontents in films, in novels, in art, in music.

With that said, you and I should treat our existential despair like a creative gift: something to be cherished, not burdened.

As artists, we have giant antennae sticking out of the backs of our heads that may attract certain thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts or insights seem depressing or hopeless, but that’s okay. We should explore these troubles courageously; not run away from or medicate them, for these are the concepts and ideas philosophers and artists create with.

The great philosopher Jon Stuart Mill once said, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”

Maybe ignorance isn’t bliss after all.

Maybe exploring deep questions about life is more important to our human growth then merely being contented, blinded.

Maybe in a few generations, a layperson wrestling with probing doubts and questions about the moon will be a common, daily occurrence—and this will inevitably push our society forward.

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Aaron Pederson is a copywriter and freelance writer by trade and, in his spare time, he writes about creativity. He believes that creative people must be diligent and disciplined in their work, because if they aren’t channelling their creative energy productively their personal life can get messy. He has self-published a book called Lessons for Creative People, a short book on creative recovery. He blogs often at http://creativeethos.net about the creative spirit, and the many lessons we can learn from living he creative life. You can follow him on twitter @Creative_Ethos.

8 Replies to “Your Existential Despair–Treat it Like a Creative Gift”

  1. This is a fantastic post. Sadly, I think we’re moving further and further away from being intellectual or “thinking” people. We have so many distractions to fill our lives, just so that we don’t have to think. However, maybe you are right. One day (in maybe more than a few generations) when we’re all brain dead, there will be a renewal, a spark, a revival. After all, everything does come full circle.

    Again, I enjoyed this whole piece immensely. Hopefully you’ll contribute more in the future to RLW.

    1. Hey Anmarie,

      Thanks for the kind response!

      You nailed it right on its head: we really are moving away from being “thinking people.” Technology especially has made us expect everything to be easy. As a result, my generation (including myself) have become generally lazier and less disciplined than our ancestors–the pioneers who helped build our North American empire with sheer work ethic. Nobody likes to think anymore. Hopefully this spark, as you say, comes before the consequences become too dire to recover from.

  2. Really good post.
    I’ve experienced flashes of existential angst, all my life. It always scared the hell out of me, because I was clueless as to what it was. It can cause a terrible feeling of loneliness, and can cause you to feel like everything is totally pointless. I love the statement, “Try to see it as a creative gift”. I’ve learned that it affects highly creative people, as well as gifted Individuals, the most. I’ve read that parents of gifted children should be aware that their kids could become depressed and withdrawn for this reason, and to be prepared. I don’t know why it isn’t addressed more, early on in school. I really could have benefited from a little education about it. Instead I was just blindsided by it, and had to spend a lot of time researching theology, psychology, and philosophy, figuring it out.

  3. I stumbled upon this article so very randomly. I was re-reading some things about the musician Elliott Smith’s life and then came upon the phrase “existential despair” while reading about him. I feel exactly this way very much and it seems to strengthen at times as I get older. I am an artist. I am grateful that I came across your article, as it has helpled me feel less alone in the existential despair struggle. Maybe there really are “no accidents” as they say. Thanks again, I’ll be reading this article over as I need to. Totally helpful.
    Best,
    Jeanine

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