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.”
“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.