Confronting Life’s Big Questions

By Alex Newhouse

“Oh, I’ve spent my time pondering my existence, contemplating life and death, wondering what it all means.” It’s the cliché joke about intellectuals – sitting around at a coffeeshop or a pub, discussing life’s big questions and perhaps smoking cigars and wearing tweed coats. We’ve all heard it. It’s been diffused and diluted to the point where it’s nearly meaningless.

But it seems to me that this dilution in thinking about life’s big questions has left something of a stigma against actually confronting those questions concretely and directly. Sure, we might talk about life’s problems in class, but classes don’t necessarily encourage us to personally engage with those problems. It’s been rare that I’ve been challenged or directed to grapple with existential questions in a systematized way in the context of my own life. Private reflection on existential matters has been left largely under the guidance of families or spiritual organizations.

But for a lot – and I would say even most – people, places where they can go to discuss these issues are few and far between. I’ve had a hard time in my own life finding somewhere I can talk about the problems weighing down my mind. It’s hard to bring up personal questions about life and death with a group of friends, let alone in a class setting.

But I don’t think it should be that difficult. I think we should become more open to talking directly about our existential fears and angst, and those questions that plague us as we try to fall asleep at night. If you trust your friends, it should be acceptable to bare your soul for a few moments and discuss your vulnerabilities and those deep, philosophical fears.

Occasionally I’ve been able to have conversations that touch on some of these issues. But I’ve almost never witnessed an occasion where someone – or myself – feels comfortable enough to come out and engage completely with them. Have you ever seen someone directly say: “I’m afraid of dying, let’s talk about it?” It almost never happens. But it should.

The truth of the matter is that talking with others is the best way to develop our own personal methods of finding meaning and understanding our place in the universe. We can read Sartre and Nietzsche and Kierkegaard all day, but without some sort of dialogue with living people that we care about and trust, and who undoubtedly struggle with the same questions, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to come to satisfactory answers. We need the context that comes from people we care about. Personally, I need to hear about how my Christian friend deals with his existential crises, and how my atheist friend deals with hers. I need to converse with someone about how it might not matter at all that the universe is completely and utterly incomprehensible – we can still find meaning in it anyways.

I recently watched a video that laid out Martin Heidegger’s existentialist philosophy in a clear, concise and simplified form. I’ve read about existentialism and its philosophical offspring – absurdism – before, but watching this video, I actually felt like I got what existentialism and absurdism are trying to explain.

To come to some sort of full comprehension of ourselves and our existence, we must pull the metaphorical veil of human society away from reality. We have to look directly into the black depths of the universe and confront the fact that ultimately, we live on a frighteningly fragile hunk of rock in a galaxy with a black hole at its center, rapidly hurtling out further into the cosmos, occupying a point so small within the entire expanse that it might as well not exist. And we must confront the reality that our lives are so fantastically short with regards to the age of the universe that we might as well not exist on the timeline either – at least on the grand scale of things.

And we must know that this reality is okay. It is completely fine that our lives are meaningless to the universe at large – that we’ll almost certainly never understand even a fraction of what is out there. Accepting this is how we understand and better appreciate our own lives, our own microcosms and how our impact – so small on the cosmic scale – is massive on the scale of some significant fraction of the seven billion other microcosms out there.

But if I’m going to pursue that existentialist way of thought, I can’t learn how to achieve that acceptance on my own. I need help. I need to be able to turn to my friends in moments of sincerity and seriousness, and I need to be able to ask them, “How do I deal with the meaninglessness of this universe, this planet and everything else?” I need an avenue for confronting that darkness and knowing that there are others nearby who are doing the same.

We should not shy away from engaging with our inner philosophical demons. We should be able to ask ourselves and then our friends what each of us individually thinks about life and death, and how we will face the inevitable conclusion of our lives. It does not help to simply forget the fact that yes, someday I will die. Rather, I must say to myself, “Sure – I’m going to die. But how does that affect today? How do I lead a fulfilling, but inherently limited, life?” And then, I should feel comfortable enough to turn to a person I trust and ask them the same questions, thus learning and teaching as we both try to figure out how we each comprehend existence and the universe.