Existential Crises: What is the Existential Vacuum?
Some disclosures and trigger warnings: discussing existential questions at times can trigger any number of negative emotions. Please only read through my words if you are in a favorable emotional space. And if it ends up becoming too much for you, it’s okay. There are people to talk to. Seek out a professional counselor, or call a friend. If you’re feeling particularly low, there is a national suicide hotline: 1-800-273-8255< these people are available to talk to you 24/7 and they can help you get out of that funk. Alternatively, if you just want to have your voice heard or share your experiences surrounding this topic, please feel free to comment.
This entry is part 3 of a series. Take a look at my first or second entry in this existential series.
We’ve discussed what an existential crisis is, but what about this existential vacuum?
Vacuum definition: A space entirely devoid of matter.
The existential vacuum is the sense of utter despair that comes after an existential crisis. It’s like being stuck in a “fuck it” attitude; a depression; or a nihilistic outlook. In other words, not being able to find hope. But, why would this come up as such a foreign part of our existence?
One theory is that we’re setup to be shortsighted.
Here you are: a person living their life, going through your day-to-day routine, coming up with simple career and family goals, then bam! Existential dread hits you in the face.
Maybe it comes because your kid asks you “why” over and over again. Why is the sky blue? But why does sight work that way? Why are humans built that way? Why, why, why?
The spiral of questions can be so uncomfortable because it forces us to think bigger than ourselves, essentially. Our brains are completely conscious only within a tenth of a second at any given time. Our senses are just setup that way. So our daily attention span is very present moment. When someone or something begins to expand that attention to lifetimes, billions of years, the creation of the universe, etc. something doesn’t compute.
When we imagine beyond our lifetimes into the distant future or past things become out of our control. We don’t get to experience those realities. It’s uncomfortable.
The experience that there is something bigger than ourselves can help create meaning, not deplete it.
Have you ever watched or read something about the timeline of all living things?
For example, Carl Sagan in the “Pale Blue Dot” video describes how tiny we humans are compared to the universe.
This perspective shift can either bring us peace or dread. What it brings us may depend on your personality, belief systems, or even what mood you happen to be in at that moment.
So, this morning I could watch this video and be torn into an existential spiral about how nothing really matters. Then tomorrow night I could find peace that all of my problems seem so small compared to the complexity of life. Just like that. The flow works both ways: existential content can sway our moods; and our moods can change how we take on existential content.
Crises can set the process of the void into motion.
Victor Frankl wrote a whole book called The Will to Meaning. In it, he describes an approach to therapy that includes focusing on the importance of finding meaning in one’s life.
Frankl was a psychotherapist who survived a concentration camp in World War II. So his credibility about knowing the importance of meaning in a dire situation is famously high. He describes patients who struggled with a condition called the existential vacuum or inner void. Creating meaning out of terrible circumstances is something humans are capable of.
Let’s hear from my interviewees on how they describe their existential vacuums:
“Usually it’s about larger questions, headier questions that can’t really be tied up neatly with a yes or no answer kind of thing. It’s never a consistent kind of a dread; it will usually just be an idea that persists, almost like an itch you can’t scratch.”
“These episodes have resulted in alternating feelings. When I was younger, I remember feeling very empty, a few years later I would be more resistant towards the negative ideas that nothing matters and the world will never change. Now I feel like I’m going more towards those negative feelings like the human race is trash and the gift of life and consciousness was a giant wasted experiment on the universe. I also get to that point and the intangible ideas of infinite time and space just leave me stuck shrugging and saying “who knows.”
“…more like a rumbling storm of anxiety I can hear in the distance and the angst is from knowing that it will get here eventually and I’ll have to make decisions about and during that experience.”
Stay tuned next month for a whole blog on common situations, events, and stimuli that trigger existential dread… if only to know what to avoid!
Full series list:
Julia Stamman, LPC
Hi, I’m Julia! I’m an LPC (licensed professional counselor) practicing in South Austin. I understand the personal importance of a therapist groking my lifestyle, so I started helping others who identify as geeks, gamers, and/or misfits. Over time, I realized that I’m passionate about attachment-related trauma, social anxiety, and neurodiversity. On this blog, I write on topics like the overlap of alternative culture and mental health, and how to find services catered to these lifestyles.