My book club recently read and discussed Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying, which elicited a lively conversation about the human condition. Having read her earlier book, Fear of Flying, as a psychology class assignment in the 70s, I was somewhat prepared for the author’s style, but I wondered if her latest book was going to be about sex in her sixties. It was marginally about sex, but it was more about acting out. While dealing with aging and dying parents and an ailing husband, the author tempers her existential angst by fantasizing about perfect, uncommitted sex and goes about seeking this distraction to her troubles by searching dating web sites. While some of the women in my group were horrified at the stupidity and danger of her attempts at hookups, I was merely amused at her pitiful efforts to immerse herself in something exciting as a replacement to her difficult life challenges. After all, it was just fiction! But this is what Woody Allen has mastered in all of his films, the ability to portray us with mocking absurdity and absolute frailty in our efforts to overcome our angst. To obscure our angst, we often find ourselves acting out, just like Vanessa Wonderman in Fear of Dying or like any of Woody Allen’s protagonists. The question to consider then, is what do you do when faced with an existential dilemma? Do you act out? In what way? Are you aware of it? Are there other options? Do you use other defense mechanisms? How do you escape the human condition?
I was just wondering……………
The existentialists such as Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard wrote a lot about the human condition and our difficulties in facing it. The Theatre of the Absurd also spawned from this movement and Eugene Lonesco portrayed us as helpless and farcical in our efforts to deal with our existence. Artist Edvard Munch portrayed his concept of this problem in his rendering of his famous painting, “The Scream.” Sigmund Freud added to the concept when he defined angst as inner turmoil often felt as intense apprehension and anxiety. Kierkegaard introduced the concept of anxiety as a feeling of dread, a deep seated condition arising from our freedom of choice. Arising from our decisions comes the concept of guilt, creating further anxiety related to whether or not we have made the correct choices. The human condition includes the concepts of birth, growth, emotions, conflict, death and all the ramifications of these issues. Existential angst haunts us in particular with such unanswerable questions as why are we here, what is death, is there a God, why are relationships exasperating, how do we get along? The human condition is that which occurs as a result of these dilemmas, which like the painting ”The Scream,” leaves us suspended in a frightening void.
As a therapist, I have come to view the human condition much like these existentialists, especially those who see the humor in our efforts to deal with our existential angst and the human condition. While there is always a time for sadness and human connectedness and empathy, I cannot help but feel amusement at times, even with myself at some of my pitiful efforts to deal with life. To me, it is bittersweet to observe the play between the difficulties that arise and our sometimes pathetic attempts to cope. But in a way, bittersweet describes the whole picture. It is not all bad and it is not all good. Some of our best stories about our lives are the ones we tell together with friends and family about when we did something absurd, crazy, but we can now look back and laugh at ourselves. I think this is a healthy way of coping, to forgive ourselves, see the humor, and never take ourselves too seriously. The people who cope the best with this whole angst issue are the ones who can make fun of themselves, understanding that no one is perfect and that after all, we are just human.
There are many other ways to deal with angst that are more functional than acting out. Concentration camp survivors endured by remembering their families, things that were meaningful to them. Others use their religious and/or spiritual beliefs to bolster them during trying times and religions also provide answers to many of our unknowns. Some find meaning in their life work, and that provides peace. While the larger question is how to find a sense of meaning, we still remained plagued by the day to day challenges that beset us like, why the one we love doesn’t love us back, why can’t we get ahead, why can’t we love ourselves, why do we feel so guilty, and so on.
My challenge to you today is to think about how you deal with some of these issues. Become more self-aware. Do you choose functional ways of coping, or do you act out like Vanessa Wonderman? Do you withdraw or rationalize your behaviors? Do you intellectualize? My best advice is to not be so hard on yourself! Do your best and if it’s a bit crazy for a while, that’s okay. We all have this frailty. See the humor in it! After all, we are only human. Can you forgive your errors of judgement ? Can you accept yourself as perfectly imperfect?
I was just wondering—————————.