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From Hamlet asking To be or not to be, to Burt Bacharach composing What’s It All About, Alfie?, people have pondered the meaning of life. At certain points in our life, turning 40 or 50 years of age, for example, we’re more prone to find ourselves asking the fundamental questions. Other events can also prompt deep self-reflection, the death of a loved one, perhaps, or a traumatic event such as divorce.
Writing for Medical News Today, Jon Johnson says, “Simply put, the term ‘existential crisis’ refers to a moment of deep questioning within oneself. This usually relates to how someone sees themselves and their purpose within the world. A person who is experiencing an existential crisis may try to make sense of some grand or difficult-to-answer questions, such as if their life has any purpose or if life itself has any inherent meaning at all.”
Because different events and different questions can trigger an existential crisis, people facing the issue may have widely varying concerns. Johnson offers the following types of issues that a person may deal with.
Meaning. This is often what people associate with an existential crisis. It is the fundamental questioning of whether a person’s life — or, indeed, life itself — has any meaning.
Emotions and existence. A more complicated cause of an existential crisis involves a person’s ability, or willingness, to confront their emotions. “Some people may try to block out or avoid feelings that they struggle with, such as suffering or anger, thinking that this will allow them to only experience feelings they want to enjoy, such as happiness or tranquillity. This may lead to some people not giving validity to all of their emotions, which may, in turn, lead to a false happiness.”
Authenticity. If a person has certain talents that they are not able to utilize in their professional life, or even as a hobby, they may come to believe they are not being true to themselves.
Death and the limitations of mortality. Everyone ages, and confronting this fact of nature often prompts periods of self-reflection. Hence the common cliche of men experiencing a mid-life crisis by buying a sports car or having an affair with a younger woman.
Freedom. A little acknowledged source of an existential crisis is the relationship that a person has with their own freedom. “Freedom is a common aspect of existential crises,” says Johnson. “Being an individual means having the freedom to make one’s own choices. However, the flip side of this is that it also means being responsible for the outcome of those choices. This can lead to an uncertainty about taking any action for fear that it may be the wrong action or lead to undesirable consequences.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet touches on this problem in his famous soliloquy, and it leaves him in a paralysis of inaction.