I was sitting inside a deli eating a chocolate bar, texting a friend in Paris about how much I love Gothic architecture. Then my phone buzzed. I read your email. It made me giddy with tears. I rushed out of the deli and came back upstairs to write a response to your email. My friend is probably wondering why he never got a response, but I’m sure after reading this he’ll forgive me. I’m making my response public, because, believe it or not, what you are experiencing is not uncommon at all. You are not the first person who has voiced similar concerns to me. Initially, I intended to walk my readers through the basic steps, starting from how to overcome a heartbreak, moving on to how to get over insecurity issues… etc. But I do think I underestimated how sharp my readers actually are. So I’ve decided to skip all the steps and take us straight to the core of your inner turmoil: Life.
Nothing that you wrote is “too intense for an email”. What perplexes and confuses me are the people who can live through an entire lifespan without ever once questioning their own existences and asking themselves: “Why am I here?”
Many people just don’t have the balls to admit to their insecurities and fears the way that you did in your email. Most people don’t even recognize that the very actions, decisions, and choices that they make in life stem out of this innate fear of dying—a fear of dying that invariably results in a fear of living. Humanity is complex, diverse, and nuanced, but there is one simple, established, yet unspoken commonality that unites us to the brink: our own mortality frightens us to death.
You’re absolutely correct. I went through exactly what you’re going through. At the age of five, I would stay up late every night thinking about outer space, wondering if there was ever an edge. Did it ever stop? Or was it an infinite abyss? And if it was, then what was the role of humanity? What are we doing on this earth? If we are just biological accidents, then why do we bother to live? Is humanity just oblivious? These thoughts would make me feel terribly useless and insignificant.
I would think about death. I would be frightened over the thought that one day, my life would end… Everything that I worked for, everything that I built up would be gone. My life would be consummated without me, before my eyes, and ultimately, there would be nothing. Everything would disintegrate into this nothingness. That empty feeling, that nothingness, haunted me with sleepless nights and swollen eye bags. My parents were religious, and they offered it to me as a solace. My heart ached for a God. But I could never believe.
These feelings would come and go. I found ways to distract myself. Anything to get my mind off the thought that one day my life would come to an end. Come high school – relationships? Yes. I would be infatuated, heads over heels, in love with random boys, because love could fill the emptiness. I would allow myself to experience heartbreaks that would push me to the brink of self-destruction, because the feeling of heartbreak was nothing compared to the frightening feeling of knowing that I was going to die some day.
Come college and New York City, I started distracting myself the way that many adults still do today.
Materialistic conquests—because maybe I could channel the insignificance of my life into some sort of measurable significance, like the monetary value we assign to an expensive Chanel bag. Then social climbing—maybe my life would be relatively meaningful if I would die as somebody before the eyes of an entire society.
And what better place to pursue these things than New York City? Take a look around, the entire city is a gigantic shrine devoted to the human fear of death. Even those who have accepted their fates in the limits of atheism build an entire life just to die with the comfort of a posthumous presence and a perpetual legacy.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. The truth is, deep down, we all feel lonely. We all feel an emptiness lingering inside of us. And ultimately, we pursue all these things to distract us from that emptiness, or to pretend that it isn’t there. Some are comfortable stopping at this point, and ending their lives resigned at this stage. And that’s perfectly fine. If that’s how they want to live their lives, then so be it.
But I have a feeling that you’re different. You mention that you’re terrified to die. There are many ways around that, but I know you’ve already recognized the futility of trying to achieve immortality. You say that you’re terrified to live. But now that you’re conscious of the grand meaninglessness of life, you are left with a grand dilemma: do you continue to drag out an anesthetized existence, or do you begin to live, as Camus said, to the point of tears? I think you know the answer to that question already.
So what now?
I want you to confront that emptiness that you’re feeling.
I want you to confront your fear of death.
Think about the moment that your life is going to end. Think about it as much as you can, as hard as you can, and despair your life to the very depth, to the point that the emptiness you’re feeling is not only numbing you, but grinding into your bones and clogging every vein. Because the more you avoid it, the longer you prolong it.
I want you to experience the Nausea.
I want you to feel the Unbearable Lightness of Being.
I want you to pretend that you are Sisyphus. Visualize your condemnation, and feel the weight of the stone crushing against you.
And after you do, you’ll realize, that this Nothingness that you’re fearing, is precisely the one thing that makes your life so worth living. This lack of meaning to life grants you the authority as the sole junta, totalitarian, and dictator of your own journey. What could be mistaken for a plague of lazy nihilism is really the frightening discovery that you have the absolute freedom, responsibility, and burden to live as you wish.
I will warn you now, my message is not positive. Good gosh, no. I do not believe, for a second, in lives that are directed towards some ultimate happiness. I could care less about being happy.
Ignore people that try to feed you with the bullshit that you should pursue an “optimistic” outlook to life, that you should always think positively. That is what I call living in fear, for a life shielded behind a coerced happiness is a life lived marginally.
Pain and suffering will bestow upon you a deepened sensitivity and a profound appreciation for life that those oblivious to it can only pretend to know.
I won’t claim that I’ve gathered the ingredients for meaning, that I’ve figured out some sort of “formula” to counter the emptiness of life. I’m only twenty; I’m still seeking the answers to so many questions. But I can acknowledge that somewhere between the lines of contemplating suicide and discovering Sartre, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Camus, I’ve emerged with a swelling fervor to live, and it is not in my broody, pessimistic nature to admit to this, but…
I love life.
And I do not believe that my life serves a purpose.
I do not believe that my life has any meaning.
Does it disappoint me? Maybe a little. I still think about death all the time, but it simply doesn’t scare me anymore.
The clock is ticking, there are so many brilliant people that I need to hunt down and meet, and I need to keep working and keep making money so that I can continue to support myself and travel the world. Can you believe I still haven’t seen Ophelia with my own eyes? There are so many more landmarks that I am starving to see, so many more books waiting to be uncovered, so many thoughts fumbling through my head that need to be translated into pictures and words, so many more people just like us who need an axe to break the frozen sea within us.
Really, I don’t think we have the time or right to worry about death when we haven’t even experienced a glimpse of this conundrum we call life.
So tell me, M, what inspires you? Or better yet, what is it that you love to do when you procrastinate? You mentioned that you loved the beautiful photos of Paris on my blog, so maybe, you have a wanderlust boiling violently inside of you that is screaming to be unleashed. And I know that you, too, can live your life with the sort of desperation and urgency that makes every moment the type of moment that if you slow down and take a deep breath, you’ll hear your heart throbbing furiously through your panting breath, and you’ll manage, but barely manage, to utter these lines, in a voice so exhausted yet drenched with vivacity:
“This is my life…”
“…And I’m living.”
Special thanks to: Photographer Marco Sagliocco, Daniel Abrams, Mik Pozin, Mr. Farrow, Mr. Anonymous-Existentialism, my brother, and the various pages on the internet that I stole all these paintings from (hover over them for artist/name where applicable), and M.