Existential Anxiety

There are three types of existence.

When you see a stone in front of you, for example, would you think that this stone can exist even two hundred years from now on? Perhaps, it can. But then, this thought doesn’t bother you so much.

How about a person you don’t know? Any human being can’t, of course, live for more than two hundred years. We all know that people can’t exist that long. Again, this thought doesn’t bother you too much. That is the type of existence we know as “knowledge” alone.

Secondly, how about those people whom you love and care? How about your beloved spouse or partner? How about your parents or children? Thinking that they will surely leave you and this world someday makes us sad, even painful.

We all know as “knowledge” that nobody can live forever. Still, the sense of such (eternal) separation from the persons you love and care devastates us. They definitely leave us. And we can never meet them again in the way we meet with each other here and now. That is the type of existence we face as “experience.” Everyone has experienced the death of someone he or she loves and cares.

And, the third one is not just experiential, but more existential. It is about the existence of ourselves. What does it mean to say that we exist or I exist?

We don’t care much about the presence of a stone in front of us. But, we do care about the existence of the persons we love. Suddenly, then, we realize that we also exist in the same way. Have you attended the funeral of your grandmother or grandfather? Like them, someday, indeed, we will be in the coffin for our funeral.

Two hundred years ago, we didn’t exist. That is true. And two hundred years from now on, we won’t exist in this world anymore. That is also true. It is what we call existential truth. As Kierkegaard said, truth is subjective.

How can we deal with this temporality of our existence? How can we face the reality of our birth and death? This reality is inevitable. We can never say that it is false or fake. We are born and will leave this world someday just like everyone else, and perhaps everything else as well.

Even our universe will end itself eventually. While I said, there were three types of existence, there could see the fourth. That is the way that the universe exists.

What is the end of the universe? Once the universe ends its existence, where will it leave? What would be left behind? We call it “after the end of the universe,” similar to “before the beginning of the universe.” In this fourth type of existence, we see the “ultimatum” of the very existence per se.

When we exist, we are in this world. We are either going to enter this world or going to leave this world. Our being (including being of everyone and everything else) could be only “on the foundation” of the ultimate “Being.” And if ever this supreme “Being” itself stops existing, what else could exist? We can never know.

Existing means something is “on the foundation.” And this foundation should also “exist” by itself, possibly “on the other basis.” And the ultimate foundation does not or cannot exist on anything else. It is indeed the existence per se. So, we could call it Being or God. It does not exist on anything else. It exists on nothing.

It just is. God alone is.

Consciously or unconsciously, we are aware of these four types of existence.

We see a stone exists and know that people live and die. That’s our “knowledge.” And we happily experience that someone we love lives with us and yet painfully leaves us and this world. That’s our “experience.” And, we face the very reality of our birth and death eventually. We will leave here and will go somewhere. That’s our “existential realization.”

And what is such “here” or “somewhere”? How does it exist? Where does it live? Beyond heaven and earth, we can no longer see any clue. It is no longer the mode of being but “Being.” Beyond and transcending a set of beings, there would be “Being.” What can we see? Can we see anything?

It is easy to say or conceptually define such “Being” as “that which can never be beyond and transcendental anymore as it is by itself beyond and transcendental.” Lao Tzu also had no choice but to call it Tao as something that we can never conceptualize.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

Thus, these four types of existence could be as follows:

  1. Knowledge: A stone exists. People live and die. There is the universe. The world is flat. The world is round.
  2. Experience: My spouse lives and dies. I can never meet my father anymore in this world again.
  3. Existential Reality: I live and die. I will leave this world someday, surely. I can’t meet my son or daughter anymore in this world again. Where am I going after my death? Where was I before I was born?
  4. Being: What does it mean to say the universe exists or not, God exists or not. In it, everyone and everything else exists. In it, I live and die. If so, where and how does this “it” exist o not? It just is? God alone is? We can never know, while we can understand as “knowledge.”

Kierkegaard called our reaction of facing the spectrum of these sets of existence “anxiety.” Facing such a variety, we inevitably become anxious. Similarly, Sartre described one’s experiencing the range of overwhelming reality as “nausea.” And perhaps, it should be part of “anxiety” that Kierkegaard articulated as the dizziness of freedom.

People. You must love people. Men are admirable. I want to vomit — and suddenly, there it is: the Nausea.

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Anxiety can be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason? It is just as much his own eye as the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. It is in this way that anxiety is the dizziness of freedom that emerges when spirit wants to posit the synthesis, and freedom now looks down into its own possibility and then grabs hold of finiteness to support itself. In this dizziness freedom subsides.

The Concept of Anxiety By Søren Kierkegaard

For example, the concept of sin is what we see as “knowledge.” In this level, we see how we are sinful from the context of Christianity. We are a bit anxious, but it is still “knowledge.” Through real interactions with people, we “experience” the reality of our sinfulness and our concerns about others’ sins. But then, there is the moment we get “devastated” by our sinfulness with the very reality of our death.

Suddenly, our very existence overwhelms our existence itself. We feel “nausea” or “dizziness” in the way we exist – live and die. Once our sense of anxiety reaches its culmination, we have almost abruptly realized that we are standing at the very edge of the existential cliff. Seeing the deep abyss in front of us, we would feel fear. Moreover, the sense of anxiety would overwhelm us.

Standing at the edge, ironically, we can decide whether we jump or stay here. We can grab the stone and continuously hang ourselves at the border. Or, we can jump into the deep abyss in front of us. What should we do? We can do it. At the same time, we can’t do it. It seems we have our free will. We have the freedom to make our fate. But then, it seems we are not free.

Our very existence makes us free and unfree. Anxiety overwhelms us.

In the same manner, the Garden of Eden should be such a cliff. And it is also what Adam and Eve experienced and got devastated after they ate the fruit of knowledge. Why did their free will bring them to the outside of the Garden of Eden? They made their choice because of their will. But then, all the types of existence around confused them. Why did the serpent exist? Why was there unnecessarily the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden? Why did God allowed them to live that way? What about the very existence of God who kicked them out? Where is the Garden of Eden? Where is the outside of this Garden?

Mythically, allegorically, and archetypically, in the Garden of Eden, we all have faced the ambivalence of our free will and the temporality of life. Our willfulness makes us free and unfree. Encountering such existential reality of our choice, we have realized that the Garden of Eden is indeed the cliff where we scarcely stand at the very edge.

And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Genesis 3:22-24

We are in the prison of freedom and self-consciousness. We just thought we had talked with God. Where is He? When we ask this question, that is the sign that we can never find Him in the three types of existence. He is nowhere. We can scarcely define the only concept of “Being” as if we have falsely and superficially found Him.

Release our hands from the cliff. Holding our hands tight, we can never get rid of the Garden of Eden’s inside/outside dilemma as if it is the cliff we are hanging ourselves. Ironically, holding our hands tight, we can never get rid of our fear for the abyss in front of us. Release our hands from it, not the dark abyss, but we can see the light shines in the darkness beyond all types of existence. That is the true light of “Being” that the darkness can never comprehend as knowledge, experience, even as existential reality.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

John 1:5

Image by ImaArtist

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