The Three Authors Who Saved Me During an Existential Crisis
“Stench and worms.”
To use Leo Tolstoy’s words in A Confession, that’s what will become of us all after death. We toil through life. Our actions will inevitably come to an end. And all memory of us will eventually disappear. So, what’s the point of going on in the first place? Why do anything at all? Why live?
At the age of thirty-two, these questions plunged me into an existential crisis — a period of doubt about the value of my very existence given the inevitability of my demise. Did a fulfilling life simply mean checking off all the boxes? Or was there a deeper meaning to my finite time on Earth? If the latter was true, I had to confront the promises I’d been handed down from my society since childhood. My teachers and family had encouraged me to focus on professional success, and my culture added that a romantic relationship, solid friendships, and community would seal the deal. This was not a late “quarter-life crisis” about which careers or interpersonal connections to cultivate. No, what bothered me was death itself. Did any career or relationship matter in the face of it? To understand whether life was worth living, I now needed to grapple with my mortality.
My instinct as a philosophy professor was to dig into works on the meaning of life. I had received a Ph.D. in the field three years earlier, and during my final year as a graduate teaching assistant, I’d helped with a course on the meaning of life. Although my academic research was about feminism and the philosophy of race, I knew I had the tools to solve my predicament. So that’s how I found myself on a journey through the history of literature, psychology, and philosophy to answer my doubts about life’s worthwhileness. From August 2018 to June 2019, I woke up at 6 o’clock nearly every morning to pour over dozens of texts on the meaning of life.
Throughout my quest to understand why life was worth living, I found hints of answer in many places: Friedrich Nietzsche; the contemporary philosophers Susan Wolf and Lars Svendsen; Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s study of Western literature and nihilism; Victor Frankl’s famous Man’s Search for Meaning; and the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s massive Existential Psychotherapy (yes, I did read all…