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Lockdown: A lesson in Existentialism

For quite some time now, I have been fascinated by the human habit of trying to disregard the nights. We pull all-nighters, light up the streets, have numerous lighting devices to ward off the darkness. And why should we not? For the night is dark and full of terrors.

From genuine physical and safety problems that surround us during the night, to the unnerving silence and emptiness that complete darkness brings with it, nights tick all the boxes of a space what existentials consider important for anxiety and the growth that the anxiety brings. According to existentialists anxiety has four sources: death, isolation, meaninglessness and responsibility (and freedom). They believe these issues to be issues of existence and believe that each person experiences anxiety from these but resolving these issues for oneself helps you grow.

At night:

  • We are faced with the anxiety of our temporary death

  • We are finally alone- alone with our thoughts and our own selves. Realizing how the thoughts and feelings that we have are personal, no one can reach this.

  • We get the chance to reflect and make meaning of our actions.

  • And in this absence of the others as well as the norms, duties, expectations, we are finally free to be that which we can be but also own it's responsibility.

Nights provide us with the dark space to face that which we truly are and as the dark empty environment engulfs us, we realize partially that everything might be meaningless.

So we do what we do best in the face of existential fears and anxiety: We ignore it, suppress it, discard it, and do everything in our power to stop the nights from fulfilling its purpose.

However, this was before the COVID-19 took over the world and became our collective existential nightmare, our tryst with Death, Freedom, Isolation, and Meaninglessness.

Yalom (1980)* in his book Existential Psychotherapy described that human beings when confronted with the "givens of their existence", in other words, those parts of being a human that we cannot escape, face a conflict which may result in some form of anxiety. We are prone to avoiding these conflicts and anxieties. However, the goal of every human being should be identification, understanding and resolution of these conflicts.

To actually access these "givens" we either need deep reflection, solitude, time, freedom, or it becomes accessible after some experiences which may have a confrontation with death, the collapse of our belief or worldview, and/or some irreversible decision.

Needless to say, COVID-19 has given us both of these. Solitude, time, and freedom from our usual routine as well as a confrontation with death and shattering of the belief that we are safe, or the government will protect us Or our loved ones will be here and so on.

Simple acts like buying groceries if thought through, can arouse a slight panic, a run for our masks and liberal sanitizer use.

In these last year, our existential concerns have been dancing before our eyes, every second of our existence and we are trying hard to ignore them, avoid them, and use Instagram or Netflix to numb ourselves as well as rid ourselves of our solitude.

However, viewed at differently, we can learn a big lesson in existentialism today and maybe, just maybe, become slightly more reflexive, informed, responsible, and sorted human beings when we (hopefully) come out of our house arrests. This time that we have can be used in a very conscious manner to figure out our values, the meaning we give to life, the role we have in a world going through pandemic (did our actions cause it? Can my action help someone?), different ways in which isolation can be made sense of, and realization that death is, was, and will be the reality of our existence.

*Yalom, Y. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy Basic Books New York.


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