How should we deal with an existential crisis (otherwise known as the feeling that one’s life is an endlessly tedious, worthless slog through a muddy salt marsh on the coast of Maine)?
Heidegger was one of the few philosophers to write about this. (Although he never visited the coast of Maine.)
According to him, most of us live our lives inauthentically, entangled with commonplace objects and people about which we have thoroughly conventional expectations, our activities prescribed by the anonymous “they” rather than a pursuit of our own distinctive possibilities. (The “they” is Heidegger’s term for “what one does” or “what people do,” the social norms we unconsciously live by.
Only when slammed by the 2×4 of anxiety through which we become fully aware that death will end our projects do we understand that we can grab hold of our distinctive individual potential, which enables us to re-establish our connection to the world on new territory (perhaps a hilltop in the Black Forest).
In broad strokes this seems right. But the details are fatally wrong.
In the throes of anxiety, we’re not sure what we’re anxious about other than the sense that we no longer feel at home in the world. The world recedes in significance, but the self and its activities are in question as well. Heidegger thought that through this anxiety we realize we have the potential for choosing our own way because the ordinary, everyday norms and relations with others have receded in significance. We stand alone, confronted with our own un-sharable death, and this somehow puts us in a more authentic relation with those possibilities that are distinctively our own.
This might be “authentic” for some people for whom relationships have the contingency of a slot machine. But it’s not the only way to discover authentic possibilities. No doubt an existential crisis can and should force us to reconsider relationships and commitments. But we can seldom discover what we’re really about by disconnecting from others or losing contact with all that we have ever found meaningful. Surely a caring friend or family member who is both intimate and capable of objectivity might have something to contribute. The reinterpretation of our relationships must happen from within them. It’s natural and healthy to rely on loving relationships to help us through.
No doubt finding oneself is a solitary enterprise for some people; for others I doubt it. Although being with others is a fundamental ontological category for Heidegger, at crucial points he relies on heroic individualism which mars whatever insight can be gleaned from his texts.