I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’ve undergone several massive life changes in the past few years (coming out as gay, getting divorced, separating myself from the religion I grew up with, moving, pandemic … yeesh) or if I’m just getting to the age where my mortality is starting to feel more imminent, but lately I seem to be ensnared in an ongoing low-key existential crisis.
Here’s how my thoughts tend to go: Someday I am going to die. Fine. Everyone dies. Death is a part of life — I can handle this idea. But what about my consciousness? What will happen to my consciousness after I die? The idea of my consciousness no longer existing as it does now, or not existing at all, is terrifying to me.
The general consensus about human personality is that our thoughts define who we are. So … what happens when our thoughts cease to exist or change so much they no longer resemble the person we currently believe ourselves to be? Are we still ourselves, or are we just like … gone?
How is it that we can be aware and self-conscious in one moment and in the next moment simply not exist? Is it a happy byproduct that I will be unable to feel devastation, or anything at all, over my extinguished existence, because I won’t be around to be sad about it? I don’t find this comforting.
I think about these things while washing the dishes, folding laundry, walking the dog, driving to doctor’s appointments. My thoughts scamper down a rabbit hole until I arrive at a near nihilist state — if we’re just an ephemeral blip of consciousness stuck to a tiny rock floating around an insignificant star, what is the point of caring about anything? Does anything actually matter? If nothing is permanent, what is the point of anything?
Even if you subscribe to spiritual or religious ideas about an afterlife, it’s safe to assume that whatever form your consciousness takes after death will be dramatically different from your current state. Everything that makes you you will have shifted. So many of the things into which you currently invest thought and energy (home decor? Your skincare routine? Organizing your pantry? Conflicts at work?), when presented with a complete understanding of the vastness of the cosmos and the infinite nature of time, might be rendered irrelevant. Even if you go to Heaven, you’re not going to go to Heaven as you.
But then … if nothing is permanent and nothing matters and all we get is this little blip of time to experience self-awareness, then maybe anything that feels like it matters, and the fact that feelings exist at all, is a miracle.
Consciousness is a miracle no matter what you believe about the inception of consciousness. It’s a miracle whether you believe we got here by a chance collision of particles that interacted to create biochemistry that eventually evolved until we became cognizant of our own existence, and it’s a miracle if you believe in intelligent design — that another being simply created us this way. Think about the million other lifeforms on this planet who lack the ability to recognize their reflection in a mirror or contemplate their own mortality. Truly, it is a miracle.
I am especially terrified of losing my consciousness as it relates to loved ones. I came out as gay near forty. I spent so much time not knowing who I was. Now I know, and I’ve found this person who I love more than I thought it could be possible for one human to love another, and it’s so late. Half my life is already gone! My partner lives 1,400 miles away, and what if I die before I get to have a life with them? Even if we get a solid forty years together, what about after we die? And what about my kids? Where will our love for each other go when we’re no longer here, alive? It’s terrifying to think about.
I can buy that energy transforms, but I also know that my consciousness and all the thoughts in my head, including my love for my partner and my children, are a result of chemical reactions happening in my brain.
What happens when I no longer have a brain?? It terrifies me that all the love I feel, the connections I’ve made in life, will likely just … disappear when I die. I understand why people cling to religion. It’s comforting to believe that when you die, your consciousness and the consciousness of your loved ones won’t be snuffed out, but will merely be slightly transformed. In that case, death can be viewed almost as a reunion. I would love to believe this is how things are, but I just don’t. To say I did would be to lie to myself in an attempt to escape my fear of my own mortality.
When I google “existential crisis” I get results from healthcare or wellness sites that correlate these kinds of thoughts to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. I can see how these fears could become all-consuming, but for me it’s not something I want to push away or ignore. For me, it’s more like this giant elephant in the room that I’m kind of shocked we’re not constantly talking about. It would put so many things into perspective if we could be cognizant of the preciousness of being alive while we’re still alive. When framed the right way, existential crises can yield gratitude and empathy toward others.
My ongoing existential crisis doesn’t consume my every waking moment, but when it does rear up to overwhelm me with terror of my own impermanence, I try to channel it into focusing on the miracle of being alive — even if only to accomplish mundane chores like folding laundry or buying groceries. After all, if I believe consciousness is a miracle, it would make sense not to waste too much time on anxiety over how long I get to have it.
So, most days when I have these thoughts, I arrive at gratitude that I have consciousness, coupled with a determination not to waste it. Right after I finish doing my taxes.