Into the Existential दर्द: From Rick & Morty to Schindler’s List
Do you think that life is meaningless? That there is no purpose to it? Have you watched Rick and Morty? Do you feel that your dreams and aspirations are pointless? Do you feel that the writers of the final season of Game of Thrones wrote the script of existence? Do you relate to all the samaj memes? If your answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” then you may be suffering from the disease called Being Born. There are only two certainties in everyone’s life: they are born and they die. If you have already taken birth at any point in your life then unfortunately the only certainty left is death.
Existential dread is not a new phenomenon - Achilles went through it, Hamlet and his brother Haider too, Shah Rukh Khan in Kal Ho Na Ho would have gone through it if the movie explored those depths for it is simply a condition of existence. Let's look at what are some things that can cause existential agony. Since this is not a philosophy paper, terms like nihilism, existentialism etc. are used in their general sense.
Media as a vector
The most interesting source is art or media, no kidding. Rick and Morty was mentioned in the beginning. The show is essentially nihilistic. It probably cannot induce nihilism into a glittery-eyed sci-fi lover but it can certainly induce a thought, and a thought cannot be killed. There are many other shows and movies that have existential elements in them that make their way to their audience’s hearts and minds and makes them more aware of the human condition. A few examples could be, Lakshay, Rang De Basanti, Wake up Sid, Black Mirror, Bojack Horseman, The Good Place, and a dozen anime. What exactly makes them existential should be clear as we go to other no-so-fun sources of the angst.
"I didn't do enough"
You know what is more terrifying than great heights? (Big spiders, but that's besides the point) It is the impulse to jump off. There is something in you that recognizes that you can just do a mundane act as jumping and your life will end. The fear of heights is the fear of your own ability to make life-altering decisions. Nothing is more existential than a cliff.
Recognition of responsibility can induce existential dread because it is when you truly exist, it is when you can have an effect on (your) world. Needless to say, people generally get the taste of this around fifteen, and it only gets worse after this. A perfect example to explore this is through the painfully beautiful movie Schindler’s List.
Oskar Schindler saved the lives of many many generations of Jewish people but in the last scene of the movie we find him crying because he could have saved more people. His gold ring, he says, could have saved two more people. He regrets having spent money in the past so much that he just can’t stop crying. A poignantly beautiful moment.
This is a perfect example of freedom and accompanying responsibility. Schindler was a member of the Nazi Party but he did not act like a Nazi. If he believed that it was impossible for a Nazi member like him to help Jews he would have shown what Sartre called Bad Faith. Instead he recognized that just because he is a member of the party, it doesn't mean he must act in a certain way, he was free to help Jews if he wanted. He saw the radical freedom that he has. But is it right for him to blame himself for spending money earlier? How could he have known that his money would be used to save countless lives? According to Sartre, yes, he is responsible for the lives he could not save. We are always responsible not only the things that we do but do not do as well. We are responsible for what happens to us and how we react. Recognition of this radical freedom can turn anyone into a Hamlet. It follows a messed up version of uncle Ben’s quote, “with basic powers comes great responsibility.”
Another favorite, and less intense, example of Bad faith is someone acting mean because they are “such a Scorpio!”. No, Karen, you are not a Scorpio that is bad faith, you have the choice to be nice but you keep suppressing that choice by appealing to a particular aspect of your identity.
In this fast-paced world, alienation is a prominent cause of meaninglessness. Alienation in a Marxist sense refers to how the product created by the workers does not belong to them, this alienates the people from their own work.
To illustrate this, imagine a scenario where you are a 16th-century box maker, you get your material from the woods, carve it, paint it and then sell it. In the second scenario you work at a box manufacturing factory. A supplier gives you the raw material, you carve it into a box and send it to someone else for painting. The you carve another. Then another. Then another. Then another. You are alienated from the final product. You do not make boxes anymore, instead you carve wood. You are alienated from the final product. This example can be extended to office jobs too where workers are but a cog in the machine and can always be replaced. This method is very productive but it makes work meaningless.
A perfect instance in pop culture is the movie we are not supposed to talk about. It rhymes with The Night Club, in which alienating work and consumer culture puts the very identity of the protagonist in crisis. His dull work and alienation from his everyday life itself puts him through a crisis of the self which has life threatening consequences. So, basically the usual.
Loss of Certainty
A more general cause is the D word - Death. Everyone, no matter how rich, successful or good looking, goes bye bye. Awareness of death changes our whole perspective on life and unfortunately during the 2nd wave of the pandemic, we all were surrounded by death. If you had any difficult nights during that time, it was the existential anguish and anxiety. Fear of losing a loved one or fear of your own death is a great catalyst. Skip the next paragraph because major RICK AND MORTY S05 SPOILER AHEAD:
Rick Sanchez lost his wife and daughter. These two deaths took away all certainty from his life, as a solution to his unrootedness he decided to avenge them. He essentially gave himself a new purpose in life. Unfortunately, it did not work well as he could not hunt down the Rick who killed his family and became a purposeless nihilistic God-figure. The old man is just sad.
Ghajini is an example closer to home. Kalpana was killed and, like Sanjay, we are still not over it. Sanjay Singhania’s life was changed forever. In the movie it is because of his injury but whenever he reads his tattoos he goes through all the anguish again. His injury can be seen as a metaphor for how death changes our perception of reality. An encounter with death uncovers a veil from our artificial life and exposes the absurdity of it. Unfortunately due to the pandemic a lot of encountered death in some form. All this can cause extreme agony.
Before you jump off
Alienation, recognition of responsibility and loss of certainty are the Unholy Trinity of our existence. We usually confront all of these things during early to middle teenage, a full assault on brittle hearts and minds. What is the solution to all this then? The answer is very simple, there isn’t.
We cannot cure our deepest discomfort without altering life itself. Animals probably don't go through an existential crisis but their life is literally GTA with every NPC on drugs, you don’t want that. Our biological evolution could not keep up with our cultural evolution, we are still the same monkeys who threw rocks at massive hairy elephant things and ate them, except we have now gone to the moon. Good monkeys. The general pain that existence may cause is the byproduct of this progress and we can be more optimistic about it.
Let’s say you like a pen, do you really need there to be an overarching plan, a God and a purpose for you to truly appreciate that one pen? Of course not. Same goes with everything in life, dismissing our everyday pleasures, dreams, relationships because they are meaningless is rather dumb. John Barth’s protagonist in The Floating Opera came to the conclusion that if there is no reason to live then there is no reason to die either, or less grimly, no reason to stop enjoying the little things in life. Read Camus or maybe Nietzsche or Frankl for some extra aid, maybe watch a few Jordan Peterson videos (but not a lot) and for a nice look at optimistic nihilism, check out video.