Resolving Existential Crises Through Philosophy and/or Film (or, My Dinner with Megan)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Last night, our delightful, thoughtful, ambitious, and very smart oldest daughter, now aged sixteen (and getting ready to graduate a year early; help support her year abroad in India here!), had an existential crisis. She’s been studying other religions–particularly Buddhism–at school, and while at an activity at our own church last night, it suddenly struck her: what if Buddhism (or, as I would emphasize to her, the version of Buddhism she’d become familiar with) was correct, and all she knew and had ever experienced was a kind of karmic illusion of suffering, one that she could only transcend through self-annihilation? Late-night bull-session thoughts, you might say, but they really shook her, and by late that evening she was crying and shaking, desperate to make some sense of the world. What did it all mean? Was there such a thing as meaning? Was there such a thing as herself–much less God or reality or anything else?

I’m a modern human being, with a modern sense of subjectivity, which means that there is no obviously, material, unchallengable response to the “why is there something rather than nothing?” question immediately available to me. I suppose my own religious faith ought to provide with such immediate conviction, but for better or worse I’ve never been blessed with that kind of revelatory confidence. What I do have, however poor a substitute it may be, is philosophy. I can remember many angry, frustrating, intellectually- and emotionally-fraught episodes over the years, where I find myself doubting and grumpily or angrily lashing out against just about everything–and (perhaps most revealingly) often doubting and lashing out against the significance of, or even the reality of, my lashing itself. (I tried to communicate some of this in an old religious post of mine, in which I lamented by double-mindedness and pre-occupation with doubt.) Faith has never healed me of this tendency, but philosophy gave me a different way of thinking about faith, and one of the results of such is that, for all my many remaining problems and struggles, I’m a happier, less intellectually plagued man than I once was.

Now it so happened that the philosophy which was of greatest assistance to me was phenomenological, particularly of the German romantic and hermeneutic tradition: the idea that we are thrown into being, thrown into interpretation, and that meaning is both constructed and revealed through responding to that thrownness, that “givenness,” with attentiveness and care. Heidegger, Ricoeur, Taylor: these are the people who help explained the world, and myself, to me. But I confess that such philosophy was no help in Megan’s existential crisis last night. (A friend of mine, afterward, told me, “That’s not surprising; Heideggger writes to inspire existential crises, not make them go away!”) What worked for me didn’t work for her. To my surprise, what did give her some solace was the complete opposite of my philosophical approach: Rene Descartes’s cogito ergo sum. The rationalism and empiricism at the heart of the modern scientific method. As we spent an hour or so talking, that idea–that whatever else she doubts, she can’t possibly doubt that someone or something which can irreducibly identified as “her” is, in fact, doubting–or, at least, experiencing doubt. That became a lifeline to her, and so I have to give Descartes therapeutic props for that, at least.

This morning, though, in talking about the whole thing with another friend, I was reminded of a film which I love, and which I’ve tried (with no real success) to bring into various classes of mine over the years. A philosophical film with a decidedly Heideggerian tone to it. I’m talking about the cult classic My Dinner with Andre–and after poking around online a little, I’ve been able to put together a rough outline of its message through clips. Megan probably won’t go through watching all of these, but maybe she will, or maybe someone else will…and thus, by putting them together in this way, perhaps I’ll be helping someone else’s existential crisis the way this sort of thinking once helped me:

The setting is a dinner between two very different people who are also good friends: the playwrights and writers Wallace Shawn (yes, of Princess Bride fame) and Andre Gregory. They begin a long conversation, in which Andre relates the extreme distances he has traveled and experiences he has had in an attempt to find some true connection to community and meaning and transcendence in his life:

Eventually, he does have an experience with transcendence–and what a weird experience it is:

Wallace can’t accept any of this, and strongly defends the idea of taking joys from the banal, ordinary, quotidian realities of life.

As they move towards the climax of their argument, Wallace wants to know why anyone can even respond to life as his friend does, experiencing a need for a deeper meaning and attachment. Andre responds that perhaps our problem is modernity, and the way in which capitalism and government and the mass media strand us as intellectually as isolated monads, unable to realize the actual beauty and significance and connection and truth in and around ourselves.

If that is so, what can we do? Well, we do things, and we try to attend to that doing; we discover care through doing things. That’s not a religious experience, it won’t convince us that we aren’t phantoms or ghosts, but it is, as Andre hints as their dinner comes to a close, a kind of revelation, a like a haunting melody, a reminder of our limitedness, our closeness to death, that through caring something more than forgetfulness will be given to us.

Towards the end of his life, Heidegger famously summed up his whole philosophy of modernity: “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten”–“Only a God can save us.” The Christian God? A religious God? Perhaps. But that, in the end, is what works for me–the idea that we can realize the truth of our need for transcendence (and our part in it) through our attentive engagement with givenness (other people, most particularly). I wouldn’t mind some propositional truth about the world simply being revealed to me; I know a lot of people who claim to have had that experience, and I have no obvious reason to doubt them, and in fact I kind of envy them. But for me, the existential crisis has been overcome (to the extent that it has been) through conversation, a conversation which uncovers and reveals. Your mileage may vary, of course. Megan’s, for now, certainly does.


  1. Make sure to get the action figures!

  2. And make sure you catch the sexier remake!

  3. …all she knew and had ever experienced was a kind of karmic illusion of suffering, one that she could only transcend through self-annihilation?

    Yes it is a karmic *illusion* of suffering just as LDS suffering is an illusion! But non-physical suffering and some of physical suffering is optional. This suffering is caused by clinging to the way we want things to be instead of accepting how they are which frees us from either or both karmic and LDS suffering. Self-annihilation? The death of ego or more accurately significant ego reduction is part of the spiritual path to the divine, to HF if you wish! Didn’t Christ go through it?

  4. I think your daughter has pretty good instincts. I’m aware of many of the arguments indicating that my self may or must be an illusion, or of some substance that may not be properly called a self. Language speaks me, or Being deposited me, or I’m an Apollonian representation of some kind of vital nothingness, or I’m held to an illusion of myself by attachment. When I’m not talking to Mormons, where I often feel a need to do something else, I like playing with these ideas. When you play with them, they often yield really interesting insights about our limitations, etc. They can also reveal really funny ironies. But at the end of the day, I say to myself – in truth, I’m here with myself everyday, and have been with myself for quite a while, and I don’t believe that I’m not here. What’s more, I don’t believe that the people around me are unreal. If I believed they were unreal, I would act towards them as if they were unreal. This line of thinking cures me, generally.

    I was joking with a professor of mine earlier this week that it is all well and good to say the subject is the subject of the signifier, but when the philosopher is freezing to death in the bitter winter, “freezing to death in the bitter winter” will probably not be quite so contained by differánce.

    Of interest: one of my favorite relatives, and a good and intelligent man, was brought to a crisis of faith by Descartes, and wound up leaving the church.

  5. Megan asked, “why is there something rather than nothing?”

    I have just finished a very provocative book by Lawrence Krauss (a cosmologist and an debater on the God problem), A Universe from Nothing. He observes that “nothing” appears to be unstable and will produce “something.” We are that something.

    It is interesting that modern theory of cosmology leaves lots of room for God, even though Krauss works hard to get around the problem.

  6. Anyway, the movie clips remind me of my early adult struggle with existential nausea. Tell Megan that the feeling of existential nothingness will pass. It may resurface occasionally, like shingles from chicken pox, but should do not permanent damage.

  7. Sounds like she’s well on her way to becoming a physicist.

  8. Neal Smith says:

    … or just stick with Guffman. Made my night!

  9. LDSRuminations says:

    Great article. I deal with existential and religiosity OCD so spend a lot of time obsessing over “what is TRUTH?” and worrying about how I interpret events. For many the facts are the same, but even the facts are open to interpretation. I don’t have a clever way or talking about it and I don’t know all the philosophical terms and theories but I do know these can be horrendous questions to deal with. As my problem is OCD I can tackle it from an OCD perspective however the methods can be applied by all. The things I have found most helpful are writing thoughts down, give them a form of expression, don’t try to fight them. Then try and live in the moment, don’t get lost in your head because you can’t figure this stuff out and you never will. You may find interesting theories and principles and some information that helps you, but it should be just that; a help. When it becomes the focus you are worrying about life rather than living it. I keep having to tell myself that being anxious is never really a good state to be in if you want to solve something. It’s pretty useful if you’re under threat from a lion or something because it will get you fighting or flighting, but questions in the head are not helped by anxiety. You lose your sense of self and reality.

    On a side note, I think the church culture, and potentially testimony meetings, enforce a concept of knowledge and truth that is difficult for some to deal with. When we say we Know the church is true, or we know that Christ is our Saviour (British spelling of Savior) we are saying really that we have read about him, tried the principles attributed to him and felt some kind of result or outcome came from that practice. A bit like the Alma 32 seed principle. Sometimes I wonder if maybe using the word ‘Know’ is a bit strong or out of place.

    From an LDS perspective on meanings of life, I think that God’s plan is to bring to pass individuals immortality and eternal life. We get caught up thinking that his only option is to do it through the church. I don’t agree. God can do this however he wants. The church and it’s doctrines may very well represent THE TRUTH but all we, and all others, can be expected to do in reality is respond to what’s happening right in front of us first and foremost. Even an atheist can progress towards eternal life by actually being a good person rather than having read about good people in the scriptures. Being a buddhist can be a great discipline and will teach you something on the way towards eternal life. God will use that and all the other stuff can be dealt with later. This life we are taught is our probation but due to a belief in God being Just the fact of whether we pass or fail has to be based on individual circumstances. None of us live exactly the same life and that’s the benefit of having an infinite atonement and an omniscient God. All information and personal knowledge is at his hands. If we are to be brought to the church in this life then so be it, let’s be grateful we’re in it, but the eternal perspective and allowing God a free hand to deal with his children however he wants is a concept lost to alot of church members.

    We need to live a balanced life.

    I just rambled in my OCD way. Sorry.

    I hope all works out for you and your daughter. She’s not alone in these questions.

  10. it's a series of tubes says:

    Thanks for your comment, #9. I had a few additional thoughts after reading what you shared:

    When we say we Know the church is true, or we know that Christ is our Saviour (British spelling of Savior) we are saying really that we have read about him, tried the principles attributed to him and felt some kind of result or outcome came from that practice.

    That may certainly be accurate for some. However, it isn’t accurate for all. It certainly isn’t accurate for me.

    Sometimes I wonder if maybe using the word ‘Know’ is a bit strong or out of place.

    Seems to fit.

  11. LDSRuminations says:

    #10 – thanks for the definition of ‘Know’. I’m always open to learn and the definition cited certainly helps me accept your comments. Maybe it’s my own definition of ‘know’ that is wonky.

    You have actually helped me out here.