A Fear of the Dark: Life with Existential Anxiety.
There are still times I feel I should open with Hey, I’m teetering on the edge of oblivion right now, but yeah, nice to meet you.
I walk around the grocery store trying to keep it together, wanting to shout out, What the hell is this? Throw cereal boxes from the shelves screaming, All of this? Ask the cashier, How is everyone in here being so sane and normal all the time?
How do I choose fruit when I’m contemplating the fact that we’re specs of dust and we’re dying here and the universe is full of unexplainable black holes and we’re all just ignoring that? What if it’s all just nothing and we’re only a scrape of shit on a planet floating in an endless void? I want to shout across the store, Why does anything matter?
At what point is a person crazy enough to call 911 on themselves? Peanut butter in hand, asking the operator, why anything is anything?
So much of my life has been defined by fears of a dark, infinite nothingness. It’s an anxiety I cannot easily define, though it’s very physical. My chest gets heavy, my questions hijack my mind, and then I basically throw an adult tantrum, breaking down in tears.
For the longest time, I didn’t even know there was a name for these feelings. I just knew this thing could overtake me anytime, like an asthma attack or a knee giving out, but something internal and less obvious, less explainable. I can topple into a dark mental hole of unanswerable questions at any time and there’s rarely any warning. Triggers can come from outside or inside.
I’ve hidden in more bathrooms than I can start to count, stared paralyzed at ceilings all over the world, pulled over on a million different roads, always asking, Why? Why? Why?
This void is a part of my everyday experience in the world. It’s in everything I do. For years, I couldn’t bear any philosophical conversations involving gods or death or spirituality. I couldn’t talk about the stars or science or religion without bursting into tears. Yet somehow I’ve always known that my own truths are in these concepts. I’ve kept returning to them, learning everything, and losing my shit over and over as I go.
Why is anything anything? This is my question, my struggle, my blessing. I understand it isn’t everyone’s pressing life inquiry. I also recognize there’s a certain amount of privilege that comes with a life in which this is my biggest pain point. I feel guilty that my greatest issue is the fact I exist. But my pain is my pain. I know there are many more productive questions to ask myself. I ask those too.
I never run out of questions. Questioning is a character trait for me. It defines so much of what I do, who I am, and how I hold myself in the world. There are no bigger questions than the existential kind.
I first turned to the breezy New Age stuff, basic Yoga, and mindfulness meditation. I learnt quickly a lot of the love and light stuff wasn’t for me. I felt there was no space for me in these rooms of yogis saying things like Embrace your shadow. You can live your truth, but only if your truth isn’t quite so scary or if your shadow isn’t that dark. It felt like chicken soup for someone else’s soul.
This only made my anxiety louder, desperate to be given a voice, a purpose. Not all of us are here to reckon with the unexplainable. This work isn’t easy, and it’s not for everyone. There is no end to grappling with the endlessness.
Through the years, I keep getting better and better at being uncomfortable. I’ve done enough therapy now that I have tools to deal with the feelings as they arise. This is not something I’ve ever been able to pray my way out of, though cultivating a faith in the unknown has been a major part of managing this.
Mental anxiety, for me, has required very physical actions. Nothing I do is about making it go away. I don’t believe healing works like that. For me, it’s about exploring the pain and then creating ways to be with it, to use it, until maybe it’s not here anymore.
Through books, art, courses and classes, meditations, rituals, mantras and energy work, I create pathways to the inside of this angst and crawl my way out, every time. I’m learning the real work is what I do in the tangible world with the big bucket of black paint I carry through my life.
Just like no one can explain the dark matter in the universe, I can’t explain this dark soul shadow of mine, but it’s my job to make it into something. Every day I work to find my way to awe, to wonder, to look to the gaps between the stars and feel possibility instead of fear.
It can still go either way. An infinite sky isn’t always inspiring for me. Like now, even after years of this work, I’m looking around this coffee shop, holding an empty mug, thinking, What the fuck is all this?
I have two mantras: There are no answers. Everything is an answer.
There are clichés much better than anything I can write that explore the nature of oppositions, absence and presence, day and night, light and dark, yin and yang. How one cannot exist without the other. This is where science and spirituality often meet. This is where I’ve learnt I am my best.
I say and instead of but to allow myself to be both fine and fucked up. I can be both spiritual and have existential angst. I can believe in gods and science, have faith and unanswerable questions, be grateful and suffering.
The faith I have created sits right in the middle of each paradox. Belief is like any other form of art — it takes questioning, exploration, practice and devotion for it to evolve. A trust in the unknown is where I am building a bridge to sit, to dangle my feet over the edge, without being afraid to fall.
My beliefs are not based on one thing, but everything from a decade of seeking, from hundreds of books and teachers and teachings, a continually growing system that draws from seemingly contradicting ideas, the stars, Buddha, my own breath, you name it. I use meditation to calm down, humor to make light, prayer for guidance, and art as a tangible way to express all of this.
It’s with this midnight-black paint I am constantly creating my greatest work. My hands are always dirty as I push my questions to evolve. Turning the whys into what and who and how. What will I make with all this dark? Who will I be with this? How can I create an answer with my life?
I am always working towards the one day. The one day that might be today or tomorrow or in my next lifetime. The day where I paint myself completely with night and sit in the darkest of dark places. The day I am completely okay there. Maybe more okay there than anywhere else. It’s a homecoming, a return to dust, a long dreamless sleep, and I wake unafraid.
Jennifer Chardon is fascinated with creating answers to unanswerable questions. She is currently at work on a novel, If I Ever Write A Book, It Will Be About You. The title will probably change. Jennifer has spent much of the last decade backpacking, journaling, and staying up late. She lives in Hawaii, and spends a lot of time staring directly at the sun. Find her in the void here.