The Ultimate Existential Crisis

Facing my own death – as a Humanist

fun in the sun

Existential crisis occur when you feel your existence is threatened. Most people struggle with the four great existential questions at some point in their life. Who are you? Why are you here? Do you have a purpose? Will you continue to exist after you die? This last one in particular is the ultimately existential crisis: death.

Like most people, I struggled with these questions in my teens, came to terms with them and went on with my life. I apparently got off lucky. I understand some people suffer from existential depressions for years before resolving them. My big existential depression lasted two weeks in junior year of high school. I realized I didn’t think I had a transcendent soul – so there was no point in worrying about what happened after I died. Done.

The nice thing about not believing in the afterlife is that it is really freeing. I remember when I finally was honest with myself that I just don’t believe how good it felt. This life is it. Once I die, I die. I cease to exist. If this knowledge doesn’t spark an existential crisis; nothing will.

But it doesn’t for me. Accepting my mortality is what freed me from my existential crisis. I guess that’s why I’m such a happy Humanist. While I love existing, I’m ok with not existing too. I know it’s going to happen at some point. No point worrying about it in the meantime. Might as well get on with the business of living? Right?

Well, yeah. But … as we all know, this – don’t worry – just get on with life, is a great attitude when you aren’t immediately threatened with death! When you are facing imminent death, your attitude is apt to change. Right?

Facing Death as a Humanist

One year ago, I almost died. Let me rephrase that. My gallbladder died and had turned gangrenous and was threatening to take me with it. The pain was unbelievable. The problem was, I had no idea I was dying. I didn’t know what was happening, but the idea I might be dying did not cross my mind. Like, at all. This wasn’t denial, it was cluelessness.

You know when you call your doctor to make an appointment and you get a message that says if this is a life threatening emergency go to the ER? Yeah, I made an appointment. My doctor is still a little miffed with me. He gave me a new rule. If your pain is 5 or more for more than an hour, go to the ER.

Anyway, once I was told I was having a life threatening emergency, I went to the ER and there they used really cool technology to figure out what was wrong with me and gave me some lovely narcotics to take away my pain until they could get me into the surgery that would ultimately save my life

It might have been those narcotics, but I still really didn’t grasp the seriousness of my situation until halfway through the night before my surgery when the narcotics stopped working and they doubled my dose and increased my dosage schedule. I’ve been in the hospital before. I don’t ever remember them being so free with the serious narcotics. That’s when I realized, wow – what’s happening must be really serious. They even moved up my surgery the next morning.

The good news, obviously, is that I survived. I didn’t die. Yay. I didn’t develop sepsis. Yay. I didn’t leave my husband a widow or my son an orphan. YAY!!!! I recovered and was free to go home and get back into this business we call life. Yay. I’m still alive!!! Yay!!!!!!!

deathDeath Epiphany

So, the question is, did my “when I die, I die” approach help me cope with my ultimate existential crisis? Or did I suddenly have a supernatural religious epiphany in the face of death?

I’m pretty sure my belief that death is permanent helped. At no point did I think of praying. My only concern was to stay alive so that I can see my child grow up and so that my husband would not have to raise him on his own. I didn’t need supernatural help for that to happen. Just the hard work and caring of the staff and the amazing scientific advances that allowed them to diagnose me before they cut into me and save my life.

In the aftermath of my brush with death, my commitment to making the most out of this life is even stronger. I almost died. All my goals and dreams almost died with me. The plans I have, the things I want to do and accomplish, almost weren’t, because I almost wasn’t here to do them.

My insurance provided me with a psychologist to talk to as part of my recovery, which was nice, because as it turns out, having such an immediate existential crisis is a bit unnerving. Having someone to talk to other then my spouse who was dealing with his own fears and concerns over what had happened was helpful. I told the psychologist that my biggest regret was that my company isn’t self-sustaining yet. I am building Humanist Learning Systems to ensure that my teachings on how to use science to stop bullying survives my death because that information is too important to society to die with me. And to think I almost died before my company is stable enough to survive my death! The irony!

But this is my main point and I want to repeat it for you. In the face of my immediate death, my biggest existential fear and concern wasn’t dying. It was that I hadn’t yet completed my big project to make the world a better place for everyone to live in before I died. THAT was my big problem.

The aftermath of almost dying is that I am even more committed than I was before to making the most out of life while I have it. Almost dying strengthened my Humanism because it reinforced the reality of my mortality.

I expect to die at some point. My plans for the future take into account the fact I’m going to die. This isn’t me being morbid. It’s me being realistic. I don’t want to die, obviously. I want as much of life as I am lucky enough to get. But that’s the point isn’t it. Being alive means I’m lucky, because at some point, I won’t be. That’s reality.

Knowing this and knowing how close I came to dying has only made the fragility of life more immediate. I don’t have time to waste. I need to do what I can now to make the world a better place and to teach as many people as will let me what I know about living life without fear and with compassion.

Acceptance, Freedom, Motivation

How do I, as a Humanist, deal with the ultimate existential crisis? By accepting my own death.

“No matter what, I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive.” – Banana Yoshimoto, Kitchen


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1 thought on “The Ultimate Existential Crisis”

  1. I really enjoyed this and read through it more than once. A very intense piece of writing, despite and because of your casual light-hearted style. I was thinking that if you were in the mood to be even more grimly realistic about mortality, you could remind yourself that even your bullying project (which sounds interesting) and your offspring will be gone and forgotten in a century or two at most. On the more upbeat side, though, I remind myself that living things are dying all around me every moment—plants, bugs, birds, other people—and yet it is all part of the continuity of the living chain that created me.

    Brock Haussamen


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