What is "Angst"? A Brief Guide in Plain English
Can a sense of meaninglessness point the way to meaning?
What is “angst”?
Is it a sense of meaninglessness, boredom, ennui, dread, despair?
Is it a feeling of being trapped in an absurd, impersonal, uncaring universe where nothing ultimately makes sense?
Is it a "splinter in our minds" that drives us nuts while also trying to tell us that there's bigger going in life than what we're currently aware of?
This seemed like a job for some warm, cuddly, occasionally angst-ridden LiveReal Agents.
“The vitality that can stand the abyss of meaninglessness
is aware of a hidden meaning
within the destruction of meaning.”
- Paul Tillich
We decided to seek out the real definition of "angst."
Some describe it somewhat superficially: as essentially a phase teenagers experience during the awkward years.
They see it as a period in adolescence when someone first starts asking, in a genuine and serious way, the “Who am I?” question.
The basic idea in that is that “angst” is a temporary “stage” that everyone goes through. "Angst," then, is often defined as just a developmental period that involves wrestling with the core existential riddles we all have to confront.
The implication of this definition is that you just go through this phase of “wrestling with Big Questions” for a while. Then you “grow out of it,” and move on to more important things like mortgages, status symbols, and celebrity gossip.
But that definition of angst doesn't really seem to break open the pinata.
It seems a bit toothless. There's clearly a lot more to it than just that.
Other definitions of angst dig deeper.
As it turns out, we often seem to confuse and conflate two different matters.
One first is the stuff of “identity crisis.” This is a phase of life where someone makes important choices toward "becoming a self" in the world. A person makes choices about work, relationships, lifestyle, leisure activities, religion, approaches to happiness, and so on that they’ll carry through life. It can be difficult, but essentially, it's part of the normal drama of life. If life had to drama, it would be boring. If we were never challenged, we'd never do - or become - much at all.
The second matter, on the other hand, involves asking fundamental questions about the nature of life itself.
In other words, this second area doesn't just wrestle with choosing a career, but wrestles with why we work in the first place. It's not merely about finding the right relationship, but about understanding the nature of relationships themselves. It's not just experiencing life, leisure activities, happiness itself and so on - it asks, "What's the deal?" with all of those things, en toto, from the ground up. Why? What's the point? What's it all about?
We could describe it as “wrestling with the riddle of birth and death.”
It means getting serious about existential riddles.
“Wrestling with the riddle of birth and death” is most definitely not something you do for a while during adolescence and then neatly wrap up, tie a bow around, and stack neatly in the top of the closet.
It's messy. It's so messy that many people just throw it all in the basement, slam the door shut, and padlock it. It's typically unfinished, and unfinished to a profound degree. It’s something most of us work on, in various ways and in many different forms, throughout the rest of our lives.
So that’s a different way we could look at it.
“Angst,” then, can be defined as simply “wrestling with the riddle of birth and death.”
This "wrestling" might not be conscious. It often happens in the backs of our minds, where the light is dim. We might not have words for this deep inner cage match that rumbles in the bowels of our selves. We might not be consciously aware of it at all. We might only be aware only of the dull roar of the crowd, heard only from a safe distance, outside of the arena of battle, and at a safe distance from ourselves.
But is this really accurate?
Let’s back up, do some homework, and come at this from another angle.
Kierkegaard described all of this a bit differently.
He described it as part of what's baked in to our nature, the way sugar is baked in to chocolate-chip cookies.
Animals are guided by instincts.
Not entirely, anyway. We do have some instincts, of course. But we also have a different relationship with them. We seem to have the ability to go beyond instincts, or to exist outside of them. We seem able to follow them, fight against them, repress them, exaggerate them, ignore them, or adopt dozens of different kinds of relationships to them.
This just seems to be an essential part of human nature.
We don’t simply “experience anger,” for example. We can feel it in our bodies, and we can become aware of it with our minds, and observe it, and differentiate ourselves from it. We can say, “I experience anger, but I am not anger itself.” We can see “I” and “my anger” as two different things. We can experience it as a kind of subject/object relationship, where “anger” is a kind of object and “I” am the subject.
This ability can work both for us and against us.
Just in regards to emotions, this can mean there’s a capacity, for better or worse, to avoid it, repress it, exaggerate it, stuff it down, overreact to it, and so on. In other words, the key idea is that we don't simply follow along with our instincts. We seem to have wiggle room.
In some cases, we have a lot of wiggle room. So much that we sometimes don't know what to do with ourselves.
This ability seems unique to humans, for the most part. Plato often described various instincts (or “passions”) as things that get in our way, throw us off course, cloud our judgment, or cause us to do dumb things that we otherwise wouldn’t.
Without instincts to guide us, we experience a sense of freedom.
This sense of freedom strikes us as fascinating - yet also terrifying.
(This is explored in more depth in The Perennial Psychology. (Shameless plug there.))
Sartre had a slightly different take on it.
The protagonist of Nausea in Sartre’s Nobel Prize-winning novel seems downright horrified at his own existence.
This horror builds to an overpowering sense of what he calls “nausea,” which could be described as a profound sense of alienation and strangeness. A staunch atheist, Sartre described with visceral detail a sense of the absurdity in the world around us. Just a small taste of it:
“I want to leave, to go somewhere where I should be really in my place, where I would fit in…but my place is nowhere; I am unwanted.”
This isn’t merely alienation from others (although that’s part of it.) It’s an alienation from life itself. It’s feeling separate from whatever it is that others seem to be fully immersed in.
“I am alone in the midst of these happy, reasonable voices. All these creatures spend their time explaining, realizing happily that they agree with each other. In Heaven’s name, why is it so important to think the same things all together.”
"The faces of others have some sense, some direction. Not mine. I cannot even decide whether it is handsome or ugly. I think it is ugly because I have been told so."
Sartre had studied some Heidegger.
One key existential riddle Heidegger wrestled with was the appointment with the pine box condo we're all scheduled for. He described it as “Being-toward-death.”
“Being-toward-death” could be described as a perspective gained by facing death squarely, thinking about it deeply, and not being shy about it.
After all, the idea that we're all going to die (spoiler alert - too late) - for some, is terrifying. It’s so terrifying, in fact, that they also throw this whole matter into the basement and padlock the door. Once the door is safely closed and padlocked, they pretend that death isn't really that scary after all. They claim, in fact, that they aren’t even bothered at all by it. We’re alive now, so why worry?
Enter Ernest Becker with The Denial of Death.
This existential land mine of a book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.
When it came to “what makes us tick,” as Becker described, death wasn’t a minor detail or curious oddity in the composition of our inner makeup.
Just the opposite. According to Becker, death – or more specifically, our head-in-the-sand denial of death – secretly underlies everything we do. Everything. The only difference lies in whether we're conscious of it, or not.
Others such as Rollo May, Paul Tillich and others have also explored similar territory in some depth.
“Life is not superficial. The real problem is how you exist in a world that is antagonistic, that hates you. How are you able to live in a world where we are all alone, where we all die?”
- Rollo May
All of this describes what might be a surprising reversal.
This also brings us back to our original question.
The “reversal” is this:
“Angst” in this sense isn’t “neurotic” or “morbid” or “unhealthy.” It's not a mere "phase" to simply pass through and grow out of. It’s not a “problem” to be avoided, a “condition” to be treated, or a “disorder” to be pharmacologized out of existence as quickly as possible. It’s not a symptom of something being “wrong.”
Just the opposite.
It's a sense that something isn't right. And in this way, it's an intuition that is fundamentally correct.
A superficial, distraction-obsessed, softly nihilistic society sees "angst" as a buzzkill. "Angst," on the other end, sees a superficial, distraction-obsessed, society as confused, incoherent, and lost.
If Becker, May, Tillich and others who have studied this in depth are to be trusted, the sense of angst is right, and the "angst-as-buzzkill" perspective is, for the most part, wrong.
In this sense, angst means facing what much of polite society is trying to deny. And as they say in Egypt, nobody likes getting out of denial.
In a society obsessed with shiny-object distractions and temporary amusements, angst can be the turd-in-the-punch-bowl that stands up in the midst of all the frantic scurrying about, and shouts, “Stop the presses! What the heck is this? What the heck is going on?”
In this sense, it isn’t a diversion.
It moves in the direction diametrically opposed to the current of almost everything else in modern life.
“Angst,” in this sense, isn’t a temporary distraction. It reframes everything else as a temporary distraction. “Angst” can be what happens when we decide to stop distracting ourselves.
When we face up to it and own it, it transforms into an effort to become aware of our actual situation.
It can be compared to a worker bee suddenly asking why he’s working, a character in a game suddenly asking what game he’s playing and why (ala “Free Guy”), or someone “waking up” inside The Matrix.
All of this can make some folks uncomfortable. If someone is trying to distract themselves from an elephant in the room, someone talking about the elephant in the room can grate some nerves. They didn’t kill Socrates because he robbed banks. Jamming up denial mechanisms can be a thankless task.
But those who move in this direction tend to be appreciated later, from a safe distance.
Socrates is one example. He asked a lot of questions - driven in part by angst, no doubt - and they killed him for it.
Lao Tzu is another.
As his story supposedly goes, he got sick of all the nonsense, said “to heck with it,” and decided to go live in the woods. On his way out of town, a gatekeeper recognized him, stopped him, and pleaded with him to share a few words before he left. Those words became the Tao te Ching, and the result eventually became one of the major spiritual traditions of the world. As for Lao Tzu, he went into the woods and was never seen or heard from again.
The story of Buddha is yet another example.
In a time before cell phones and Prozac, a young guy named Siddhartha one day looked around, had a moment of “angst,” and realized that he was in a certain predicament. This “predicament” was that he – and everyone he knew – was going to eventually get old and die. He was trapped in the body of a dying animal, as the saying goes.
Instead of drinking, drugging, or distracting this realization away, he decided to embark on a whole-hog search for an answer to this problem (despite the protests of his parents and probably everyone else around him.) The result of that quest, yet again, eventually became one of the major spiritual traditions of the world.
We could keep going here.
The key point, though, is that all of this is hardly something that fits alongside pimples as part of the awkward phase of adolescence.
It's something closer to a wake-up call.
So, where does this leave us?
“Angst” is a big topic.
Like many big topics, it’s often misunderstood by those who don’t fully grasp its bigness. And those voices, for whatever reason, often seem to be the loudest and most dazzling.
In this way, big topics often get reduced to something smaller than they actually are.
For example, an "existential crisis" is sometimes described as merely a problem of being confronted with a lot of “freedom” in life.
But mere “freedom” by itself isn’t the problem.
There’s nothing inherently terrifying about freedom, or even making imperfect choices in conditions of uncertainty.
After all, many of us think of freedom as a great thing. Those of us who don’t have it typically wish we had more of it. Ask any young child if they’d rather be allowed to just do what they want, or not. The answers aren’t surprising.
So, then: what’s the problem?
The problem of having freedom only enters the picture when we factor in another problem: meaning.
If there truly is no goal, aim, or meaning in life, then our choices don’t really matter.
Whatever we do is ultimately fine.
If we're truly riding the wave of soft nihilism, nothing we do will ultimately make that much difference. And if that's the case, and we truly believe that, then we should be able to live relatively free of anxiety. Nothing matters. Do whatever you want. It's all good.
But if there actually is some kind of genuine meaning in life – whether we’re fully aware of that meaning or not – then suddenly, the situation changes. “Freedom” truly can become something else entirely.
Suddenly, choices can become filled with anxiety.
We might sense that our choices actually matter.
We might have some kind of gut feeling that we're living in The Matrix, and a life in a tiny, slimy bubble isn't all that great, and there's something better - some kind of higher life - that would be a much better. It would mean there's a much happier state.
Let's imagine that “the meaning of life” for a caterpillar is to become a butterfly.
We can say that our caterpillar friend also has a Netflix account.
Now let’s imagine that our fun-loving caterpillar friend is faced with a choice: he can either build a cocoon, or he can spend all day, every day, watching Netflix.
Now let’s also imagine that the caterpillar doesn’t know quite as much as we do about the nature of caterpillars.
Building a cocoon seems like a lot of work.
It's dirty, it's tiring, and it's slimy. Our caterpillar friend might not really see the point in building some strange, yucky ball of slime for some unknown reason that he can’t fully envision.
In the meantime, watching Netflix all day, every day is easy, and comfortable, and way better, it seems, than getting off the caterpillar couch and going through the weird, thankless work of building a cocoon.
So, very reasonably, the caterpillar starts binging one show after another - chain-smoking entire seasons for weeks and months at a time, with no end in sight.
At this point, our caterpillar might experience a sense of “dread.”
“Anxiety,” by some definitions, is directed toward an object.
If I have only one shot to give a speech in front of the United Nations and convince the world not to blow itself up, that speech might provoke at least a small degree of anxiety.
But at least, in that case, I know what I’m anxious about.
“Dread,” on the other hand, isn’t directed toward a known object.
With dread, there’s nothing in particular to point to. There’s no speech at the United Nations on the schedule. There’s not even a speech to the Neighborhood Badminton Club on the schedule.
There’s nothing tangible at all to point to.
There's no external object. There's no thing, or event, or tangible idea. It’s just a deep sense of unease, pointed toward…we don’t know. It just seems to hang there, for no apparent reason, aimed toward no apparent event.
It’s just a vague sense that creeps up on a caterpillar, often just as he wraps up one Netflix marathon and just before he dives into another.
It’s a deep sense of unease. It’s a sense that something’s not quite right.
But let’s remember what we covered earlier.
That sense that “something’s not right” might not be a problem.
It might be the inklings of a solution.
It might be some inner distress signal that some deeper part of himself is trying to send through.
That signal – that inner flare that gets shot toward the inner sky in a dark night, might be an effort to send a signal. And if we can understand that signal properly, we might realize that it contains a message.
That message might be something like this:
“There’s something better out.”
"But what?" we might reasonably ask. "What is that 'something better'?"
All too often, the signal goes to static at this point.
But if that caterpillar turns off the Netflix at least every so often, and stays close to that discomfort, and doesn’t try to shove it away with yet another twelve seasons of whatever, he might, eventually, find his way toward building a cocoon.
And that would be a good thing.
Even a few moments of flapping those wings, perhaps, might be immeasurably better than a hundred of the best ten-season binges. A few moments as a butterfly might taste sweeter than centuries as a caterpillar.
Maybe, once he starts building that cocoon, our friend suddenly finds that the uneasy sense of dread that had been haunting him, gradually dissolves and vanishes, one little bit at a time. Alienation evaporates, Nausea subsides, the urge to read Sartre thankfully goes away, and the world starts to change from something alien and menacing into something else. Something much better.
Maybe angst, then, isn’t something to explain away, distract ourselves from, or ignore or turn into an illness.
Maybe it’s a homing beacon.
“All philosophy is homesickness.”
“This is an adventure
that every human must go through –
to learn to be anxious
in order that he may not perish...
whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way
has learned the ultimate...
The more profoundly he is in anxiety,
the greater is the man...
Then anxiety enters into his soul and searches out everything
And anxiously torments everything finite and petty out of him,
And then it leads him where he wants to go...
[Thus] the individual is educated into faith.”
- Soren Kierkegaard