"THE EXISTENTIAL NO-MAN'S LAND"
"The Existential No-Man's Land"
A Rough Map of Hazardous Terrain for Spiritual Seekers
“If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe;
if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
So, what is the “Existential No-Man’s Land”?
It’s not an easy question to answer.
Defining it, explaining how it works, and mapping a few routes through it is no small task. This “No-Man’s Land” can be treacherous terrain.
But reaching out to a few high-caliber thinkers – like Dostoevsky, for example – can help.
Dostoevsky once said “…the battlefield is the heart of man.”
What does that mean? What kind of “battle” is it? Who is “fighting”?
The idea of the “Existential No-Man’s Land” might help shed some light on this “battlefield.” One way to unpack it is this:
There’s an inner battle happening inside each of us, and part of the “battlefield” is “The Existential No-Man’s Land.”
But this probably raises more questions than answers.
A few other phrases might help.
For example, the “Existential No-Man’s Zone” might be described as “the battlefield of The Big Questions of life.” Or “the zone between worldviews.” Or maybe “a reason why soft nihilism is so popular these days.”
But these phrases also likely sound a little strange.
This is probably unavoidable. “Strange” is baked into the cake in this neck of the woods.
Again, the effort to map this landscape of the soul isn’t easy. This “inner terrain” can be rough and hazardous. There are potential risks and perils – angst, nihilism, confusion, and a sense of meaninglessness, to name a few. It can be a head trip down a deep rabbit hole.
The only worse option, it seems, is not mapping it. That is, strapping on a blindfold and hoping for the best.
Dostoevsky also said, “…beauty is mysterious as well as terrible.” So, beauty, mystery, and terror might be intermingled in all this, like a rough and dangerous terrain with hidden treasure.
It sounds like something worth exploring.
So, what is this “inner terrain”?
An image might be useful: one of a battlefield.
On one side of the battlefield, there’s a camp. Call this “Base Camp.”
On the opposite side of the battlefield is another camp. Call this the “Summit.”
In between “Base Camp” and the “Summit” is the “Existential No-Man’s Land.”
This “No-Man’s Land” is a “philosophical battlefield” inside each of us. The “fighting” is an “inner warfare.” The “battle” is over The Big Questions of life: Why are we here? Who or what am I? How should I live? And so on.
We sometimes try to pretend this battlefield doesn’t exist. We bury it, and take every possible opportunity to distract ourselves. We try to pretend that The Big Stuff has already been figured out, and all that’s left to do is sort out a few details.
But underneath, our struggle with these Big Questions is “the real battle.” Everything else is a subplot in this main plot. At the heart of each side of the battle – both Base Camp and the Summit – there’s a churning that generates the basic axioms of our life philosophy.
“Base Camp” is where a person starts from.
This “starting point” is often a certain kind of familiar, well-protected “safe zone.”
One example of this could be a particular religious tradition. Someone is raised within this tradition, and it becomes a version of “Base Camp.”
This Base Camp is often a fairly well-fortified ego. It typically has plenty of protective bunkers, and it’s at a safe distance from danger. It’s “where someone starts out in life” in the sense that it’s where they live before they set out into the No-Man’s Land. They’ve dropped anchors here. It’s a philosophical foothold.
The “anchors” here consist of a certain set of fundamental assumptions or axioms about The Big Questions. An individual living in this camp has a kind of psychological allegiance to a relatively familiar and comfortable network of answers to the existential riddles of life.
This “network of answers” forms a “worldview” – a paradigm or core network of beliefs about ourselves, the world, and everything else. It forms the undergirding of our life philosophy.
The forms this takes can vary widely.
Base Camp might sometimes be based on whatever religion someone grew up with. Other times it might be the lack of a religion someone grew up in. Base Camp for some individuals might consist of atheism or agnosticism, for example, if that’s the environment they grew up with.
The size, stability, and sophistication of different Base Camps can vary widely.
Sometimes, for example, it’s a well-stocked stronghold with fortified frameworks of philosophy, theology, human nature, and so on.
Other times, it can be more fragile.
How could it be fragile? One way is by being riddled with bad ideas. It could also rest on a weak foundation, be framed with spiritual illiteracy, or get barely held together by a handful of slogans. Flawed models of human nature can also cause problems. Unexamined assumptions (like “everyone is nice!” or “all relationships can be reduced to power dynamics, and only power dynamics!”) can set individuals up for some hard lessons later in life.
Sometimes, the blueprint of a Base Camp comes from a top-down approach, where a Grandma, a Council of Elders, or Yoda-figure says, in so many words, “This Is The Way It Is. This is What Life Is All About. Trust me.” In Forrest Gump, it was “Mama always said…”
In this sense, Base Camp can be seen as “tradition.” It’s composed of back-of-the-book answers to The Big Questions of life. It’s the philosophical cards we’re dealt at the beginning of life.
Sometimes, though, a person decides to pull up anchors, and exit. They walk through the city gates of Base Camp, leaving it behind.
That’s when they step out into the Existential No-Man’s Land.
So, why would anyone leave Base Camp?
It’s no mystery. It often just isn’t doing the job.
Life is hard and full of suffering. The sense that “the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be” is always within reach. It’s easy to imagine that life can – and should be – better than it is.
It could be said that we’re all searching for some sort of perfect happiness. We seem to have no choice in this. We can’t not do it. We’re often looking for love in all the wrong places, of course, but we can’t help but look.
And sometimes, the kind of happiness we’re looking for doesn’t seem likely to be found in Base Camp. Sometimes, there are specific moments when someone realizes, “what I want, I’m not going to be able to find here.”
That’s when they face a choice. Sometimes they give up on ever finding it and decide it must not exist. This move means resigning to despair.
But other times, they decide to look somewhere else.
“If it’s not in the world I know, it must be in the world I don’t know” is the logic. This thinking can launch a journey into the unknown.
Imagine someone wanted to become a great musician, for example.
For that person, music is everything. They’re a potential musical genius. They think about nothing but music, all the time.
But imagine that hardly anyone in Base Camp knows anything at all about music. Nobody even listens to it. The very few who ever have heard music have only heard death-metal or Barbara Streisand, and hated it. The entire experience of music became poisoned for them.
In this situation, that potentially budding musical genius would feel a strong inner pull. It would be a pull toward something definite, even if that urge is vague, foggy, and half-conscious. It could be seen as a form of angst. But the main effect of it would be a strong sense that “What I want, I’m not going to find here.”
“Is this all there is?”
There’s a sense that there’s something more, somewhere, but it isn’t clear where it is or how to find it. But it’s important, and it’s worth searching for.
It’s the search for “IT.”
This “search” might be toward music or a billion other directions. To generalize, “a search for a higher caliber of happiness” might not be the most accurate description for this urge. It might seem more like a deep need to “be oneself.” Sometimes it’s projected onto an external situation, like climbing Everest or a relationship.
Sometimes it might feel like simple angst, or a vague, dissatisfied restlessness. Other times a person might encounter a fatal flaw or contradiction in a religion or life philosophy, and that gives rise to an existential crisis.
Other times, the modern worldview crush might just become too confusing. A blurry whirl of contradictory views of life that swap out every few seconds, with every change of the channel, can lead to a desire for clarity and simplicity.
Or it might be purely content-free. It might be as simple as realizing that “whatever I want, I’m not going to find here.” Base Camp just stops being enough.
This is when the No-Man’s Land can start looking attractive.
And we set off.
This is becoming a “Seeker.”
It means pulling anchors and setting sail for some unknown destination in search of something better. It’s an inner voyage. As Marcel Proust said it: “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
This “voyage” can take many different forms.
It might be organized or chaotic. It might be methodical and systematic, or haphazard and ad-hoc.
If it’s on the “chaotic” side, we might sail north one day, east the next, south the day after that, north the day after that. Or, if it’s more methodical, we might start at one end of the ocean and work, inch-by-inch, from one square mile to the next, mapping every step of the way.
In more everyday terms, the “chaotic search” might translate into shopping one day, whiskey the next, flaming bungee-parasailing the day after that.
There are plenty of “games” to play.
In regards to religion and philosophy, this can translate into attacking the spiritual buffet, where it’s all-you-can-eat for one low price. Some Buddhist meditation here, firing up a chakra or two there, a few Biblical quotes sprinkled on top, and so on. There’s plenty of room for exploration and experimentation.
Sometimes this goes well. Someone maps out the landscape, becomes familiar with the territory, and starts playing their “music,” whatever that is.
Other times, an ad-hoc, “attack the buffet” approach stops being fun.
It can become tiring or confusing. Spiritual indigestion can set in. Having a thousand contradictory ideas and practices floating around can lose the novelty. It can stop being fun.
When this happens, many start looking to upgrade.
They start searching for an approach that’s more systematic, less chaotic, is more effective at getting real results, or is just no-nonsense.
This sometimes means seeking out an approach that’s “satibferas” – a “Spiritual Approach That Isn’t Blind Faith and Incorporates Reason and Science.” It often means that the current slate of back-of-the-book answers isn’t enough. The answers might seem wrong – or they might even seem fine – but the necessary step at this point, either way, is for someone to work out the math themselves. It can be a hunger for direct experience instead of what seems like mere theory or secondhand knowledge.
Someone at this point doesn’t necessarily set out to join a club for the “Spiritual But Not Religious.” (This is actually more of an anti-club club – a group of people who don’t like joining groups.) But they join because there can be a sense that there’s something important missing in the “Religious But Not Spiritual.”
There are plenty of different paths across this terrain.
But the underlying dynamic is the same. The process is one of rethinking the fundamental questions of life.
Rethinking foundations affects everything else that rests on those foundations. So, this can mean rethinking everything.
Nietzsche had a term for this.
He called it the “revaluation of all values.”
It meant a deliberate effort to take a fresh approach to The Big Questions.
It can mean everything is up for grabs.
The aim is for something positive: upgrading a life philosophy. The process involves sorting babies from bathwater – tossing what doesn’t work and keeping what does.
But this can sometimes mean opening Pandora’s Box.
The journey up to this point has been fairly clear. There’s Base Camp, then the decision to leave Base Camp, then the initial period of experimentation and exploration. But what happens after that?
Here’s where things can get tougher.
It’s easy to set sail.
The hard part is to actually reach the destination – the “Summit” – without getting lost at sea.
Setting out with high hopes, surrounded by applause, is one thing. But fast-forward a few weeks or years, and someone can be sailing along with no idea where they are, with no map, no compass, and no land in sight, in any direction. Suddenly, a new reality can dawn: “This isn’t a good place to be. I am lost.”
This entire process could be described as an experience of “The Death of God” on a personal level. It’s The Way of the Existential Crisis. It can happen through abandoning or losing one philosophy of life (“leaving Base Camp”) while having nothing to replace it with.
The stakes here aren’t small.
It’s easy to be naïve in these matters.
After all, it starts simply. It’s just a desire for happiness, for example. But it can take a turn into deep waters, quickly.
After all, “the happiness problem” is an “Everything Problem.” It’s one big problem that’s connected to several other big problems, including all the other existential riddles we all wrestle with.
Someone raised entirely in a certain kind of Base Camp, who has spent their entire life safely coddled within the domestic confines of the border, sometimes has no idea what’s outside of the city walls.
They often imagine that the rest of the world is like the world they know – where, for example, “everyone is nice.” (Or, the opposite: “everyone is mean.”) The plan is often to leave Base Camp, walk a few short miles (birds chirping the whole way), then step onto the Summit where there’s the mother lode of gold mines. The expectation is often that reaching the Summit will be easy. “It’s building a new camp. How hard can it be?”
Pretty hard, as it turns out.
It can be like the problem of telling time.
It’s one thing to read a clock.
But to build a clock?
That’s something entirely different.
Reading a clock is pretty easy.
Building a clock is hard. Really difficult, in fact. It takes a lot of work, know-how, and skill.
But “the battle” here is over something much tougher than clocks.
Instead of telling time, it’s answering The Big Questions of life.
The number of people making the switch from “reading a clock” to “building a clock,” philosophically speaking, is rising.
“Reading a clock” is the way of “back of the book answers.” That’s often the traditional route of “organized religion.”
“Building a clock” is “doing the math yourself.” That is “figuring out your own path,” the spiritual buffet, or do-it-yourself theology.
Buying a clock is like plugging in to an established, organized religious or philosophical tradition. Building your own clock is like going Spiritual But Not Religious.
Both routes can “work.”
But here’s where things can get hairy.
Setting out into the No-Man’s Land can work if someone puts in the time and effort to build a good clock.
But what if that’s not the case?
What if they don’t want to put in all the work and effort it takes to learn how to build a clock? Which – in some cases – can be substantial?
That’s the road to soft nihilism.
That can be like quitting a day-job with hopes of becoming a multi-billionaire entrepreneur, but then watching Netflix all day and not putting the work in to actually build a successful business.
And “building a successful business” is really hard. Even for those who do put in a lot of work.
Nietzsche could be one case study.
He rejected Christianity, declared The Death of God, and set out into the Existential No-Man’s Land.
He very quickly ran into a problem: nihilism.
He worked at solving it for a while (not entirely successfully, some might argue.) Eventually, he went insane.
His condition might have been dementia due to a syphilis infection. Or, he might have been, to use his own words, “devoured by some minotaur of conscience.” We don’t know.
But the point is, somewhere amid all the excitement in our own time, there’s also reason for at least a few of sober, calm, clear, reality-checks. A few moments of clarity can prevent a lot of unnecessary suffering. We often make assumptions and then move forward without ever examining those initial assumptions. And sometimes, those assumptions are wildly wrong.
But even being slightly off, over time, can lead to real problems.
It’s easy to imagine what might happen if a lot of people, all at once, suddenly embarked on less-than-perfect attempts to build their own clocks.
It would cause big problems.
What would happen if keeping track of time was suddenly up for grabs?
“What time is it?” could suddenly become an incredibly difficult question. If everyone is building their own clocks – especially with little training and according to self-selected personal tastes – well, things might easily get a little messy.
Imagine someone who had built their own clock was in charge of picking the kids up at school. A conversation might go something like this:
“Why haven’t you picked up the kids at school?”
“It’s not time to pick them up yet.”
“But they were supposed to be picked up at 3pm!”
“I’m going to pick them up at 3pm.”
“But it’s 5pm now!”
“Not according to my watch.”
“Well, I’d say your watch is wrong!”
“I’d say your watch is wrong.”
“No, your watch is wrong!”
This argument could keep going, but that’s the basic idea.
This could get even more interesting.
For example, mix some high-octane self-esteem movement here. When this really gets amped up, being offended is a heresy (“who is he to say my watch is wrong?”) Things can get messy, fast. When the topics under discussion are sensitive, deep-seated, personal beliefs, it can get much messier, much faster. Now, add to that an idea to continually redefine the meaning of familiar words (“What is ‘time,’ anyway?”), and the edge of chaos is at hand. At this point, it would be great to get on social media where everyone can just vent, cathart, and air it all out, anonymously, and it’s good times all around. The Death of God has put everything up for grabs.
Now, instead of arguing about the time, imagine everyone arguing about their own, self-made versions of the meaning of life and the point of it all and all kinds of other thorny, abstract, difficult issues.
That’s treacherous terrain.
The No-Man’s Land can get pretty foggy.
The scenario above, when it goes south, can lead to some rocky places all around.
To name some of the philosophical neighborhoods we could wander through, it can lead to widespread subjectivism, narcissism and solipsism – essentially, everyone living in their own private imaginary worlds, with little genuine contact with other actual human beings. When several ingredients combine – a removal of objective truth, actual social isolation combined with anonymous in-your-face togetherness, self-esteem as the sole model of human nature, The Death of God, the removal of all reality checks in the form of genuine relationships, and the effects of each can get amplified exponentially.
This can become psychologically destructive. In these conditions, where genuine human relationships are rare or forbidden, nobody can tell anybody else that they’re wrong about anything. This means nobody has checks on their thinking. And we all need reality checks. Without these, everybody is “right,” at least according to their own homemade clocks.
When everyone gets deputized to give themselves promotions and medals, and no one is allowed to say otherwise, suddenly – magically – there are scores of twelve-star generals walking around.
It can be easy to get disoriented in all this.
This can result in getting lost and wandering the Existential No-Man’s Land with no compass or map.
The environment is hazardous in itself. Everest is place where it’s easy to get frostbite. The No-Man’s Zone is a place where it’s easy to experience anxiety, depression, confusion, angst, and other less-than-ideal conditions.
But it’s also easy to become a victim. After all, the No-Man’s Zone has predators. Predators sometimes deliberately take full advantage of these conditions.
This means sometimes, things can go really south. If situations start getting truly weird, it can mean suddenly waking up to find oneself in a cult, in a dysfunctional relationship, in a cadre of political fanatics, or worse. Without a strong philosophical immune system, a person can become vulnerable.
This might seem unlikely. After all, those things only happen to other people. (Does anyone who is truly brainwashed think they’re brainwashed?)
But G. K. Chesterton had an insight that’s vital to living through The Death of God:
“When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”
This can explain more of why Soft Nihilism is so popular these days.
Plenty of people today are being encouraged to set out for the Existential No-Man’s Land, but without maps, a compass, or training. They just aren’t ready for it, and they’re walking into an ambush.
They soon wind up battling existential monsters armed only with a head full of celebrity gossip and a plastic spork. The battle doesn’t go well.
They often decide that “traditional religions” have made a mess of things, which isn’t entirely off the mark. The assumption often is that “I can do better.” But this might also indicate the opposite: this stuff can be hard. Some smart people have worked on these problems over the centuries, and maybe someone really can do a better job of it. But there’s a difference between watching a game and being down on the field.
So if we can trust Dostoyevsky on this, what’s he really saying?
The stakes in all this are no small matter.
After all, Fyodor doesn’t seem to be offering some abstract theory as an armchair intellectual. He seems more like an on-the-ground field reporter, trying to convey, amid the wind and storm, some genuine insight into objective conditions, or what’s really going on here.
The full phrase from the earlier segment is that “God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
He describes this “battle” by way of a theistic worldview. It can be interpreted literally or metaphorically, with words (like “God”) that can be understood and misunderstood in different ways. The “battle,” for example, might not be as simple as something that can be either “lost” or “won.” But it might be a concise glimpse of the way things really are, condensed down to a few simple words.
Either way, however these words are understood, the practical end result in regards to “what we should do about it?” winds up in roughly the same place: become as existentially fit as possible, work on yourself, and find a way to safely navigate through the No-Man’s Land.
Conclusion: 5 Different Routes Through
So, what are a few possible routes through the Existential No-Man’s Land?
Here are a few options.
1. Stay in Base Camp.
This approach might not sound exciting at first. But for someone operating within a tradition, who is happy within that tradition, it works. This means a person has good answers to The Big Questions, and life works. In a sturdy, sophisticated, structurally sound Base Camp – if someone is lucky enough to find oneself in one – the camp is well-designed enough to allow room for expansion. This means there’s room to fulfill one’s potential and get existentially fit – without leaving. The Camp has a library of maps and charts that cover a lot of ground, which allows plenty of room to explore. This can also entail building a lighthouse that’s capable of blasting through the fog in order to, quite possibly, help guide some wandering wayfarers to safety.
2. Set out for the “Summit,” and take it seriously.
This means putting in the work, the research, the practice – all the struggle and sweat, time and tears involved in making the effort successful. In business, this is the equivalent of becoming an entrepreneur. Like most businesses, it’s a lot of work, it’s risky, and the failure rate is high. But if the effort succeeds, the benefits can be significant.
3. Set out for the “Summit,” but don’t really take it seriously.
This means not putting in the work, the research, the dedication and persistence it takes to be successful. This route is the equivalent of wanting the freedom and rewards of a successful entrepreneur, but without paying the price. When things really go south, it’s the road toward soft nihilism. On the scale of existential fitness, it means becoming a Cheeto-chugging couch potato, or emotional, intellectual, and spiritual deterioration. It can translate very easily into wandering the terrains of the No-Man’s Land, shellshocked and lost. Not recommended.
4. Reject the whole lot of it.
This means someone wiping their hands of this whole ball of yarn. (Or, trying to.) It often means assuming The Big Questions can’t be answered, avoiding them at every opportunity, and sticking to small talk. It means stifling any wayward inspirations that suddenly trespass on the property fully owned by the mundane. It means squelching any urges toward something “more” or higher, and cutting any stray definitions of a higher form of happiness down to mere creature comforts. Just eat dinner, run errands, find a hobby, and make things as pleasant as possible until the clock runs out. This might sound fine, and it might work for some, but it also means reducing all awareness to the superficial, and restricting all life to splashing around in the shallows. It’s also a bit dishonest, in that it means answering The Big Questions (“The ‘answer’ is that ‘they’re unanswerable!’) and then pretending to have not answered them. Kierkegaard described this as “tranquilizing oneself with the trivial.” This could be The Way of the Ostrich, where the primary objective is finding a pleasant hole. Not recommended.
5. A combination of routes 1 and 2.
This approach means working both sides.
It means exploring beyond Base Camp, but without rejecting it entirely, and exploring the No-Man’s Land, but without getting lost in it.
Each side can serve as a system of check-and-balances to the other. It means making use of any positives Base Camp has to offer, while also searching for new ones.
This approach can open the door to new insights, but can also help someone avoid reinventing the wheel. Ideally, it explores new horizons, but avoids discovering insights the hard way that could have been learned more easily. (These are often rediscovered more than discovered, and already well-documented, even, but buried in mounds of information. Reinventing wheels is pretty common in these matters. In some ways, it’s probably unavoidable. But ideally, the less, the better.)
This can mean starting from the initial premises or axioms of a time-tested, tried-and-true tradition. At the heart of a tradition is an external revelation (whether it’s theistic, atheistic, or everything in between.) This “external revelation” – a revelation that’s someone else’s, or not one’s own – serves as the baseline, or a solid, trusty foundation to start from. From that point, it’s possible to explore, experiment, and follow up leads to one’s own, inner revelation.
Ideally, the tradition has already mapped things out to the degree that there’s little risk of wandering into some sort of spiritual minefield.
This approach can prevent the inertia and complacency of never exploring beyond one’s comfort zone, but while also keeping a leash on confusion, fanaticism, and other dangers of wandering too close to a fatal Siren Song. It can encourage us to afflict ourselves when we’re comfortable, and comfort ourselves when we’re afflicted. It can be like keeping a day job while also starting a new business on the side. When it works, it can be the best of both worlds.
So, those are a few routes.
After all, each of us is working our way across some existential terrain, right now. We’re probably navigating one of these routes already.
Some might prefer a route that’s steep and short or long and level. Some might prefer the deep dark woods or sunny, open fields. Some might like exploring the unmapped regions or sticking closer to well-traveled paths. Some might like traveling alone while others prefer groups. When it comes to the treacherous cliffs, deserts, ravines and waterfalls, some might find them terrifying while others find them exhilarating. Every experience is unique. Like the Knights of the Round Table, every Knight enters the woods alone. Nobody can walk for us.
But that doesn’t mean we’re completely on our own.
Ultimately, it seems, we’re all wandering across the same terrain.
Maybe, at some point, we’ll have a full, accurate, and detailed map of the entire landscape.
Then, with a little luck, we can travel safely.