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The Echoes of Experience

Life propels us forward, but our learning journey is rooted in the past.

  • Writer's picturePatricio Ramal

Existential Crisis: Embracing Darkness.

It's 5:37 AM.


It's still dark, but I can see the first signs of dawn on the horizon. As I step onto the beach, a light, humid breeze blows in my face, and the cool sand beneath my feet sends a chill up my spine. I walk towards the ocean until the warm Caribbean water splashes my feet. Although fully dressed, I keep walking into the sea, one step after another. Finally, I stop, waist-deep in the water.


As I stood there, the euphoria from an entire night out celebrating turned into reflection. I never imagined that I would be standing on a beautiful beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to celebrate my 33rd birthday. I was happy, or so I thought.


Just as the first rays of the sun peaked in, new thoughts—more profound, darker thoughts—entered my head. I thought about pushing them back down to continue to enjoy the moment, but I let them rise.


As these thoughts consumed me, my sensation of lightness, ease, and joy turned grim. I felt heavy and deflated. As I felt the burden of these thoughts, my impulse was to yank off the beaded necklace from my neck, sending beads flying in all directions and landing in the ocean. I stretched out my hand to watch the remaining beads fall.





I stood there, staring as they floated. In the beginning, they drifted away, only to be pulled back by the following small wave. I watched them, lost in thought. After an hour of back-and-forth, some started breaking the shallow current and moving deeper into the sea. I watched until every bead was gone. And as the last one trailed into deeper waters, I felt a renewed calm.


At that moment, I realized the weight I had been carrying—ideas I did not believe in and the guilt of failing to meet expectations. I was wrestling with what I should be and wanted to be. And suddenly, the weight lifted, and I felt liberated for the first time in a long time.


This was seventeen years ago, but I remember the day as if it were yesterday. I didn't realize it until much later, but I was amidst an existential crisis.


After that moment, I started by questioning my beliefs and definitions. "Question everything at least once" was the motto I developed. Gravity and laws of physics aside, I meant everything. Family, friendship, love, success, religion, spirituality, relationships, intimacy, work, and money. After wrestling with the meaning of most of them, I finally realized that I did not have my definition of any. Most of my definitions were an amorphous blob of cliches, cultural norms, useless ideologies, naive aspirations, and even some magical thinking. 


To build anew, I had to break down the old.


In the beginning, language helped me with vocabulary and being more purposeful in using language to create purpose. I played with definitions regularly. I would research, read, write, and rewrite the most important definitions for me. I kept a small box with index cards for these definitions.


But even epiphanies without action are short-lived. I knew that thinking about language wasn't enough. I needed to get better at thinking about thinking. So, I turned to philosophy. I started with classical philosophy but soon discovered the philosophy of existence. I enrolled in a course to learn about what makes life fulfilling. I wanted to know how others had thought about the questions of existence in the past.


Studying existential philosophy is how I realized I might have been amidst an existential crisis.


What is an existential crisis?


According to the dictionary, an existential crisis is a psychological episode in which a person questions their life's purpose and existence. So when I read this definition, I knew I was in that crisis and had probably been there for a few years.


It was an accurate description, but I was missing the ¨so what¨. I was looking for a definition to help me identify how I got here and how I could get out of it. So, I worked on my definitions in my recently acquired ¨question everything at least once¨ style.


Unfortunately, life got in the way again, and I got stuck in the process. 


A sudden breakthrough came from the most unexpected place. I watched a video where Richard Feynman (scroll to minute 24:40) converses with another scientist. At one point in the conversation, he jokes about the man looking for his keys. If you've never heard that joke, here it is.


There is a man on all fours looking for something on the sidewalk. A passerby spots him and offers to help. The man happily agrees, saying he is looking for his keys. After 15 minutes of searching, the passerby is sure the keys are not there, so he asks the man: Are you sure this is where you dropped the keys? "Hell no." says the man. "Then what are you doing here?" the passerby asks. The man replies, "Well, this is where the light is. Unless I dropped them here, I´ll never find them."


Just as Mr. Feynaman realized the implications of this, my brain lit up from one of the most significant insights I had throughout this experience. I kept trying to find a purpose under the light, but just because the light was better did not mean things were there. And my definition of an existential crisis was born.


For me, an existential crisis is when the paradigms on the purpose of your existence break down, and the assumptions you made on what helps you thrive in the world are no longer valid.


I realized that an existential crisis is a time gap—a transition period—a dark void between the rupture of one's paradigms and the creation of new insights into one's life purpose. This process takes time. Long-held beliefs are psychologically painful to let go of and even harder to replace, making the experience disconcerting. 


I spent almost four years either trying to will myself out of the crisis with cheap pop psychology or going back and forth between the light I knew and the dark I feared.


Here is what I discovered. You can't will yourself out of an existential crisis.


So, if you are currently in one, embrace it. It's an unpleasant period, but it can be one of the most transformative experiences in your life.


And may I dare sum up my experience in these final words.


---


Don't wait for the night

Don't turn off the light

Just sit

And close your eyes


Truth will appear

But you have nothing to fear

For whatever is inside you

It is also a part of you


Be calm as your eyes adjust

For darkness will pass


Accept it

Embrace it

Move in it

Then, through it.


---


See you on the other side.


Patricio Ramal

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