Dear LSC: With all of the *big challenges* facing all of humanity right now and all of the new challenges coming down the pipe I find myself deeply studying the relatively tiny blip of time humans have been recording history, and further back to even more mysterious times before we left a record, just bone fragments and trash piles.
What are we? Are we monkeys filled with art and chaos? Why are we like this? Why do I care so much about what happens to us if nothing lasts and impermanence is the only truth? Octavia Butler said “God is change” after all, and she’s really the only authority I trust on the subject.
What happens to our art when the planet is too hot to sustain us? What happens to our songs when the sun explodes and a black hole swallows our galaxy? I feel a hunger to learn about us, to hold every story, artifact, legend, myth in my mortal heart. I want to SEE us for who we are, monkeys filled with art and chaos.
So my question is this: Do you think this quest is me distancing myself from the fear of my own mortal end? Am I so afraid of tomorrow I can only look back and back and back? Am I deepening my understanding of what it means to be human or am I driving myself to an existential crisis? —L.P.
You had me at “God is Change.”
All hail Ms. Butler, who understood so long ago what we are, collectively, grappling with today. That outside of all religious and political ideology, outside of all dogma and rhetoric, outside of borders and skin color and gender and sourdough vs. gluten-free and whatever else is the constantly churning, chaotic, big-bang force of the universe that shifts, alters, renews, remakes, changes, and changes again over and over. No life is immune to it; no soul evades it, and yet, change is consistently cited as the thing humans fear the most.
But before I really dig in, I have an intuitive need to put this question at your feet: Is there a part of you right now that is resisting some kind of change? And/or, is there a part of you that wants to change (or maybe transform?) but is somehow resistant or reticent or just not sure where to start? If it feels right, try sitting with those for a minute, and see what comes up.
In the meantime, I’m sure you’re familiar with the adage that we ought not run from our fears but rather face them. And what I read in this letter is you tunneling toward, not away from, the God(dess) of Change. I don’t get the feeling that you’re “distancing yourself from your fear of death” but rather inviting it over for dinner and then letting it stay for the weekend. Perhaps not the houseguest you want, but it’s the houseguest you have … the houseguest you sense you might need. But to check further, let me ask you this: When you lay awake at night thinking about those bone fragments, art monkeys, and boiling planets, do you feel yourself floating further away from your own end, or are you floating into some kind of relationship with it? Does “looking back and back and back” calm you such that tomorrow is easier to face? The tone of your letter suggests otherwise. It doesn’t feel like you’re numbing out; it feels like you’re running in. And so you might ask yourself, what shifts in your query when/if you consider it as a creative project or a philosophical puzzle instead of an epic bummer or a thorn in your side?
On the other hand, you’ve suggested that it might also be true that you’re courting an existential crisis. I’m curious, if you decided for certain that the answer there was yes, what would that mean for you? Would you decide that you need to seek counsel—to speak to someone who can help you make sense of the questions and their implications? Would you reach out to your most existential friends to see if crisis, like misery, loves company? Would you research coping mechanisms such as mindfulness practices and/or somatic, body-based metabolism exercises? Would you travel to Peru or Mexico or Taos or Tacoma to take plant medicine in hopes of finding answers there? If you were indeed succumbing to the throes of your mind, what would you do to help yourself—and is there any benefit to plugging in some of those potential solutions now, to see what happens? Like when you have a headache and you think you might need to eat something… you force down a piece of almond butter toast to see if that helps. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t—so you move on to a Tylenol or an electrolyte drink or a bath. You look for a fit that might contain the fix.
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And in this way, I’m wondering how it would feel to reframe all of this as a sort of dance. A dance you’re doing with reality. What would it mean to make friends with the absolute abyss that is the human experience? Is it possible that what feels now like fear and intimidation and total overwhelm could give way to a more gentle kind of awe? Can you imagine getting to where the unknowingness of it all is a kind of freedom? Like, “What a relief; I can’t fix this, I can’t control this, I can’t even understand it. All I have to do is live it.” What if you could allow the questions to be questions? What kind of strength or submission would it take to accept that the unanswerable questions are unanswerable questions? My favorite story about radical acceptance comes from Lakota and Navajo activist Pat McCabe; it tells of how flood waters transformed her—or rather, how her decision to accept the flood waters transformed her.
Because … Is it possible that the existential crisis experience is in fact a defining element of the human experience? Perhaps a feature, as they say, and not a bug? Can we interpret Ms. Butler’s statement (and Ms. McCabe’s powerful anecdote) as a suggestion to yield to the force of change, to let it wash over us, wash under us, wash our very us-ness clean away? And if so, what would it mean to follow that suggestion?
I’m not a huge Eckhart Tolle person, but something he said to Oprah stopped me dead in my tracks. (Caveat: I’m not a huge Oprah person, either.) The idea was that those of us who feel existentially lost and pretty damn unmoored and unsure of who or what we are are in fact one step ahead of the game when it comes to shedding the bulky winter coat of the ego. Does that track for you? Can the metaphysical swirl of not knowing be an ally in a positive, zen-leaning un-becoming? Could the abyss be an unlock for enlightenment?
As Ms. Butler also said (through her characters) in that same passage, “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you.”
So my final question, L.P.: Can you feel yourself touching the mystery, the abyss, the void? Whether it’s a caress, a slap, or a soft probe … whatever the touch is, can it and will it and would you be willing to let it change what it finds there? And if your touch can change the mystery, the abyss, the void … how would you be willing to let that change in turn change you?
“I’m Glad You Asked” is an advice column that asks more questions than it answers from personal coach and creative consultant Laura Sullivan Cassidy. You can read more about the project on her Instagram account.
We publish a reader’s letter every month; if you have something you could use some back-up thinking on, send Laura a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.