Muted Existential Panic: A Life in Uncertainty

I, much like many college students, am living a constant state of muted existential panic: Will I ever be satisfied in a future career? Am I going to work myself to death for an unfulfilling life? Will my life mean anything? My sole moments of true, calm happiness are derived from states wherein zero obligations are pressed upon me—yet my future begins to appear as an endless profusion of days, following days, following days, wherein the only reprieve is that which comes after all responsibilities have been fulfilled. It is not the work that disheartens, but the exhaustion that pervades life even now. The existential panic is muted not due to a dream of a bright future, but because I lack the energy to express the fear—the fear of a future of further exhaustion, of emotional muteness carrying on into infinity, of a cottony existence comprised of a desperate strain toward retirement, even at 22 years old.

I have three paths before me: (1) gain a job I’m interested in, but don’t particularly love, and work at it for the rest of my life, never being truly happy but never being particularly miserable; (2) attend a postgraduate program to potentially get a job that will pay well, but have to contend with a glutted market, crippling debt, and a job that may make me miserable for years, with the end goal of retiring early so I can be truly happy; (3) fail to achieve either of these options and sift deadly through the sieve that is the job market until I either fade away or reach an abrupt end.

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“Existentialism” (Dye)

So, how about that first option? It doesn’t seem too utterly horrific. Sure, it’s not exactly a bright potential future, but it’s not completely unbearable, either. I get the job, and it’s fine; the pay is fine, the work environment is fine, and my stress levels range between high and ridiculous (which, as a college student, is my norm). I come home to an empty house, which is how I like it. I boot up my computer with the intention of getting started working on all of the extra tasks I accepted, because I want to help out my coworkers and I like it when people like me. But instead of getting straight to work, I wander over to the hot new timesink of the year and spend a few hours switching between berating myself for procrastinating and continuing to procrastinate. When I finally hate myself badly enough, I get down to business, sipping on my drink of choice, white grape juice (after all, so long as you’re on a sugar high, you can’t crash). Around four or five hours before I have to wake up for work, my tasks completed, I finally let the blood glucose levels slip me into a coma. Preferably not an actual coma, but since diabetes has made itself present in literally every family member I’m aware of, we might not be getting too metaphorical here.

“What about hobbies?” you may ask. “Won’t you ever have free time?” And, in response to these questions, I simply shake my head slowly, smiling a sad, sad smile. You see, what I’ve described here is not merely a projection of my future; this is me, right now, in college. I don’t get to read books and play video games and do all those fun little time-wasters, because they’re actually quite large time-wasters. The key here is the procrastination. Had I not procrastinated for hours upon hours, I’d have time to do what I enjoy. Now, I hear the gears whirring in your head. “Why don’t you just do all those things while you’re procrastinating?” And the answer is because procrastination and free time are two entirely different things. When I procrastinate, I do so intending to get right to work aaaaaany minute. I can’t open up a book or load up a game, because those would take a long time, and I’m right about to start working. Hours later, I’m right about to start working. So all of my “free time” goes toward binging ten-minute videos on YouTube, which is alright, instead of playing two or three hours of Skyrim, which is much more fun.

In short, the first option is college, forever, but with no breaks. Since college gave me mild depression, suicidal ideation, and even more anxious tendencies, I’m going to call option 1 a strike.

My father is a keen proponent of the second option, asserting, “Any job you do long enough, you’re going to get tired of. But if you’re doing a job you get paid for, it’s a lot easier to show up every day” (Street). Of course, it doesn’t much help that reports from the Cato Institute in 1995 and 2013 reveal welfare in many states to not only exceed, but in some cases more than double the minimum wage (Roy). Not only is finding a career difficult, but successfully attaining a career that enables you to live well on your income is nearly preposterous. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we manage to eke out this existence.

My job is hell. I’m working non-stop; I don’t even have time to procrastinate anymore. Of course, I still do, but I can’t sacrifice work to procrastinate, so I sacrifice less important things. Like sleeping. And eating. And generally taking care of my health. Somehow, despite my family history, I manage to not give myself a heart attack, and I’m able to show up every day. Every day. My vacations are few and far between, and mostly consist of staying at home, finally getting to read the book I’ve been holding onto for three Christmases. I live in a one-room box with wifi, saving up my money desperately to pay off the graduate school loans I stacked up to get this job. Once I finally have my debt paid off, I can start saving for retirement. If I ever have my debt paid off.

Every day, it gets harder to wake up in the morning. I’ve almost been late to work a few times, which for someone as high-strung as I am is nearly a death sentence. I fall into bed at night—sometimes not even into bed, usually not even at night—with the knowledge that nothing will change for the next few decades. And when those decades are up, when I retire? I get ten or twenty years of catching up on all the hobbies I’ve missed before I’m carted off to a place that smells like prune juice and looks like the inside of a cotton swab.

Strike two.

Well, we still have the third option, which has a couple of subcategories. Neither of them look particularly nice, but let’s give them a shot, shall we?

Option 3a: I achieve either Option 1 or 2. I’m getting money, and I lack free time, though the amount of money and free time I have or don’t have will vary depending on the job. Now, let me check my notes and see what happens in this scenario.

Hm. Well, I’m dead. Yep, dead as a doornail. If I went with Option 3a (1), I had a fairly okay existence right up until I got T-boned at that busy intersection. Option 3a (2) was a bit harder to swallow; I managed to get all the way through grad school, finally got the job I wanted, worked hard every day and saved every penny, and then—like a detective in a criminal procedural show—got shot the day before I was supposed to retire.

Alright, alright. Anyone can die before they achieve their dreams. The fact that I either didn’t have achievable dreams (despite only wanting free time to read and game), or died right before the short window I’d allowed to achieve said dreams (curse you, cop shows) is just fluff. Let’s try out 3b.

In 3b, I achieve neither Option 1 nor 2. I don’t get either job, so I lack both the mildest interest in my career and the money to incentivise me to keep it. I’m going to say I work as the token white waiter at a Chinese buffet. I’ll get to tell my family all sorts of stories about funny things that happened at work, while they silently tell themselves that it’s not my fault, that it’s the economy, the job market, and that I really do still have potential. That I really could be someone someday. That their faith in me wasn’t misplaced.

The problem with the future is that it’s full of possibilities. The only way to prepare for it is to have some idea of what you’re preparing for—or, at the very least, to have access to general information that can help shed light on potential options. “[E]ducational programs and mentoring may provide knowledge and skills to deal effectively with uncertain and stressful situations . . .” suggests one study (Ito and Brotheridge 421), which proposes “a model which includes career control as a mediator of the effects of career flexibility and dependence on emotional exhaustion” (406). I agree with this study’s assessment; forewarned is forearmed, after all, and the solution to uncertainty is to increase control over the outcome. I similarly agree with the study’s recommendation about providing programs and mentoring in this regard. Yet, I have not benefited from either.

I took the first steps toward knowledge by seeking out a counselor. The muted existential panic—the pessimistic resolve that my existence is meaningless, that I have no worthwhile future, that I am doomed to live out my life with nothing resembling happiness, let alone accomplishment—was crippling, and I believed that consulting someone might show me some option I was missing. My counselor provided me with interest inventories and career planning strategies and many, many options that aligned with my interests—and though I greatly appreciated his efforts, I gained no certainty. Software analyzed my interests and recommended careers that held little interest for me, not because they were uninteresting, but because the hobbies I enjoy do not comprise careers in their entirety. (Yes, analysis program, I do love video games, but the extent of my coding knowledge is basic HTML, so game design isn’t quite in my skill set.)

At 22, I have just come to discover the three paths before me, and yet I am set to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in May. Despite the estimation that “economic growth is projected to generate 9.8 million new jobs–a 6.5-percent increase between 2014 and 2024,” I do not feel at all prepared for any career, because I did not discover any career I wished to pursue during my years in college (Employment Projections). This is a burden faced by many, and it is not new; in 1996, researchers asserted that “many if not most freshmen and sophomores in colleges and universities who are declared as well as undeclared about their academic majors express uncertainty about their careers and lack the level of involvement in the career development process (especially self-assessment, career exploration, and career decision making) necessary to make educated career decisions” (Orndorff and Herr 632). In short, the future is a frightening prospect, and few feel prepared to enter it. I certainly do not.

Yet such a fear is not the sole problem faced by college students, and in some cases it simply exacerbates other quandaries, such as anxiety or depression. In my case, it not only deprived me of my ability to make concerted efforts toward any career path, but even added another layer to the personal difficulties I have when speaking to people.

K: [. . .] I can’t quite get it right. When I had sessions with [my counselor], I could never bring up anything that was bothering me. It was like the boundaries you put on a normal conversation; when someone asks how you are, you don’t tell them the truth. You say, “Fine.” I could never get past that.

M: Mm.

K: I told him about stuff that was worrying me, but I couldn’t manage to tell him how it was worrying me.
Like how I mentioned I was nervous about my future, and he set me up with one of those ILP-ish tests like we took in high school, that matches you with jobs and such. We did an “interest inventory” to figure out what was important to me in a job setting. But I was never able to relate that it wasn’t just nerves about my future—that it was existential panic.
I always had to keep myself calm and put-together. I always seemed perfectly capable.
I couldn’t drop the front.

M: I understand.

K: I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to be low every time I’m alone to think, but I don’t know how to get better.

M: I think maybe Behavioral Health would be helpful? The psychiatrist already knows you’re in a serious situation, which is why you came to them. Might help you actually be honest?

K: I don’t think anyone there thinks I really need help. The closest I got to honesty was on those tests they have you do before you go in, and the one time I put how bad I was feeling on it, [my counselor] asked me about it and I wrote it off as Dead Week stress. It was right there, and I could have talked about it, but I didn’t know how to describe what was going on, so I went with the easiest answer my brain came up with. I autopiloted.
How do I talk to someone if I can’t talk?

(Stacy)

My problems are mild, but too many others are far more heavily hindered. Mental and emotional disorders, in particular, rip control away, leaving many adrift in a vast and uncaring world. Not only is the future uncertain, but often the present as well. The people who are haunted by existential panic, and the people who are struggling with far more, are the ones most vulnerable to derision, misunderstanding, and an overall denial of assistance. This fear is too often misconstrued as laziness or a simple unwillingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone, when in reality, it is a crippling and unavoidable response to a world in which many fail, and in which the few who survive rare do so from a position of comfort, let alone content. Furthermore, even when our troubles are recognized as valid, they are usually recognized by those people who have experienced the fear and its resulting impotence themselves, and who have been similarly derided, and who, unfortunately, simply do not have the resources available to help.

An inability to face the future, whether due to lack of knowledge, lack of skills, or any of a number of other factors, can be detrimental. The stress and strain are both prominent and problematic, and recognized as such by the people living with them. We are not ignorant of such recommended solutions as, “Just put yourself out there,” and, “Go out and meet people; after all, it’s not what you know, but who you know.” These suggestions, though often offered from a place of concern and an attempt to be uplifting, are simply disheartening to the one suffering under the existential panic. We know that success hinges on terribly random chance, that personal achievements—which themselves are not entirely controllable factors—pale in comparison to the recommendation of the right stranger with the right connections. Each resolution offered in hope is merely another reason to despair.

But there is a way to solve this. Instead of offtering meaningless platitudes, we need to actually start communicating. We need to begin listening and considering problems beyond those experienced by the majority of people. So far, the unfortunate trend has been to reject such issues as the ramblings of the entitled or oblivious; but here’s the thing: the fact that some people are starving doesn’t mean others aren’t dying of thirst. The fact that many people have only experienced physical pain doesn’t mean that mental and emotional pain don’t exist. The fact that you may not panic about the future doesn’t mean such panic is invalid. It doesn’t mean that we should be written off. It doesn’t mean that we’re just whining and will get over it. These are the assumptions that have held us in the mire for too long, and it is time to take a stand, to make a change.

To dismiss our panic and dread—especially in those instances where the effects of such fear are severely incapacitating, reducing even the ability to make the effort to find a path through the future—as the products of a lazy millennial generation is not only wrong, but dangerous. If we do not rail against the current state, the state will never change. If we are not given the chance to be understood, neither will the next generation. If we do not embrace solidarity, dedicate ourselves to our fellow humans, and listen to each other’s worries instead of dismissing them outright, we will forever be battling against each other, mired in a tooth-and-nail combat from which no one will emerge unscathed. This era is crucial, and we must listen, learn, and come together. Only through doing so will we be able to craft a future worthy of optimism rather than fear.