Existential Crisis: Finding Meaning When Life Loses Its Purpose

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The world went grey on a Sunday afternoon in January 2010

My sister, after battling a long illness, seemed to be on the path to recovery. She was in her final year of university, a journey made possible only through years of our mother’s relentless determination and some family support. Then, her fragile hold on life slipped away on my lap. The shock of loss mingled with the overwhelming question: Why? Why our family, after all the hardships we’d already faced, including the loss of our father years earlier? Yet, even as a teenager, I felt a strange glimmer of understanding – a sense that our suffering wasn’t meaningless, even if the purpose remained hidden.

Loss, in its many forms, can break us open. It forces us to confront the big questions – about life, death, and what truly matters. We call it an existential crisis – that moment when the foundation of our existence collapses, and we’re left grasping for meaning.

This article is for anyone staring into that void, searching for answers. While I cannot erase your pain, I can offer a path toward navigating this crisis and discovering renewed meaning in the face of life’s harsh realities.

Feeling the Void – Why Existential Crisis Happens

existential crisis

When the world loses its meaning, it’s easy to feel lost within yourself. An existential crisis isn’t simply a bad day or a bout of melancholy. It’s a profound questioning of the very foundation upon which you’ve built your life. This crisis can be triggered in numerous ways:

  • Loss and Trauma: As my story illustrated, the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or any form of significant loss can shatter our sense of security in the world, leading to questions about life, suffering, and mortality.
  • Life Transitions and Stagnation: Graduations, job changes, or even a nagging sense of dissatisfaction can leave us unmoored. We question who we are beyond familiar roles and ask, “Is this all there is?”
  • Questioning Beliefs: Our sense of purpose can disintegrate when long-held beliefs about the world or our place in it collapse.

The Questions That Haunt Us

An existential crisis isn’t just about what happens to us; it’s about the questions that consume our minds: What’s the point of anything? Is there a higher purpose to life? How do I live a life that matters? What happens after we die?”

Beyond the obvious angst, it’s important to remember that an existential crisis can manifest in ways beyond philosophical brooding, such as apathy and lack of motivation, increased anxiety or despair, and reckless behaviour or a sudden desire for drastic change.

Related Post: Memento Mori: Facing the Uncomfortable Truth of Death

Don’t Panic: You’re Not Alone

An existential crisis can be a profoundly isolating experience. The people around you might seem to go about their lives with cheerful certainty, while you’re questioning the foundations of existence. But, it’s important to know you’re not alone in this.

  • The Human Experience: From philosophers to artists and the quiet neighbour next door, grappling with big questions about life’s meaning is part of being human. It’s what led to the great religions, works of art, and social progress throughout history.

  • Voices of Crisis: Even figures in history weren’t immune. John the Baptist, imprisoned and questioning his mission, exemplifies how crises can shake the faith of even the most devout. In modern times, Nightbirde’s song “It’s Okay,” written amid her battle with cancer, resonated with so many precisely because it acknowledged the pain and doubt that’s a universal part of the human experience.

  • It’s Not a Mental Illness (But…): An existential crisis isn’t a clinical diagnosis like depression or anxiety. However, it can co-exist with them, or even trigger them. If despair or hopelessness overwhelms you, please seek professional help. There is no shame in asking for support.

Finding Your Way Back to Meaning

finding meaning after an existential crisis

An existential crisis, like the one that followed my sister’s passing, compels us to confront uncomfortable truths about life and ourselves. While seeking quick solutions is tempting, the real work lies in acknowledging this crisis – to face it head-on, even when the answers seem elusive. Let’s explore some paths that can guide you back toward a sense of meaning:

1. Honesty with Oneself

  • Facing the Questions: An existential crisis often forces us to examine beliefs we’ve held about the world and our place in it. Questions about purpose, suffering, and the fragility of life take centre stage. Lean into the discomfort of these questions, allowing them to illuminate the parts of yourself that have remained unexamined.

  • No Easy Answers: Expecting immediate or definitive answers will likely lead to frustration. Meaning is rarely revealed in a single flash of insight. It’s found in the ongoing process of introspection, questioning, and growth, even when those steps feel slow and arduous.

2. Spirituality and the Search for Meaning

  • Appreciating the Design: Take a moment to truly observe the natural world – the intricate balance of ecosystems, the breathtaking precision of a blooming flower, or the vastness of the cosmos. Can such complexity emerge from pure chance? For many, these wonders point towards an intentional design, suggesting the existence of a higher intelligence behind it all.

  • The Intelligent Designer: The concept of Intelligent Design acknowledges the order and purpose evident in the universe. It prompts us to consider the possibility of a Creator, a force beyond our limited human understanding, who orchestrated this incredible design. Seeking a connection with this Creator becomes a vital way to explore life’s fundamental questions.

  • Finding Purpose in the Quest: Regardless of whether you find definitive answers, the very act of seeking a connection with a Creator can imbue life with purpose. It shifts the focus from mere existence to exploring a grander design in which you have a role to play.

  • Faith: Faith then becomes a framework for understanding what remains unseen. It offers a lens through which we can interpret our experiences, find meaning in suffering, hope in uncertainty, and trust in a guiding force that transcends our immediate reality.

  • Lifelong Journey: The search for meaning through faith is a lifelong adventure, filled with moments of clarity and doubt. Embrace the journey, trust in the process, and allow faith to be your guiding light on the path towards understanding and purpose.

When the Existential Crisis Becomes an Opportunity

turning crisis to opportunity

The existential crisis triggered by the loss of my sister Gbemi wasn’t something I simply moved on from. The pain evolved, changing shape over time. Instead of allowing it to consume me, I began to see it as a turning point. It forced me to examine what truly matters in life. Years later, my brother and I even began working on a book titled “Gbemi: The Ordeals of a Firstborn” to honour her memory and the lessons her life taught us about resilience and love.

This type of reframing is a vital part of healing from an existential crisis. It doesn’t minimize the pain; instead, it shifts the focus from despair to possibility. Your crisis may lead to a career change, a renewed connection to a passion you had abandoned, or acts of service that leave a ripple effect of meaning in the world. The path is unique for everyone.

Finding meaning amidst life’s uncertainties is possible. it’s possible to rediscover the things that make life meaningful. Reflecting on the ‘5 Things People Want in Life‘ can be a starting point on your journey towards renewed purpose. Embrace the questions, seek support, open yourself to the spiritual dimension, and allow your crisis to become a catalyst for growth. You’ve got this!

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