What happens when the existential void stares at you?

What happens when the existential void You look? This may seem like an ominous question, but as our youth and Western society experience an identity crisis, the answer to this question is of the utmost relevance. Previously, I wrote about the identify crisis experienced by our young people. In this article, I explore in more detail the causes of the current crisis in the West drawing on the wisdom of Viktor Frankl, Fredrick Nietzsche and Blaise Pascal. I will also present that a life grounded in Christianity provides interpersonal fulfillment (happiness), gives meaning to seemingly senseless suffering, and fulfills the existential void with meaning and purpose.

What is the Existential Void?

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and creator of logotherapy, coined the phrase “existential void” in his book Man’s quest for meaning (1946).

He declares:

The existential void which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as the assertion that being has no meaning. [emphasis added]

the existential void, therefore, is the nothingness (nihilism) left behind when the traditional forms of meaning (God and religion) disappear. Instead of believing that God created individuals for a purpose, individuals are now accidents on a cosmic scale. The advent of reductionist science, philosophy and psychology, which reduces all existence to mere matter, is the cause of the existential void. Love is reduced to chemical reactions in the brain. Free will is an illusion. God is dead. Moreover, as this reductionism spreads, the existential void.

Totalitarian conformity

According to Frankl, the main reactions to existential void manifests itself in two ways: conformity and totalitarianism. Left without meaning, individuals will seek to do what others do or do what others tell them to do.

He keeps on:

The existential void is a widespread phenomenon of the 20th century… man has suffered another loss in his later development inasmuch as for the traditions that underpinned his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what to do, and no tradition tells him what to do; sometimes he doesn’t even know what he wants to do. Instead, either he wishes to do what others are doing (conformity) or he does what others tell him to do (totalitarianism). [emphasis added]

We see the truth of Frankl’s observations in the middle of the 20andcentury, played to the extreme in the third decade of the 21st century, when conformism and totalitarianism merge totalitarian conformism. Deprived of ultimate meaning, individuals now seek to conform to the dictates of a reductionist society and to obey what this society tells them. Breaking with the status quo incurs the label of traitor, the mark of pariah, and exile (cancellation). For anyone wise enough to grasp the subtle nuances, I am referring here to the current identify movement.

Pleasure, happiness, sanity and meaning (absence)

Moreover, as our current culture continues to struggle with the existential void, the absence of ultimate meaning caused an increase in neurosis that Frankl called the “mass neurotic triad” of depression, dependence, and aggression—an increase that Frankl predicted. You don’t have to look far to see the endemic desperation, drug abuse and violent crime that plague Western communities. Experts denounce systematic racism, income inequality and sexism, but the real cause is the existential void.

Frankl’s remedy for nonsense

“He who has a why to live can endure almost any how.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

Frankl had one of the worst experiences in human history: the Holocaust. He lost his parents and his brother as he passed through four different concentration camps. What kept him alive, and what made many others succumb, was hope. Frankl observed that those who survived did so because they remained hopeful, despite their seemingly hopeless situation. From this experience, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzche and his psychiatric training, Frankl developed the logotherapeutic method.

To discover meaning, Frankl recommends three things:

  • Create a work or do an act
  • experience something or meet someone
  • By the attitude we adopt in the face of the inevitable suffering

In summary, meaning is found in creativity, loving relationships, and a healthy attitude in the face of inevitable suffering. Moreover, the meaning must be found, it cannot be given. It takes work, individual work.

Frankl’s approach fails

Frankl’s solution to the larger societal problem of existential void was to focus on the individual reaction to the problem and not on the problem itself. He admitted that reductionism caused the existential void but did not see a return to traditional norms and beliefs as part of the solution. It is towards oneself that one must turn to find meaning; external realities cannot provide it.

It didn’t matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected of us. We had to stop questioning ourselves about the meaning of life and instead see ourselves as those who were questioned by life, daily and hourly. Our response must consist, not of words and meditation, but of right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking responsibility for finding the right answer to one’s problems and fulfilling the tasks that it constantly sets for each individual. (from Man’s Search for Meaning).

As a Catholic, this is where I separate myself from Frankl. I respect and admire his approach. I also agree with his assessment of the existential void, but we separate. Frankl does not attempt to address the larger issue of nonsense, but leaves it to the individual. If the current state of identify the crisis is an indication of the current state of the individual, it is not a solution to the existential void. This empty needs something to fill it.

Why are religious people happier?

According to a 2019 Pew research study, religious people tend to be happier, live longer, and be more civically engaged than non-religious people. Why? I have a few thoughts on this.

Religious people, especially Christians, see their lives as meaningful. According to them, God created them for a purpose. Moreover, they believe that their life has such value that this same God took on human flesh, lived, suffered and died to save them from death. That this God also suffered as an innocent man gives meaning to their suffering, for this God personally knows the full extent of human suffering and death. This Man-God not only sympathizes with His creation, but He also sympathizes through first-hand experience. That’s not to say that Christians don’t suffer from depression, addiction or aggression – they do. Sin is still part of the human equation this side of heaven. Christians don’t just have to look to themselves for help. Christians also have a God who suffers with them.

Why are religious people, and especially Christians, happier than non-believers? In short, their lives have meaning and purpose. They filled the existential void.

Pascal’s bet

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a French mathematician and thinker known to many for Pascal’s Wager. Many believe that this “bet” is proof of the existence of God, but I disagree. I see the “bet” as a productive thought exercise in determining a meaningful life. It is a pragmatic “bet” between happiness and unhappiness.

What is the “bet”?

You have two things to lose: the true and the good; and two things to stake: your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to avoid: error and misery. Since you must necessarily choose, your reason is no more offended by choosing one over the other. This is a cleared up point. But your happiness? Weigh the gain and loss of saying that God exists. Let’s evaluate the two cases: if you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing. Do not hesitate: bet that it exists. {Thoughts1669)

Basically, the only options available to us are theism and atheism, we cannot choose agnosticism, because the “bet” is that either “God exists” or “God does not exist” . Choosing that “God exists” means gaining eternal, earthly happiness and joy, peace and justice. If “God exists” is chosen and God does not exist, then nothing has been lost (except indulgence in certain unhealthy and sinful behaviors). Plus, according to the 2019 Pew Research Study, even though God doesn’t exist, religious people are HAPPIER! Conversely, if “God does not exist” is chosen and God does exist, the “bet” is his eternal condemnation. All is therefore lost.

The existential void, meaning and Pascal’s wager

To conclude, Viktor Frankl was the first to point out the reality of existential void effect on Western culture. As reductionist science, philosophy, and psychology spread in the West, so does the “mass neurotic triad” of depression, addiction, and aggression. Frankl tried to counter this phenomenon with his logotherapeutic method, but it did nothing to contain the spread of the existential void. This focus solely on an individual’s search for meaning is irrelevant in today’s world. identify crisis.

Anyone who watches YouTube and TikTok can see that the individual search for meaning is floundering, if not lost. The 2019 Pew research study showed that religious people are happier, live longer, and are more civically engaged. Pascal’s wager shows that belief in the existence of God is pragmatically beneficial, because those who believe in God are happier than those who don’t. This is due to the filling of the existential void and a sense of meaning and purpose.

What happens when the existential void You look? You have to “bet” that God exists and fill it with meaning and purpose.

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