The Existential Angst of Being

When I read about why one woman chose not to have children (hat tip to Missy:  thanks for giving me something to post about!), and then why another has remained single, my heart ached for these ladies.  A light-hearted rant about why it’s better to “die alone” than face motherhood didn’t cheer me any, so I wrapped up my research with an explanation why sleeping until 10am is proof that childlessness is the better choice.

My sympathy doesn’t stem from reasons one might expect:  the sadness of childlessness!  the loneliness of an old maid!

The problem is deeper than that, don’t you think?

Children, spouses, families:  as all-consuming as they can be, they are still just trees in that deep dark forest called Your Life.  The above-linked souls seem well and truly lost in their own forests, regardless of the kind of trees growing there.

Let’s pull back and try a broader perspective.  The further away our view, the less details can distract.  The picture becomes simpler, people turn into ants, then disappear, then bam!  The forest is right in front of you.

The question isn’t whether it’s better to have kids or not, or whether it’s better to marry or not.  The real question is, how do I find meaning in life?  Oh, that pesky human need to feel that life is meaningful:

I’m doing the right thing, right?  What’s it all for, anyway?

Interestingly, the articles written from more experienced perspectives (here and here) seem particularly riddled with doubt and worry, although I suspect the basic question–why am I here?–drifts like mist through every forest.  Perhaps the younger two authors haven’t wandered around long enough to feel the damp chill of worry yet.

Now, on to the meaning of life.  Having kids is pretty much the quickest, no-brainer kind of way to find meaning.  Those wiggly, squalling little blobs of secretion are great “purpose-givers,” are they not?

Yet children are only one of the myriad ways toward a meaningful life.  If you decide not to have them, or if circumstances decide for you, then what?  Life’s meaningless?  Of course not.  Let’s see, a thousand different religions, causes, good deeds, great adventures, ardent competitions, grand visions, or creative ambitions might fill up your life quite nicely.  Might.

The younger two writers point out the more practical benefit to childlessness, here:

“Because we are not having kids, I’ve been able to leave my old career and go back to school full time to pursue a new passion. My husband, forever the car enthusiast, has his sites [sic] set on a new Nissan GTR.”

And here, in an inverse fashion:

“Having kids is making a decision to live a life with strollers, diaper bags, breast pumps, sleep deprivation, and the withering looks from strangers like me, who wonder why you thought it was a good idea to bring your toddler to a Victorian painting exhibit.”

These explanations encapsulate the hope that living for yourself will provide meaning enough.  After all, if you don’t seek after your own interests, who will?

“For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things.  But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.  Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Oh, dear.  I’ve gone there, haven’t I?  To the very thing that would probably provoke eyerolls and scoffing from the kind of person who writes things like:

“I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that, and I am heartbroken to live through a time where Wall Street money means these women are not treated with due disdain.”

It’s funny how that quote doesn’t bother me.  Me, the stay-at-home whore mom.  I’m no more insulted than I am when my younger son gets really upset and claims he’s going to run away.  How can I take the insult to heart, when the same article holds this angst:

“Convention serves a purpose: It gives life meaning, and without it, one is in a constant existential crisis. If you don’t have the imposition of family to remind you of what is at stake, something else will. I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years.”

And more angst:

“I have lost my life. I had a lot of friends, saw people, had full days. I don’t know where anyone is anymore, and I can’t even remember who it is that is gone.”

Jeepers.  I hope Ms. Wurtzel finds good answers for those existential questions, and some peace in life.  If she or anyone else should happen to read this post, and if she or anyone else should further happen to find themselves unable to satisfy that need for meaning, no matter what is acquired or accomplished, well.

That particular Bible quote I used is Luke 20:30-32.  You could start there.

UPDATE:  Thank you Glenn Reynolds! eleventy!  To new commenters, sorry for the delay in approving comments last night, and thank you for your thoughts.  I’ve changed the settings to allow you right in, so do behave yerselves. ;)

UPDATE:  David Lat knows more than I do about Elizabeth Wurtzel, if you’d like more background.

UPDATE:  This Andrew Patrick fellow’s post on the subject is fantastic.  I highly recommend it, even though his superior wit chafes me slightly.

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40 thoughts on “The Existential Angst of Being

  1. [...] cross-posted at No One Of Any Import. [...]

  2. Wraith 7 January 2013 at 9:38 pm Reply

    Well said. I wish I hadn’t rendered myself sterile…but I find the irony in God punishing me with a blessing.

    “Hey, Wraith! Here’s the most wonderful woman you’ll ever find. Perfect for you in every way. You’re going to love her so much you’ll want nothing more than for her to bear your children.

    “So…how’s that vasectomy workin’ out for ya?”

    Yeah, He has a sense of humor, all right. Guess I’ll have to content myself with my cats and being a ‘bad influence’ on the children of Oppressives. ;)

    • nooneofanyimport 7 January 2013 at 9:50 pm Reply

      Aw, thanks Wraith. And also sorry about that irony. The bad influencing sounds like both a good deed and a great adventure. And I know you’ve got the religion part nailed down. Happy New Year, my friend.

    • thatmrgguy 7 January 2013 at 9:58 pm Reply

      Yeah, God has a sense of humor like that. My first wife wasn’t supposed to be able to bear any more children. She already had two from a previous marriage when I met her. Well…….with me she had two more, unexpectedly.

      Thankfully, both of mine/hers are contributing members of society…her first two, not so much.

      • Wraith 8 January 2013 at 11:54 pm Reply

        God gave you both another chance…looks like you got it right! :)

  3. [...] MORE THOUGHTS ON Elizabeth Wurtzel’s cri de coeur. [...]

  4. Bill Johnson 7 January 2013 at 11:50 pm Reply

    I don’t care, but if you don’t have kids, you better stack up the big bux, cause you’ll be hurting fer sure when you get old, and look around for solace and comfort…

  5. JeremiadBullfrog 7 January 2013 at 11:59 pm Reply

    I’m suspicious of anyone’s pseudo-intellectual justifications for his or her “existential” crises when they result in casual insults those who are happy having made choices he or she has rejected. It’s naive, narcissistic sour grapes from a liberal arts grad who learned too much “theory” and pop psychology, but too little actual human history and expression.

  6. Kathy 8 January 2013 at 12:14 am Reply

    Another reality. I wanted children but it didn’t work out. I stand in line sometimes watching some woman – kids screaming, cashier making mistakes, line impatient, hair coming down. I think – you are happy. You do have those kids.

  7. Brian 8 January 2013 at 12:31 am Reply

    Sense of humor, sadistic bastard; amazing how thin that line is. ;p

    “Tragedy is when I slip on a banana peel, get run over by a dump truck, and die. Comedy is when *you* slip on a banana peel, get run over by a dump truck, and die.” – Mel Brooks

  8. AHLondon (@AHLondon_Tex) 8 January 2013 at 1:16 am Reply

    It’s January. Agnst and depression are in the air. Especially in London where Liz Jones outdoes EW in both editing, narcissism, and wretchedness. (Never challenge a Brit to an angst match.) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2258185/January-loneliest-month-Phone-stopped-ringing-Party-invites-dried-LIZ-JONES-knows-feels–wonders-todays-friendships-crumble-quickly.html

  9. Xenophon 8 January 2013 at 1:18 am Reply

    Women are the fountain of being. When they decide to close the tap, life ends. But I suppose that is the purpose of all the life haters and their proselytes. After all, all humanity is bad no? Yet why this profusion of life on this silly rock?

  10. edge of the sandbox 8 January 2013 at 1:36 am Reply

    Many thanks for the link, Linda.
    The DINKs you quoted don’t seem very ambitious. If I were childless, I’d sleep till noon.

  11. Mr Blair 8 January 2013 at 1:53 am Reply

    No-one:
    I’ve fathered three children (now 34, 26 and 14) and generally muddle along without paying too much attention to the outside world.

    But about ten years ago a gay guy, who I had been working with for some years, and who I was quite friendly with, shocked the proverbial out of me. We were pretty relaxed, having a beer after work, and he told me what he really thinks of ‘straights’. By straights he meant specifically ‘happily married god-fearing folk with children and mortgages’. And he wasn’t trying to shock or upset me – in his circle it was ‘mainstream’ thinking.

    Essentially he pities folk like me: repressed, fearful, trapped in what can only be an onerous relationship.
    But he and his friends are grateful for the recruits we breed for them – our children.

    • Steve Skubinna 8 January 2013 at 11:38 am Reply

      If you’ve spent any time with gay friends you might have come across the term “breeders.” It isn’t admiring or complimentary. Obviously not all gays (probably not even most) feel this way, but those who do are probably expressing serious existential angst, and casting blame for what they see as their own demons.

  12. heathermc 8 January 2013 at 2:27 am Reply

    Excellent, and worth a long thought. Thanks, Linda, and best of the new year!

  13. James Hankins (@hankins55) 8 January 2013 at 5:05 am Reply

    There is a catch-22 in all this talk of why not having children is better. It often seems that way when you’re in your 20s and 30s, when you can still have children (if you’re female). By the time you’re in your fifties and especially your sixties, you know it’s a mistake. By that time you know that those other things which seemed meaningful in your early life (politics for example) are empty. You need to love things that love back. That’s a deep truth that a theologian can explain. Most things in life to which you could commit yourself don’t love back. Most of the time, children do. Especially if you have been a good parent.

  14. marneydavide 8 January 2013 at 8:05 am Reply

    The key thing is, money has no intrinsic worth. Money provides opportunity, it is the fuel in the tank that can take you more easily to a faraway place, but that’s all. Once you get there, you still need to make something worthwhile.

    What you learn as you get older is that you actually don’t need to travel to a faraway place to find somewhere interesting enough to start building a life of meaning and purpose. You can build it right in your own heart, and expand from there.

    Using money as the measure of wealth is self-impoverishing. It cuts the nerve of any real effort to build happiness and contentment right from the start. Most of the most valuable and interesting things in life do not have a pricetag: Love of family. Appreciation of beauty. Creativity. Joy of learning. Relationships. Music. Laughter.

    There’s a picture forming here, and money cannot measure it’s worth.

  15. Christian LeBlanc 8 January 2013 at 9:01 am Reply

    People are designed to find meaning in life by being other-oriented, not self-oriented. It’s the difference between a baby and an adult.

    • juliushmarx 8 January 2013 at 1:14 pm Reply

      Well said. I make a similar distinction with my kids regarding maturity. I don’t know about the “design” part, but I do know you can gauge someone’s maturity in how much they put the needs of others over their own. When a baby is uncomfortable it screams, not caring who it annoys or inconveniences.

  16. Mark L 8 January 2013 at 9:25 am Reply

    Hope you don’t mind a male perspective, but one thing I have noticed about parenting: Males generally do not “grow up” until after they become fathers, and even then only if they stick around to be a parent.

    Certainly it was true for me. And I have a male co-worker, my age, who although being married for 20+ years is childless. The man is a perpetual adolescent — emotionally stuck in his 20s, even though he is in his mid-50s.

    The really cool thing about kids is that they grow up, and once they do become adults (assuming you did your job as mom or dad when they were growing up) you have a set of new friends and allies. But unless males raise children — realize that what they do is going to be taken as examples — they tend to remain in the state of perpetual adolescence. They remain more concerned about toys (cars, computers, etc.) than accomplishment.

    I know why I exist — and part of that reason is my children. Ms. Wurtzel and my DINK male co-worker do not seem to have that kind of anchor, and then wonder why their lives seem empty.

  17. Christopher Davis 8 January 2013 at 10:01 am Reply

    While promoting her third book, ”More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction,” she told The Toronto Globe and Mail in February 2002: ”I had not the slightest emotional reaction. I thought: ‘This is a really strange art project.’ It was a most amazing sight in terms of sheer elegance. It fell like water. It just slid, like a turtleneck going over someone’s head.” She added: ”I just felt, like, everyone was overreacting. People were going on about it. That part really annoyed me.”

    • Steve Skubinna 8 January 2013 at 11:47 am Reply

      That was the last time Wurtzel impinged upon my consciousness, and today I am annoyed that once again she has done so, and for exactly the same reason: by publicly displaying the horrifyingly hollow core of her being and parading it around for the edification of those of us less terminally hip and tragically cool than she.

      I know there are people crippled psychologically and spiritually, and who lack empathy, and who somehow consider these to be superior traits. So it isn’t needful for me to have them pop into my view just as a reminder of how desolate they can be. Nonetheless I can always count on one of them to jump out of a trap and proudly display their pathetic nihilism. At least nothing can induce me to share the ride with them.

  18. willis 8 January 2013 at 11:51 am Reply

    “I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that, and I am heartbroken to live through a time where Wall Street money means these women are not treated with due disdain.”

    And women worked so hard to make prostitution respectable…think “sex workers.” Keep this up and you’re just going to confuse everybody.

  19. minalill 8 January 2013 at 12:10 pm Reply

    I’ve always regretted having children. I’m not a motherly type at all, so why was I stupid enough to believe I would change just because I had kids? I suppose I do my best, which is perhaps not good enough, but I have no illusions that all my effort will amount to a higher meaning, or even that I won’t be lonely when I grow old.

  20. [...] Now that I am one, I have less time to care. So I’ll take No One of Any Import’s summation of this year’s Barren-and-Loving-It boomlet as accurate, and address these words that follow to no one in [...]

  21. Conservatives on Fire 8 January 2013 at 12:53 pm Reply

    Having a family may not be all bliss but its never boring. These women sound bored.

  22. juliushmarx 8 January 2013 at 12:59 pm Reply

    Lots of well-made points here and most, if not all, are likely more noble than the one I will make now, but it appears to be missing and, I believe, has some relevance in this debate.
    I came to marriage reluctantly, very reluctantly. For my entire life prior I wanted nothing to do with it, thought it was for fools, and was a very happy bachelor. Then I met “her” and that all went out the window. Never expecting to be a husband or father I’ve had a curious fascination with how it changes a person.

    One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that having to take care of others monopolizes a lot of conscious thought; thought that used to be devoted to thinking about me. I see my peers who are childless and spouseless and their days still consist of the same amount of introspection that mine did, way back in my bachelor days.

    Our brains are great big organs and they have a need to be busy. When all we’ve got is ourselves then that’s how our brains busy themselves, a continual repetition of, “Am I happy?” When we have tiny (and adult) humans dependent on us for food, medical care, shelter, clothing and continual lessons in development, as well as a formal education, our brains have plenty to keep us busy. As exhausting (and daunting and occasionally scary) that can be, there is also certain calmness in it. I no longer wake in the morning wondering about me, or what I should be doing. It’s not about me. Caring for others keeps the organ that is our brains very busy with challenging (and satisfying) puzzles.

    And, during the occasional moment where there is enough peace to allow for introspection, and my brain asks, “Am I happy?” I simply look at my family and smile an immense smile.
    I know my single, childless friends sometimes feel sorry for me because I cannot do most of the “things” they do, but I also know they don’t have the slightest idea what they are missing. I lived their life. I now live this life. I can make an honest comparison. This life is better. They think they have much more freedom than I do, and, outwardly that is true. But inwardly that little voice in their brain is continually harassing them; “Am I happy?” “Am I Happy?” “AM I HAPPY?!…”

  23. juliushmarx 8 January 2013 at 1:11 pm Reply

    I should also add;

    Committing to live with, remain faithful to, share finances and financial decisions with and care for another adult, AND raising children with that same adult are really risky and take tremendous effort. There is a high failure rate for a reason.

    However, singles who sit on the outside mocking those who try are not more enlightened. A lot of people do things I either lack the talent, opportunity, ability or strength to try, but I admire them for trying.

    Mocking people who try noble things is not noble.

    • KingShamus 8 January 2013 at 8:59 pm Reply

      “Mocking people who try noble things is not noble.”

      What Julius said.

      Also, ever notice that liberals really like barking about the superiority of their life decisions? They really have to make their way the hip cool way, even if it means lighting their hair on fire to get attention. Me thinks the leftist doth protest too much.

  24. sestamibi 8 January 2013 at 9:05 pm Reply

    I too thought the decision was going to be made for me until I got married far too late in life at 46. My wife (39, also never married before) and I were lucky enough to have the most beautiful boy with very little effort in trying, not even any medical intervention necessary.

    Unfortunately, our son, now 14, is low-functioning autistic, but the most cheerful, affectionate child we could ever hope to have. We avoid public places where he might be unwelcome, but those are mercifully few, and bystanders are remarkably sympathetic (evidently everyone knows someone . . .) Because of his toileting issues, let’s just say that our washing machine operates almost continuously.

    I wish we could have had more than one normal child, but compared to what I had before and what might have been going into old age, I am enriched beyond anything I had ever dreamed of. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything.

    • nooneofanyimport 8 January 2013 at 9:18 pm Reply

      sestamibi, you are breaking my heart. not out of pity, and sympathies aside (yep, I know a couple someones myself), but because of your eloquently worded expression of love and wisdom. thanks for sharing it. many blessings to you and your family in the new year.

  25. Bob 8 January 2013 at 11:43 pm Reply

    It’s okay with me if people who are too selfish to have kids remain childless, but they shouldn’t be allowed to collect Social Security when they reach retirement age. Why should my kids’ earnings be taxed to pay for handouts to people who couldn’t be bothered to help produce the next generation of taxpayers? Since all these childless-by-choice people never have any of the expenses connected with pregnancy or childbirth, never have to take maternity leave or pay for day care, and never have to bear the expense of feeding or clothing or educating a child, they can certainly save up for their own retirement. They shouldn’t be freeloading on money earned by the children of their contemporaries who saw fit to grow up and take on adult responsibilities.

    • nooneofanyimport 9 January 2013 at 8:55 am Reply

      that’s a really good point, Bob. I hadn’t thought about that. I remember one of the commenters at on the of linked articles, complaining about the child-havers being a strain on the current system, what with burdening us with education costs and the like. Unbelievable, how upside down thinking can be!

      • Bob 9 January 2013 at 11:31 am Reply

        That’s the biggest reason (although there are many) why our country is going down the tubes: People have lost the ability to a) think rationally or b) see beyond just the current generation. Whenever I hear childless-by-choice people complain about people with children, I want to ask them what they think would happen if everyone adopted their lifestyle. They get away with it (and even profit from it, at least financially) because they are a small minority, but for them to keep enjoying their wonderful child-free lifestyle, it’s necessary for them to remain a small minority. If their philosophy of life ever catches on with the masses, they’re doomed, right along with all the rest of us. Europe’s current woes are largely caused by their failure to reproduce themselves, which made it necessary for them to allow massive immigration (from mostly Muslim countries) just to maintain their population and their work force. Anyone want America to end up like that?

        • Bob 9 January 2013 at 11:33 am Reply

          I saw a sign once that said “End abortion — the life you save may someday pay your Social Security.”

  26. sestamibi 11 January 2013 at 12:25 am Reply

    Bob, what you say is true, but is a poor pro-natal argument. Children are a blessing in and of themselves, and should not be born simply to support a socialized retirement Ponzi scheme or to provide cannon fodder for military adventurism.

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