During my undergrad, my colleagues and I went through a strange and seemingly endless emotional plummet off of a high cliff into the dark waters of a rising sea and yet somehow resulted in us receiving a diploma. The increasing fragility of our home planet was a subject which left no stones unturned. Every day there was a new reason to plunge into an overwhelming surge of panic and dread. It was also during this exenstential crisis that I would be voting for the future of my country, for the very first time. I was studying climate change in 2016. I remember questioning the state of my country and my future as I noticed how little time was spent discussing the topics which concerned me the most during the debates and throughout the election. The day after Trump was elected, I sat in my meteorology class and listened to my professor explain the importance of voting, and the importance of pursuing integrity in scientific research.
And then I graduated. I had trouble finding a job. I wanted to be in grad school. I obsessed over the news. I obsessed over every single piece of plastic that I encountered. I stopped eating a lot of things in an attempt to reduce my carbon footprint. I avoided things that I loved to do because I desperately wanted to make up for all of the people whose environmnetal impacts went unchecked and would go uncheck as a result of our new administration. I didn’t even want to paint, I didn’t want to do anything that would contribute to the enormous issue that seemed to be ignored by most of the world around me. But after some time, I realized this was also not sustainable. I love painting, I love being an artist. I have always been an incredibly emotional and expressive creature, for better or for worse and I have always had this relentless need within me to create. I’d call it a passion but sometimes there is nothing passionate about it. It’s as much of a necessity for me as breathing, aspumping the right amount of blood/oxygen/nutrients throughout my body to sustain my life force.
It was during this time that I realized… I might be an existentialist. I was perplexed at my arrival at this conclusion, as it seems like a place that a young artist would naturally come to. But nonetheless, the discovery of this notion swept me into a world of awe and beauty, during a time of such internal and external turmoil; I thought that this must be an answer… if not THE answer to [some/most/all of] our problems.
My embarassment of the late-blooming nature of my stereotypical-black-turtleneck-thick-rimmed-glasses-jaded-attitude-dirty-notebook-carrying exestential crisis, I found a sort of quiet allowance to experience the world in a new way. I wondered why this hadn’t happened sooner. So I approahced it as if it were a concept entirely new to me, though I had tossed the phrase around like I knew what I was talking about for years prior.
The suffix implies that it is a quality which something holds. So, for example, something that is ‘residential’ suggests that it is intended for residents. Similarly, the prefix suggests we are referring to something which, simply put, exists. Without getting too Schroeder-y, if we assume that any *thing* that one could encounter or imagine, must, inherently exist, then what does it mean for that thing to hold the quality of existing? It’s a bit paradoxical. And when I read the great fathers of existentialism, as it were, I didn’t feel the type of doom and gloom that I would expect a climate science graduate might undergo. Instead, I relieved. I felt incredibly free and for the first time since my studies I felt genuinely excited to start working on something and to develop ideas that could inspire change among my peers. It’s just not what I expected when I set out to read Sartre and Camus… it’s not what you expect when you hear someone proclaim they are enduring an “existential crisis” but I guess maybe that’s where the problem stems from- the word’s connection with the word crisis.
In the wake of graduating, being jobless and unable to enthusiastically pursue my art I found solace in what I always imagined to be one of the darker life philosophies. In brief, what I learned is that, while having an existential crisis might be an alarming and highly uncomfortable experience, oftentimes it represents almost a quantum shift in an individual’s conscious mind or in their perspective on life. That’s a good thing, right? Maybe if it’s wholly and carefully executed.
But when it comes to holding a personal philosophy of existentialism… it’s even more exciting. From what I can gather (read: philosophy majors please don’t attack me) living an existentially-oriented life means understanding that life has no inherent meaning …life, as a thing, does not possess any meaning by itself, but rather is a blank canvas upon which an individual constructs their own meaning. Now if this makes you feel a little lonely, keep reading. I would agree if you think that still, even with the second half of that idea, it doesn’t seem too optimistic (though if that is your goal, I would suggest stopping here and reading something else). But think about all of the people who have ever walked the face of this earth, who have been persecuted and treated with violence, taken advantage of, lied to, abused, wrongly accused, wronged in any way… who still chose to allow a transformation within themselves to occur, and instead of becoming the fear or violence that they were met with, brought forth kindness and beauty into the world. Those were all choices. The oppressor and the oppressed both had opportunities to engage in an action that was either the type of thing which contemporary humans have decided is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (within whatever societal context they lived in, because good and bad are.. well obviously relative to culture and time).
In existential thought, an individual becomes responsible, not morally, or in their respective social structure, but in their own… let’s call it “path.” Like a choose-your-own-adventure… the decision you make with problem X will led to outcome Y, but if instead you choose XX, then you are led to outcome YY.
So hoooooooowwwww does this relate to a depressed environmental student/aspiring artist????????????
Short answer: Turtles all the way down!
In wake of the massive epiphany of truth and awakening of consciousness, which your humble author was all too ill-equipped to handle, I picked my paint brush back up. My ideas about how I wanted to leave a lasting impact that could harmonize with the idea of leaving a place in better shape than you found it… on a global scale, were not lost because I chose to choke plastic tubes of colored goo onto a piece of tautly stretched cotton fabric and pollute small amounts of water in a space which was permanently designated as an allowable mess. I could do both. But even if I couldn’t, this is our modern day Black Plague.
If you haven’t noticed by now I am somewhat excessive. To save you from an even longer digression, I will say this… with regard to climate change: though quite literally, an issue on an existential level, if it weren’t this, it would be something else. If this was 1352, it would be the plague, if it were 10,000 BC it might be a saber tooth tiger. Sure climate change was avoidable, in theory. But in practice, here we are. Should we all stop eating meat? It’s a good idea. Should we all halt every airborne travel plan we ever wanted to make? Yes, though unlikely. Should we devote every ounce of our energy to making the world a healthier and better place? Definitely. Will those things happen? Absolutely not. Could the plague have been avoided? Yes, in theory… with antibiotics? Sure. In practice? Nope. Should we not have created an entire global economic system that relies on the extraction, sale and burning of a finite substance which renders our entire planet potentially uninhabitable? Yeah, probably. But in practice… here we are.
If you’re still reading this… well bravo you’ve reached the climax. All of this to say… enjoy your life. Paint! Travel! Eat things that taste delicious! Get drunk! Fall in love… do the things you feel called to do. This climate change stuff is scary and you should probably consider putting effort into reducing your carbon footprint… but this world is also full of divine intricacies far greater than I think any of us will ever be able to completely understand. And, like all things, you have to take life one step at a time. You don’t have to produce zero waste, become vegan, stop traveling, sell your car, live in a solar powered tent in the woods all at once. Well you can if you want to but small and steady changes are the ones that last.
When I started painting again, a small piece of me died inside each time I would wash my brushes in the sink, pouring toxic chemicals into our water supply. I would throw giant pieces of plastic wrap away each time I bought a new canvas. I wondered how my paint had been made. How it had been transported across country to arrive in my local art supply shop. But over a relatively short period of time, my creative process started to reflect some of the wishes I had, to start making it a more sustainable practice. Buying second hand supplies, using those supplies as economically as possible, taking care of my tools… eventually building my own stretcher bars, mixing my own paints, using nontraditional materials and mediums.
So maybe YOUR painting is not painting, but cars or computers or video games or beer. Do it! Do the hell out of it! But maybe just consider what you can do, to make your thing a thing that we can continue to do. Because grounding all planes and outlawing cars is not going to happen, as helpful as it would be for our carbon crisis. So we have to find a way to make better solutions for the things that exist. It might take adjusting our way of thinking about quite a few things (like convenience and comfort) but it’s possible. And it’s necessary. So yeah, there will probably be a few existential crises along the way… but from my experience, I can highly recommend it.
All images by E. Wendt
Elaine Wendt © All rights reserved. 2019.