The Anxiety of Meaninglessness and Emptiness

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This week I’ve dug Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be.” I’m surprised by how much I love it, considering that Tillich is a Christian. But Tillich’s thought is not rooted in fundamentalism but existentialism. His writing has the ring of truth in it, unlike a lot of modern religious movements. Tillich grapples with the questions of life with unflinching honesty. His thoughts on anxiety are particularly helpful for not only me but in how I consider my patients. 

Tillich writes about 3 forms of anxiety: the anxiety of fate and death, the anxiety of meaninglessness and emptiness, and the anxiety of guilt and condemnation. As you can imagine all of these categories can be written about ad nauseam. But today I’d like to focus on the anxiety of meaninglessness and emptiness. 

In short: the modern world feels empty for many of us. We seem to be living in a narcissistic, spiritually dead age and we cannot find meaning in the cultural expressions given to us.  Tillich, of course, has lots to say about this: 

“​​The anxiety of emptiness is aroused by the threat of nonbeing to the special contents of the spiritual life. A belief breaks down through external events or inner processes: one is cut off from creative participation in the sphere of culture, one feels frustrated about something which one had passionately affirmed, one is driven from devotion to one object to devotion to another and again on to another, because the meaning of each of them vanishes and the creative eros is transformed into indifference or aversion. Everything is tried and nothing satisfies. The contents of the tradition, however excellent… lose their power to give content today. And present culture is even less able to provide the content… Anxiously one turns away from all concrete contents and looks for an ultimate meaning, only to discover that it was the loss of a spiritual center which took away the meaning from the special contents of the spiritual life.”

Courage To Be

Without discovering an ultimate meaning, a meaning that is not readable available in the modern capitalistic world, we feel empty. And we tend to fill up our emptiness with consumption or distraction. But that doesn’t really work after a while, does it? It often makes us feel more empty. So many of us take to drugs or other addictions. It is the way of life in modern America. And oftentimes that doesn’t work either, so we escape from the anxiety of emptiness by searching for a new religion. 

It can look like modern fundamentalism in any religion, Christianity, Islam, even Buddhism. But religion can take on any form. I think of the toxicity of Star Wars fandom for example and how ugly that has gotten, harassing actresses of color because they don’t fit that notion of what they believe Star Wars to be. It looks insanely silly from the outside, probably because it is extremely silly. But Star Wars is what gives so many people meaning in their lives. It is a cultural expression of heroism, adventure, and meaning that most of us severely lack, and because of it, fans take it very very seriously. Other examples include sports fandom. As I former sports addict, I can attest to how ugly and angry I could get over trivial arguments or my team’s play. 

Or take the cult of personalities that have formed around people like Donald Trump or Elon Musk.  As Erich Fromm discusses in “Escape From Freedom,” this kind of blind worship is way a way to overcome our powerlessness in the modern world. And to a certain extent, it works. One only has to take a look at a Trump rally to see how much meaning is derived from the followers. 

But as we know, this attempt to overcome emptiness leads to untold suffering and violence. You might ask what does it look like to overcome meaninglessness? As I’ve suggested elsewhere, meaning doesn’t have to come from doing but can come from just being. That means learning to live moment by moment in our sentient bodies. It means acknowledging all the ways we suffer but all things we are grateful for. It is to try to live a child, seeing the world with open, fresh eyes. None of this will help you fully escape from anxiety. But it changes how one relates to the world.   

2 comments

  1. I’ve finished the Courage to Be, and very much enjoyed it. Wondering what your thoughts are on his idea of the “God above God” or the “ground of being”. It seems to transcend the idea of fundamentalism and one Truth, while giving us something universal in some sense – the source in which all arises.

    It seems sort of linked to the Tao, unknowable, ungraspable – but still trying to fully connect the dots here.

    Appreciate any insights, and thanks for writing about this:)!

    Like

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