existential crisis

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Edvard Munch – The Scream

“The Scream” is undoubtedly one of the most famous paintings by Edvard Munch. In his journal entry in 1892, Munch wrote down his inspiration for this painting: “One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became “The Scream’.” 

To me, this painting and the accompanying journal entry expresses the feelings of having an existential crisis.  An existential crisis is commonly defined as a moment or a phase in which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether his/her life has any meaning, purpose or value. When Munch laid his eyes on the grand Norwegian fjord and watched the sun set over the fjord, he probably felt very small, insignificant, powerless and alone in this world. There is a popular rhetoric that you will feel a kind of tranquility and inner peace when you are “together with nature”. However, what Munch was trying to depict through this painting is completely different – he wants to express emptiness, helplessness, emotional anguish and the sounds of quiet desperation in the face of Mother Nature. The scream that he sensed passing through nature was probably a reflection of the fear in his heart – the fear that his life was inherently meaningless. I think I can try to hear the scream depicted by the painting. When I see a beautiful natural scenery, I wonder how these same gorgeous scenes have played out many times in the past before I were born and how these same scenes will continue to play out for a very long time in the future after I have died. Apart from these thoughts, I also wonder how inconsequential it is that I am there at that time to witness something so magnificent. I neither participate in nor contribute to its beauty and so does it make a difference that I am there to see it? If everything in life happens for a reason, why did I happen to walk past and see the beautiful scene? What is the point? There must be a meaning (because humans are meaning-seeking creatures) but I just do not know what the meaning is at that point of time.

In a broader perspective, I still do not know what the meaning of my life is in the greater schemes of things – why did I do what I did, why did I meet the people whom I met and why did I experience what I have experienced. Lately, I have been experiencing some kind of quarter-life existential crisis in face of all the uncertainties. I reminisced about the past a little (or a little too much) because I wanted to come up with a story and I wanted my life to make sense at least to me. What I realized was that I do not have a coherent story to tell. I do not have a passion that defines my life. I think it all boils down to the way I make decisions. For the most part of my life, I never really bother myself with decisions. For me, life is a game and when opportunities present themselves, I take the chance and see how it goes. If it does not work, I don’t bother myself too much with what it could be. It has been going quite well so far, partly because I like to challenge myself and take the opportunities that I find challenging and usually these opportunities bear pretty good fruits. I don’t know if this attitude is good for me in the long run but I really hate this attitude when I wake up in the middle of the night and I do not know why I am doing what I am doing. I wish I have simple explanations just like other people. I have a funny story to illustrate this point. 6 months before I started my MRes programme in Imperial College, I asked a senior who was in the programme at that time why he chose it. He gave me 3 reasons. 6 months into my MRes programme, a junior asked me the same question and my message to her was, in the exact same words, “Just apply! Think later hahah. :)”

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” I am still trying to find the “why” – that fire within me that can take me through any storm.

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