Even psychotherapists do. In fact, I went through one myself in 2020.
Let’s walk down memory lane.
Lockdown in Singapore
2 weeks into our circuit breaker in 2020, Singaporeans find ourselves having to endure another 4 weeks.
Why can’t the government just call this circuit breaker a lockdown like other countries?! I want to loiter around aimlessly, why can’t I?! There is nobody on the streets, why do I need to wear a mask?!
These were some of the questions I was asked in the first two weeks. At the time, I had the inner resources to fend myself from these frustrated-filled outbursts from the people around me.
Hope. I had it.
This was going to be like a retreat. Finally, some time to myself! A luxury I’d been yearning for since the beginning of my doctoral journey anyways. No work. No problem. I will just need to spend less. I have supportive family and friends. I have a direction in my life- writing my thesis and setting up my private practice. All is set, what more do I need for these 4 weeks?
But, hope can be such an elusive thing. I had it but it can be taken away so quickly at the same time too.
Precisely at the moment when I found out that our remaining 2 weeks had extended itself to 6.
Now I find myself asking those questions as well.
This is an existential crisis we are all in.
People are dying without their loved ones to send them off on their last journey. We have to make lifestyle changes that we would prefer not to. Parents are anxious that their children with mental health issues are going to be caught not wearing their masks on the streets yet they’re limited by what they can do. Elderlies are suffering from insomnia, triggered by anxiety and worry, but do not dare go to a hospital for fear that they may get affected themselves. Children are forced to consider balancing risks with concern about their demented parent’s welfare in terms of isolation and lack of stimulus way before the circuit breaker kicked in.
Even for the people who are bent on not being defeated by it mentally or emotionally finds themselves affected by it one way or another. One poignant example is the mad rush for bubble tea before the stricter restrictions set in. In a way, it’s a death of some sort. Not the physical kind but we have to die to some of our desires, cravings and needs.
Useful things I have learnt from the Existentialists
Today, more than ever, humanity needs to turn to existential philosophy for wisdom and direction.
It’s a great reminder, especially now, that man exists.
And to exist in existential terms is not the passive ‘lying around’ understanding that many of us hold today.
The etymology for ‘exist’ in Latin is ex-sistere which means to ‘come into being’ or to ‘take a stand’. This standing out takes on an active feel that contrasts sharply with the passivity that comes with saying ‘unicorn exists’, meaning that unicorns are lying somewhere in the world waiting to be found.
As active agents in the world, we are not bound by our essence or a fixed nature which goes on to set our purpose or function in the world.
As Sartre said, man is not a manufactured thing. Instead, our existence is a dynamic one where we are capable of going beyond ourselves.
Yet, today, my authentic selfhood, and probably for some of you here too, has been thrown into the limelight once again and up for scrutiny as I question what it means to be myself in these crazy times.
Authenticity as ‘an openness to existence, an acceptance of what is given, as well as our freedom to respond to it’ given by Hans Cohn may become, paradoxically, inspiring and empty at the same time for some of us.
We may have the intention to transcend ourselves, as existence necessarily calls for. For me, I want to commit to being a better student, counsellor, friend, wife or even just a better human being. I believe fully in being the author of my life, fulfilling my responsibilities with the resoluteness and passion that existential philosophers like Heidegger and Kierkegaard had talked about.
Yet, the hardest part is not in commitment but it is more so that the extended restrictions that stops us from giving our wholehearted yes to life in the near future.
For many of us, the existential crisis lies in how to move forward with our lives.
How should we even start making sense of 2020?
However, these existential philosophers also remind us that existence is not an individual endeavour.
We live in a world. This world is not just an environment that is independent from those who talk about it. The word ‘world’ comes from the Old English compound, weor-old, and taken etymologically, it means the ‘age of man’. As such, when we talk of us living in the world, we have to take into consideration that the human factor is essential in our concept of the world. Our existence is impossible to be apart from other people. In other words, we need others to exist.
Yes, existentialists are wary against people who lose themselves in the ‘herd’ or ‘crowd’. However, funnily, the hyphens in Heidegger’s being-in-the-world serves as a solace for me as well, especially at this time where I am reminded that we do not live in isolation.
Existentialism is not as individualistic and despairing as it seems to be. Man exists as persons only in a community of other persons and no authentic existence can lack a social dimension.
In the midst of losing my mojo, I appreciate my existential philosopher friends more so than over. As I read their work, I am called to appreciate the solidarity that I have witness so far in the local community where friends are reaching out to one another in inventive ways like zoom lunches and the public volunteering themselves in their own ways to support those needing an extra emotional or mental boost.
At its core, existence is paradoxical.
Authentic selfhood requires the exercise of individual freedom, will and decision for its attainment.
Yet, at the same time, we can only exist as persons in the world with others. This inherent paradox in an authentic existence becomes all the more prominent now with our second wave of restrictions.
And the existential question many of us could be asking as a society and as a human race at the moment is:
How we can continue to exercise our freedom, will and creativity, being the active agent that existence requires of us, while not being swallowed up by the new restrictions that are continually being rolled everyday (for good reasons)?
I don’t yet have an answer. And maybe I don’t need one. I don’t know.
But I’d like to think that the question is a hopeful rather than a despairing one.
Hi, I'm Mag: a UKCP-accredited counselling psychologist and founder of Singapore’s first ever existential practice. My care philosophy is not to diagnose, label, or categorise but rather to work with the individual in front of me in the here and now.
My clinical credentials certainly play a significant role in defining my professional identity. But to foster a deeper connection and authenticity, I invite you to discover my other “Selves”, the various facets of who I am.