I hit a wall at the end of last week. Then, I slid into a very dark hole. It wasn’t depression, per se. It was more of a void: a total lack of contentment, meaning, and purpose.
Thanks to chronic insomnia, I have been averaging only 4-4.5 hours of sleep per night for six weeks, but I have used self-care and naps to cope. Aside from missing my tribe, I felt I was managing well.
Perhaps it was my exhaustion along with the cumulative effects of quarantine isolation triggered by the realization that I had fallen into the trap of writing like a textbook rather than from the soul. Maybe it was the suppression of grief from my break up with my partner after a difficult 9 months. In all honesty, I was likely hurtling toward this dark space since March, and I couldn’t see it because I was busy being diligent with writing and helping others through their dark spaces.
But mental health disorders are often unpredictable like that.
I reached out to someone in my social support tribe to ask them whether they had the mental space to help me process what was happening. He assured me that he did, listening patiently as I talked in a stream of consciousness.
When I reached a pausing point after realizing I had been talking non-stop for over thirty minutes, I waited for my friend to respond. He took a long, slow breath and said, “You are one of the most positive people I know.” Another pause. “Do you realize how nihilistic you sound, Jenna?”
The question jarred me. It left me frantically sifting through my segmented memories of the things I had just said to find some shred of evidence that he had misunderstood my message.
“What is the point? My life feels meaningless. My impact on the world is so small. When I die, I will only have mattered for as long as the memories of my loved ones can sustain snippets of who they perceived me to be.“
“Perhaps I will write a book, and someone, a hundred years from now, will quote something I have said. It is unlikely; everything has been said before. Originality is only a function of exposure.”
“I am a speck of stardust on a rock that is hurtling through space. Insignificant to the Universe.”
I had even quoted the Epicurean paradox as I ranted about the pandemic and how the prayers from around the world were not stopping its spread.
I sat there, stunned. I had unknowingly stumbled into the realm of existential nihilism, and I had wandered in so far that I couldn’t see even the slightest sliver of meaningfulness on the horizon.
Don’t Google “nihilism” and begin judging me as a godless Being without morals. The first definition that comes up is biased in its brevity and dangerous in its assumptions. It is insulting and presumptive to lump me in with Nietzsche as if the direction he took nihilism in is the only perspective that can come from realizing that most of the striving we do in life is pointless in and of itself.
In our darkest moments, we can surrender to the shadows, or we can fight them with our light. I started fighting by researching, as is my way. The starkly pessimistic words of historical nihilists resonated with my dark space. I began questioning whether I was becoming informed or falling farther into the hole, but I kept scanning the texts for a way out.
Then, I was met with salvation as one quote jumped off the screen at me.
What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world-and defines himself afterward. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.”Jean-Paul Sartre
The Ego Falls Away
When I was 15 years old, my Theory of Knowledge teacher took us to a field and told us to go lie in the grass alone and ponder René Descartes’ declaration, “I think; therefore, I am.” Being the unassuming rebel that I was, I sat there and made a chain of clover flowers thinking that I existed simply because I existed and that I didn’t need to understand why.
How could I have known then that the experience she had gifted me would connect with existential nihilism almost 30 years later only to give me the power and purpose climb out of my dark space?
I have suffered for countless days wondering why I was made to exist in a world that wouldn’t have missed me if I was never born. This is a gift of periodic depressions and the darkness of mood swings.
The roots of my darkness run so deep that so far, I have only managed the symptoms when it takes over. Being bullied by “mean girls” as a pre-teen adolescent tore wounds into my ego that would take nearly three decades and a lot of therapy to heal. This is where the ego comes into play.
I have been consumed by worrying about what people thought of me for most of my life. Even as I write this, I feel the sting of fear that someone I know will judge and reject me as I begin opening up windows into my mental health experiences in this blog.
Psychologically speaking, the ego is “the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity” (Oxford Languages). Ego is more commonly understood to be one’s sense of identity and self-worth.
Several spiritual and religious paths guide us in releasing the ego for enlightenment, altruism, and the glory of a higher power. We can experience huge shifts in our ego toward peace and acceptance only to find ourselves battling the ego again only days, weeks, or months later. This is part of the human condition.
The negative things that happen to us can feed a pain body within our ego, making dark thoughts part of our personal narrative. It is easy in troubling times for this pain body to take over and move us into dark space.
The first step in battling the pain body of the ego is to acknowledge its presence. Stare it in the face and say, “I see you there. I know you are not me.”
Now that I realized my ego’s pain body had pushed me into the wall and rolled me into the hole, I began searching for inspiration in one of my favorite places. I started watching TED Talks on depression, nihilism, and mental health. Enlightenment came with the seventh talk I listened to.
I have been isolated from the work I love, which is supporting teachers in personalized, face-to-face coaching sessions. I have had very little social interaction. My one remaining connection to the servant leadership that is essential to my self-worth, namely this blog, had plateaued in readership.
Then the epiphany: In the absence of service, belonging, and impact, my ego becomes nihilistic.
I had taken the next step to weaken my pain body after calling it out: I had identified what fueled it. Now I could take steps to dismantle it.
Belonging is Essential
Much of our life is spent striving to belong. It is an essential need that even Maslow had identified in his hierarchy.
The connections we make with ourselves and others are the fabric of happiness and purpose, and we create that on our own. Even the act of surrendering to a god is a personal choice meant to bring belonging and meaning where there was none; it is part of our essence that we bring into the world by pure will. Call it faith if you wish.
Steps to Grow a Sense of Belonging
- Change your personal narrative with positive self-talk. If you catch yourself ruminating on the rhetoric of your pain body’s darkness, reframe it into positivity by keeping a gratitude journal, developing goals with a plan, creating a vision board, or using positive affirmations with yourself.
- Practice loving-kindness with yourself. There are even meditations for this! Unconditional self-acceptance is crucial to shrinking your ego’s pain body.
- Look for ways to integrate the best parts of your various personas. If you have been segmenting your life into work versus social versus the self you give your significant others versus who you are when you are alone, find a way to reintegrate yourself. I am not suggesting you take down barriers that help you. Instead, find what personas and skillsets you like most about yourself and invite them into the various compartments of your life.
- Make healing a priority. I would not have come so far in my mental health progress without therapy and other expert resources. The book The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown is a powerful place to start.
Service and Impact
The ripples we make in this life define who we are for others and invites belonging.
I am a deeply spiritual and moral woman because I choose to be for the comfort of my soul and those around me. I have always recognized that it is the impact we have on others and the feelings we cultivate within ourselves that brings meaning to this existence in the brief time we are a part of it.
How I treat one person can change them for the rest of their lives. That change could impact how they treat everyone they know and what they choose to do to bring their own life meaning.
Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”Mahatma Gandhi
Find out how you can provide service to those you wish to belong with. For me, that is continuing this blog despite the fact that I may never have thousands of readers. Even if I only impact one person in a positive way, the ripples of that could spread that positivity to others they know. Ripples.
In Summation: A Call to Arms for Educators
If we are to equip our youth with the tools they need to make their own meaning in this world, we have a moral responsibility to define and strengthen the meaning of our own lives.
We also have a moral responsibility to destigmatize mental health issues. Goodness knows there will be plenty of people dealing with the reality of mental health disorders and emotional struggles as we emerge from quarantine for the next school year.
I am still struggling with my dark space today, but I can see hope on the horizon. Instead of dwelling in the nihilism, I am accepting it as a stage I must move through to deal with the scars of my past. When you feel lost in the darkness, don’t ever stop looking for the light.
You are important. You are worthy. Now, go make your own meaning!