Dear Dr. Yalom,
Here I am again, posing yet another unanswerable question! I hope you remember me, I emailed you recently about Existentialism and castration anxiety, and now I’m on the topic of existential anxiety versus existential guilt.
First, let me paint you a picture:
Here are two brothers, hypothetically they could be therapy clients of yours or mine or any therapist. The older brother is solid in every sense of the word: responsible, stable, hardworking. But he has always chosen the straight path, good job, responsible financial decisions, things like that. The younger brother picks one unusual dream after another to pursue—employment in creative fields, travel, uprooting himself to live in foreign lands, collecting fascinating friends and lovers, studying religion and volunteering in his spare time. The elder, in his retirement, feels a sneaking sense of disquiet, a “what have I really been doing all these years?” feeling, even though his family and career have brought him a great sense of pleasure. The younger feels a sense of disquiet from time to time, but it is different. Instead, he feels a sense of panic from when embarking on a new challenge.
In my readings of Existential therapy, I’ve come across two concepts that infinitely thought-provoking to me. One is existential anxiety, and the other is existential guilt. The former is what happens when we acknowledge our endless freedom and the accompanying responsibility and really live a fulfilled and challenging life by constantly pushing our boundaries and heading further into the unknown. The latter is the experience we get by turning away from our potential for greatness to chose the safe path. Both ideas have some merit to them, and both provoke some uncomfortable emotions at times. As you might have already guessed, I was imagining what these two ideas might look like in the first paragraph, the eldest dealing with the subtle rumblings of existential guilt, the younger struggling with the fright of existential angst.
I was thinking about these two ideas in relation to the four paradoxes: freedom versus responsibility, isolation versus connection, being versus non-being, meaning versus meaninglessness. Existential anxiety versus existential guilt could also be a paradox, although it is a parallel paradox to freedom versus responsibility. It seems to me that many of us could retreat into existential guilt when we feel threatened, when a loved one dies, when we fail at something. Especially in the wake of September 11, 2001, the retreat to safer pastures could seem especially attractive. Maybe when something goes well for us, or we are in a stable relationship and feel more able to step out of our normal limits, we move forward more boldly.
The answer-less question I am posing is this: Is there really a range between this existential anxiety and existential guilt? Are we in the same place on the spectrum our whole lives? Is this matter as simple as a person’s level of self-confidence?
If I seem a bit biased in my descriptions of these two phenomena, it’s because I am. I’ve aimed to leave no rock unturned and no continent unvisited in my life, to stretch my limits no matter how much it scared me. I sometimes find myself impatient with people who have chosen the more common path even though I seem to find them often. This is something I continue to work on in my personal life and as a therapist.
So Dr. Yalom, I’ll probably ponder this question some more, and then write to you again with my thoughts. My best wishes to you,
p.s. In case this is of any interest to you, I started posting my letters to you on my website.
Yalom wrote back, but like I would imagine, he is very busy. Here is what he wrote:
i’m sorry but i’m overwhelmed by e-mail and need to protect my writing time and simply cannot give your interesting question the time it deserves – irv yalom