This shit is real

Dear President Biden,

I’m not sure what exactly tipped my brain over into that space where it’s acting like a tongue that can’t leave a rough tooth alone, but just now the phrase “existential dread” landed like a lead balloon and won’t leave me alone. Actually, I doubt it was any one thing having just piled on exposure to the following dreadful topics: unconscionable miscarriages of justice, the dire need for world leaders to step up around the climate crisis, the horrific game the GOP is playing with the debt ceiling, the 24 billion dollar increase in the “defense” budget, and the snowball turned avalanche that is DJT’s claims of voter fraud. I didn’t even read anything about the unconstitutional abrogation of abortion rights this morning or anything specific about either the immigration crisis or how gun violence is (and has for years) annihilating Black families and communities let alone how our COVID deaths have now matched those of the 1918 flu pandemic. Except for the story about the intergenerational toll of gun violence in Black families and communities, which is all of two days old and has slipped off the electronic page, all of those topics are prominent headlines this morning. And this is but a small taste of what the WP is serving up.

It’s really not all that different from any other day in the last very long time so maybe it’s just because it’s our now, but it all sure feels louder and scarier and far angstier than usual. So, as a self-protective “let’s just intellectualize the hell out of this out of control set of feelings and circumstances”, I’ve done a quick perusal of the online definitions of “existential dread.”

First up is the wholly unsatisfyingly ‘me-me-me-me’ definition that pops up at the top of the screen when one (or at least I) Googles “existential dread”:

“Existential dread often involves questioning your purpose in life, especially after a crisis disrupts your personal values or self-identity. Say you’ve recently lost your job. Whatever that job was, it provided a set of activities, roles, and expectations that defined a significant portion of your daily life.”

This is not the sort of “existential dread” I am currently experiencing. Maybe it should be – maybe I should be questioning my purpose in life and whether I should be dropping everything to work fulltime on environmental justice (as just one such possible thing to pivot to). But that’s not where I am.

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) online dictionary definition of “existential dread” is somewhat better:

“a profound, deep-seated psychic or spiritual condition of insecurity and despair in relation to the human condition and the meaning of life. See also angst.”

Unfortunately they don’t define “the human condition” but I’m guessing they are mostly thinking about our awareness of our mortality even though “the human condition” could also refer to our relative powerlessness with regard to the huge geopolitical forces shaping our lives and our efforts to ignore this reality as we attempt to exert desperate control over our tiny spheres of influence. What do you think? Am I on to something or just being melodramatic?

And then there’s “See also angst”:

“in existentialism, a state of anguish or despair in which a person recognizes the fundamental uncertainty of existence and understands the significance of conscious choice and personal responsibility.”

I love, love, love the clause “in which a person recognizes the fundamental uncertainty of existence” but I think the concept falls short when it augurs in on choice and personal responsibility. Yes, those things are important and we’d (probably) collectively be in worse shape if everyone was hedonistic and flouting personal responsibility (maybe – actually not sure of this…), but where’s the reaction to humanity hurtling towards self-annihilation or to America hurtling towards an anti-democratic autocracy as we cede more and more control over the no holds barred GOP machine? Seriously – we need some reworking of these concepts to better speak to the in-our-face dangers that have already barged into too many of our front doors and are just around the corner for the rest of us, no matter how hard we try to stay focused on Dancing with the Stars (or whatever).

It would be good if you and Team Biden would ponder how to frame all this for us and if you all would also step up and lean on the “moderates” to reform/ditch/set-aside the damn filibuster so that we don’t tank voting rights or miss this narrow window of opportunity to do something substantive about global warming.

Thank you for listening.

May we all be safe.
May we all have the opportunity to recharge with hits of happiness.
May we all have the strength to see that individual responsibility will only get us so far.

May we accept that we can’t pretend we’re talking about abstractions, that this shit is real.

Tracy Simpson

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