COVID-19 and the upside of existential dread

COVID-19 and the upside of existential dread

New ways of thinking, living and connecting: philosophy, ways of life, and …online courses.

New ways of thinking, living and connecting: philosophy, ways of life, and …online courses.

Catastrophes – war, natural disasters and epidemics – concentrate the mind and heighten awareness. Why? Because as we face possible extinction – nothingness – we are the more aware of what we have and what we may therefore lose, and parts of our existence that we have taken for granted and ignored move into high relief.

Perhaps we try to escape this realisation by indulging in blame and anger, and certainly, a host of actors present themselves as possible culprits and therefore diversions. And yet unconsciously the dark cloud remains ever-present. But as with so much that we try to occlude, a re-integration of what we repress can be liberating and creative. In this case, a reminder of our mortality forces us to examine how we live.

For the existentialists the mere fact of our existence preceded everything else – this is the miracle: the fact that we are, rather than what we are. Once we are aware of this, our responsibility is to make the most of our lives, find meaning in them, and perhaps to live more dangerously than we do by exerting our freedom to act in ways that are authentic to us. Consciousness of freedom can make us dizzy, as Kierkegaard suggested, and anxious, but is it not better than allowing ourselves to be restricted by anticipatory fears, custom, the pessimistic advice of others, and what Girard called ‘mimetic desire’ – only wanting what others have?

Nietzsche wrote that we need to ‘become who we are, having first decided what that is.’ No easy journey perhaps but a path worth taking in order to take some control of one’s life. That involves continual and honest self-reflection, making choices that are true to you (rather than to others, or convention), committing to decisions (while knowing that they often rest on insufficient information and that you will grieve the option not chosen), taking responsibility, working out what you want and don’t want, and taking your life seriously but not too seriously. (Irony and a sense of the absurd remain essential.) Amor fati  – the love of fate is key: accepting the cards that have been dealt to you, and making the most of them.

The deal is this: live your life as authentically as possible, take a few risks in order to do so, and try to think beyond the hand-me-down narratives of what a good life consists of. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov a character – the Grand Inquisitor – suggests that people can’t cope with the human condition in all its complexity, and are happier when told what to do and how to live. The existentialist stance refutes this.

We see elements of resurgent existentialism in the current move to escape the city, to relinquish some of the shackles of our working lives: the daily commute, presenteeism, snatched lunches, and money as the currency of self-worth. People speak of the joys of reconnecting with their families, and with hobbies and interests that lockdown has allowed them to explore in-depth. They re-order priorities and realise that many material possessions are not necessary. In this way, the pandemic has offered many a new philosophy of life.

James Mackay is a Director and Founder of the Tavistock Institute’s programme in Coaching for Leadership – Psychodynamic Approaches. The programme is currently being delivered online, and that remains an option for 2021.

Learn more about: Coaching for Leadership: Psychodynamic Approaches

The next programme starts in January 2021, please email Emily Kyte if you have any questions and to arrange a conversation with the programme directors.

There is an Early Bird discount of £500 for applications received before
Friday, 1 October 2020.

To receive news about Coaching and/or our 3-monthly Newsletter, join our mailing list – you can tailor what information you receive.  View the Professional Development prospectus.

Subscribe to our newsletter

The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations | 63 Gee Street, London, EC1V 3RS
hello@tavinstitute.org | +44 20 7417 0407
Charity No.209706 | Design & build by Modern Activity