Acknowledging Existential Dread
Updated: Jun 30
Do you ever awaken in the night afraid?
Every human life has its’ share of dread. We all fear sickness, financial ruin, the loss of loved ones and death itself. We may awake in fear of rejection, loneliness, humiliation, addiction and depression. Our personal fears can take us into a personal hell if we let them. Especially in the middle of the night.
Some dreads affects us more as members of groups. Since time immemorial groups of humans have known plagues, famines, tribal wars and pogroms. In our family histories we recount stories of our ancestors being sold into slavery, removed by force from their homelands, even slaughtered because of their cultural, racial or religious groups. And, in the twentieth century humans arrived at the possibility that an exchange of nuclear weapons could bring an end to life on earth. We even came close a few times to this happening, some of which we know about, others not yet.
But something about this moment right now feels different. The whole human species and almost all animals and plants are now facing the threat of climate change that could cause unimaginable destruction soon if we don’t take drastic steps. We can see it happening already if we pay even minimal attention. Already some are saying it is too late to save us. Meanwhile, human hatred, ignorance and greed stand foursquare in our way. We are not fighting with another human "super power" here. We, all of humanity, are up against an adversary more powerful than that--our unenlightened human nature. We must unite to overcome the consequences of centuries of what this blindness has wrought. Yet how can we unite if we hate and distrust each other? How can we break through the cacophony of willful ignorance that smothers our minds? How can we problem-solve when greed and the profit motive run the show? In addition to colossal engineering, scientific and political challenges we will also have to renounce hatred, ignorance and greed. Whew! My emotional mind is not all that hopeful we can pull this off.
I acknowledge my own existential dread nearly every day. I worry especially for the lives of my grandchildren but also for poor and vulnerable humans everywhere, migratory birds, our oceans and forests and everything that makes up this miracle of planet Earth. When I feel the dread I try to be brave. I try not to hate. I try not to despair. I try not to turn every conversation into a jeremiad.
In the middle of the night I sit up in bed and pray for mercy and for wisdom. I listen to the river outside my door and the yellow breasted chat who sings all night along its banks. I practice observing the coming and going of my breath and place my trust in what I call God. And almost always I am comforted. Not by an idea and not always at first. Sometimes it may take an hour or more. But eventually I enter what feels like a shelter of acceptance. I cannot save this beautiful, complex, crazy world. I cannot save those I love the most. I cannot save myself. But I can love. I can know love and serve love. I can open my eyes and see love face to face, moment to moment as best I can. And when I surrender to this solution, existential dread passes away and I feel a peace that passes understanding.
Is this enough, if I do it with all my heart? I hope so because I'm not sure what other miracles are out there.