Letter from the Deep – Healing existential despair

“Damn.”

That’s the first word that came to mind as I read that letter. “Damn” was also the last word I uttered when my eyes rested on the final sentence.

It all began a few days ago as I was cleaning out my email inbox.  There, hidden between old receipts and travel plans I saw an obscure digital letter, penned to a dear friend. The date stamp said it was four years old, but its contents seemed far older, so distant that they had been purged from memory.

As I read the words typed out by my younger self, I was struck by a cacophony of emotions. I saw a younger (and more naive) version of myself, trying to claw his way out of the depths of existential despair brought on by a loss of faith. For the first time in years, I was reminded of the blackness of that night and the depth of that valley. I didn’t want to remember, because its a place I have left in the distance, but this letter forced me to.  It forced me to remember how I handled the death of my best friend, God.

One final note, what follows is completely raw and unfiltered. There is profanity, which I tend to avoid, but in this case, its a requisite part of my story. 

The struggle of a friend

It all began when a dear friend wrote me of his emotional difficulty transitioning out of religion. For those concerned, today he is healthy, happy, and not a nihilist. But at the time, he spoke about the existential vacuum left by his loss of faith, and the dark uncertainty that followed. He spoke of an incessant pursuit of find truth and meaning, saying:

This quest consumes me to such an extent that some nights I cannot sleep. Some days I cannot eat. I become lethargic as a result of the pointlessness of it all and I want to scream, SCREAM until my voice cracks and my throat is torn and the foundations of everything that represents my life are shaken and crumble down, until I have clarity, until I see meaning, until I find a purpose for all this, for these short years on this tiny ass planet in this corner of reality.

My letter from the deep

Dear (Name removed),

Scream.

Go up into the mountains and scream.

I remember being in Canada with my wife who was attending a conference. I had the whole day to think. After trying to work in a coffee shop, I returned to my hotel room, and I sat there, utterly alone, and faced that same darkness. I had just been abandoned by almost everyone I loved because I had began publicly questioning my faith. I’d also been reading and thinking about my own mortality. This sequence of events, thoughts, and emotions made me feel infinitely fragile, insignificant, and inconsequential. And yet, my experience was the only thing I knew. I wanted to live forever, to be happy, to have some marvelous purpose. But all of that was slipping away like soft sand between my fingers. I began to panic knowing that soon I would join every disintegrated person by diving into the empty chasm of fucking oblivion.

I mourned myself.

I comprehended the unyielding reality of death and I wanted God back.

I spent a long time screaming and crying out to God, begging him to “please exist!” I wanted so much for him to be there and to reassure me everything was going to be okay, that I wasn’t alone, that I didn’t have to figure everything out on my own. I wanted it more than I had ever wanted in my life. I even promised him that “I will do anything, just let me live forever, let me continue to exist. Please exist and let there be a purpose and an afterlife.” 

The empty silence embraced me and my tears dried out. God, did not show up, just like before.

I found no answers, and I’m still looking.

My wife returned from her conference, we went to have dinner. Everything went back to normal. It was nice having another person with me, even though she probably wasn’t concerned with such questions, and I couldn’t talk to her about my loss of faith out of fear of losing her too. She still believed I was some kind of “liberal Christian” at the time, and I could not stand her thinking I didn’t believe at all.

Sometimes, I wish I’d never became a freethinker, things would have been much easier. In considering my intellectual journey I realized that I’m not really doing anything good for myself. Idiots around me build small empires, they build construction companies and make loads of money, they buy mansions and live in luxury, even while they can’t string together a few coherent sentences. Their lives are wholly devoted to the hedonistic pursuit of a life of pleasure. Simple, ignorant pleasure, thinly veiled by Christian excuses. And here I am like Qoheleth (The Ecclesiast), I know a lot of utterly depressing facts, but so far the only accomplishment for all my efforts is making 95% of the people in my life hate me.

Sometimes it feels like that’s all I’ve ever fucking accomplished! Sure, I have made a handful of dear friends in this new journey, but almost everyone I know has abandoned me! Up to this moment I’ve wasted all my life investing into the church and studying the Bible instead of building wealth. I live in a small condo and drive a beat up Hyundai, all the while many of my philosophically ignorant friends scoff at me from their mansions. What have I gained? The knowledge that perhaps my life and everything in the universe doesn’t really  matter? What the fucking hell is the point of that?!

At the same time, I am also paradoxically happier than I could have ever been inside my small religious community. I would have felt like a bird in a cage, and every day would have felt as though I am being strangled and smothered. There must be a way out! Maybe there it!

Look, it is a fact that we have lived, we have learned, we have experienced. We exist, damn it, we do! Whatever this existence thing is, we are here, we exist! Whether it was gods or aliens, or just the laws of nature that produce universes, I don’t know, but I am here, I exist, and that fact I do know! And to live seeking out the truth is better than to live a comforting lie, even if that lie comes with nice feelings, community appreciation, and a wealthy lifestyle.

In the end, I don’t know much. I admit that, but I’m learning. Even if there is no transcendental purpose from the outside, one concrete fact is that no matter what happened: I was here. I fucking existed. It’s likely that one day when I will be dead,  I won’t be able to think or be self-aware, but still I know that I have stood here, lived my life, done the best damn job I could have, and tried to make some kind of fucking difference.

And if the universe is like a giant videocassette, I know my life was a damn good frame, even if nobody is watching it anymore, I know that if someone rewinds it to that frame called 2014, I will be there. Damn it, I am there, and that matters. That will never be erased. It cannot be erased. Even if we are the last creatures to ever exist. Even if our universe quietly disappears into the dark night, and another one is born in a distant bubble, and that universe will evolve sentient creatures who will never know my struggles nor look at the stars and think of me, I still have existed. I still have existed! And I will be here.

Even if I am just another droplet in the infinite ocean of space and to others it may seem as though I am totally insignificant, from my perspective, my comprehension of the cosmos is the only thing I know, it’s the only reality I can know, to me it is all that matters. I am just one tiny speck of sand on the seashore, that is true, but I am the speck that stares back at the sea. I am just one tiny bundle of molecules in a vast expanding universe, but I am also the damn astronomer. Existence matters!

We matter,

Yuriy

What now?

I looked at the letter and hesitated.  Should I share it with others or bury it even deeper? After all, it shows an unflattering picture. It shows me at my most vulnerable and suggests that some people who lose their religious foundation/community can experience a time of existential despair and turbulence. But I as I reread it a second time, I knew what I had to do. I had to share it.

This letter showed something encouraging and promising, the fact that this despair is short lived and can be replaced by a happy and fulfilling life. Leaving your religion is not easy, but with time and effort, that narrow path will be worthwhile for those brave enough to tread upon its unmolested wilderness. 

If you are daring to make that trek, here are some worthwhile lessons I have learned through it all:

1. The road to truth is hard and its travelers should be prepared, but its well worth it

Its often said that staying committed ones religion is like following a difficult path, and that its much “easier” to leave the faith and enjoy various forms of debauchery. This is demonstrably not true. This glimpse into my past is evidence that willing to accept truth, whatever it may be, is a weighty thing. It is unquestionably the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. It would have been so much easier to stay a submissive Christian than deal with the fallout. In the end I think it was absolutely worth it, but it was like undergoing a painful surgery. It hurt. A lot. And the unprepared traveler may be horrified to experience this without expectation. But in the end, “to live seeking out the truth is better than to live a comforting lie.”

2. Losing your social support hurts, but some friendships will heal, others are better off lost

Probably one of the most difficult things was the feeling of being completely alone in this struggle, yet, as the years went by, I have met over two hundred people from my own Slavic community (many still in the closet, a few even having leadership positions within Slavic churches), who have also began walking this journey. In addition, I have rekindled a few friendships with people who once shunned me. Others, I’m rather glad to have lost. Seeing their irate and disrespectful treatment of others has shown me that I’m better off alone than in a den of gossips.

3. Rebuilding your foundation is frightening because you’ve been indoctrinated to think there can be no other way

People who grow up in secular countries like Sweden do not experience these types of existential crises. Why? Because they have not been indoctrinated with a lifetime of slogans such as “without God there is no meaning!” I was. You probably were too. Thus, each time you even begin to think about a loss of God and a divine meaning to life, you will be inclined to believe your upbringing. It took me at least six months to reevaluate everything and come up with new answer to the existential vacuum left by Christianity. If you’d like to know how I find meaning to life, see this. In retrospect, I was able to heal and find that the “truths” I’ve been indoctrinated with were not so true, but it took a long time to rebuild a new foundation and find newer, better answers.

4. Jettisoning your belief in an afterlife is hard, but you will heal as you mature in your thoughts about life and death.

I really do understand the fear of death, perhaps more than any Christian. After all, someone who is a Christian doesn’t actually have to confront their mortality, they believe there is no such a thing as death. To a Christian, death is the act of waking up in a new place with new friends. To an atheist, death is not that exciting. It’s very likely to be the end of everything beautiful in life. I love life and I recognize it is short and precious. It took a long time to transition from the fear of loosing something so beautiful, to the focus on enjoying it. But this happened. I promise you it happened. The fear and angst I once had is gone.

If you would like to know how I discovered ways to deal with the thought of death, see this post which draws on a wealth of wisdom from the ancient Stoics.

Even in Westeros, winter ends. If you are going through a difficult transition, I promise you, it gets better.

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