You may have already heard of the term ‘existential crisis’ among family, friends or coworkers. The telltale signs may include unhappiness with one’s career, when one can’t decide what direction in life to take, or when one’s accomplished yet still feel unfulfilled. And you may have come across jokes and memes about existential crisis, too, which make it seem like it really is a non-issue and something only artists and drama queens go through.
But what is an existential crisis? Is it real or do people just make it up? That’s why you hear it often in Filipino movies, when one is suddenly missing in action, and said with an eye roll and a hint of sarcasm: “Ayun, may existential crisis na naman.”
Ateneo de Manila University philosophy teacher Marc Pasco says existential crisis is real and can happen to anyone. While he’s aware there are fields in psychology and psychiatry that can deal with the condition, he believes Philosophy can also offer a bit of help.
“Parang nasasayang naman ang expertise ng philosophers kung hindi namin ito magagamit para tumulong sa kapwa,” he tells ANCX. “Nakita ko na gumagana siya sa mga students ko. Kasi I’ve had two students who candidly told me that my classes prevented them from committing suicide. Inisip ko, baka may potential yung philosophy specifically on existentialism, if you explain it well enough and make it accessible to laymen na makita nila na kaya nilang humarap sa mga bagay na ganito gamit ang matinong pagmumuni.”
Pasco has been teaching Philosophy in Ateneo for 20 years. In February of this year, Pasco—or Ser Ice to those who know him—started a YouTube channel called Kuwentong Pilosopo with Ser Ice where he and his guests reflect on “life and everything that goes with it.” Realizing there’s no Filipino philosophy expert yet on the content-hosting platform, he decided to open himself up for conversation. “Feeling ko kasi kailangang ma-ingrain ang Philo sa kultura ng mga Filipino. The act of critical thinking and critical reflection has to be part of the culture,” he says.
About a month ago, he also started offering existential crisis consultation services. “Gusto kong imulat sa mga tao na hindi lang sa mga puti nangyayari ito. Baka hindi mo alam may ganyan ka at baka yan ang dahilan kaya naghiwalay kayo ng asawa mo, kung bakit hindi ka masaya sa trabaho mo. Baka kailangan mo ng kausap. I am someone who is willing to share my knowledge in philosophy.”
We asked Pasco to enlighten us on the subject of existential crisis, how do we know we’re experiencing it, and what we can do to deal with it. Here’s our conversation.
What is an existential crisis?
Before that, let’s briefly discuss existentialism. In the history of philosophy, there are philosophers who tackled this thing called existentialism—notably [Friedrich Wilhelm] Nietzsche, [Albert] Camus, [Jean-Paul] Sartre, [Martin] Heidegger. And while they have different viewpoints about it, the thread that binds them together is this concern for the individual’s relationship with the whole. Yung kabuuan. Yung buhay. Yung pagiging nandito mo sa mundo bilang isang phenomenon na misteryoso.
Dahil una sa lahat, hindi mo naman piniling umiral and yet you are here [in this world]. It is real and it is happening without your consent. You did not choose who your parents will be, kung saan ka susulpot. To a certain extent, hindi mo pinili ang iyong kultura, ang iyong pagka-Filipino. And yet these are the cards that we have to deal with and we have to play these cards.
One element of existentialism is “thrownness,” yung pagkatinapon natin. That we are thrown in a situation without our consent. We weren't planning on being here. And yet we are here.
Another element centers around freedom. Ano ang gagawin ko sa kalayaan ko? Being self-aware, being self-conscious, bilang mulat sa katotohanan, nakikita mo na meron kang pwedeng gawin sa buhay na ibinigay sa iyo. No one can live your life for you. This is your body. This is your life. You are asked to write the book of your life on your own.
When does it become a crisis then?
Crisis comes from a Latin word [krísis] na ang ibig sabihin ay pagputol. You are cut off from your normal way of thinking. Sa Filipino, ang tawag diyan natatauhan ka. Para kang binuhusan ng malamig na tubig.
There are three common symptoms of an existential crisis. One is tremendous guilt. In the case of the husband breaking up with the family, you are suddenly confronted with this guilt, and no amount of apologizing can ever take away the guilt. Para siyang mantsa. Araw-araw nakikita mo sa sarili mo na hindi mo mabura-bura.
Another sign is being confronted with the reality of your death. Kunwari you came from a funeral, and you stopped by 7-11 para magpagpag. While drinking Slurpee, it just hits you: I am going to die. In fact, I am dying right now as I drink this cup. The moment I was born, I already started to die. There is no escaping this reality.
It doesn't necessarily have to be triggered by a health problem or a death threat. Kung iisipin mo yung kamatayan, minsan nangyayari lang siya. And then bigla mong ire-reassess ang buhay mo: Ano ba ang ginawa ko sa buhay ko? May kuwenta ba ang buhay ko? Meron pa bang silbi itong mga gagawin ko e mamamatay rin naman ako? Bakit pa ako nabuhay e parang napaka-inconsequential ng pag-iral ko in the greater scheme of things?
Ang isa pang pwedeng sintomas [ng existential crisis] ay matinding pain, pagiging brokenhearted. Yung pakiramdam na wala akong kuwenta. Walang nagmamahal sa akin. Ibinigay ko na ang lahat pero kulang pa rin. Bilyun-bilyon ang tao sa mundo, bakit wala akong mahanap [na kabiyak]? You have this sense of isolation, being forlorn, being unwanted.
Where is the crisis there? Realizing that you cannot change it. You can try to improve your personality and your appearance. But at the end of the day, that's still you. At kung mag-improve ka man ngayon, hindi nun binubura ang nakaraan mo. Karga-karga mo pa rin yun.
Yung trauma na iniwan ka, ang sakit nun e. Na parang sinabi sa iyo, ‘I can live without you,’ ‘You don’t add any value to my life,’ ‘Diyan ka na lang.’ Kumbaga sa magulang, para kang iniwan sa ampunan. Tapos parating may bumibisita sa ampunan para mag-adopt pero walang pumipili sa iyo.
At which stage in life does it usually occur?
I can only speak from experience. As a Philosophy teacher, I have had students who consulted with me outside of class or even students that I maintain a friendship with even after graduation.
In terms of age, I would say fairly common siya sa early 20s, yung mga bagong graduate. Kasi they are transitioning to a new world, to a different phase of their lives. Na-burst ang bubble nila, yung idealism in the university. Nung college, parang big fish ka in a small pond. Pagdating mo sa workplace, nobody cares that you’re a valedictorian. Nobody cares if you got an A in philosophy. Ngayon performance-based lahat ito. Kung sino lang ang magustuhan ng boss, yun lang ang sukatan ng success. Kailangan nilang mag-restart.
The other group are people experiencing midlife crisis. This is usually associated with people in their 40s, but it can happen earlier. Depende rin sa personality ng tao kasi may mga tao talagang naturally introspective. Yung mga taong palaisip, mahilig magmuni-muni.
There are those who are concerned with making the best out of their jobs, making money, building this and that, purchasing this etc. So once they have everything that they want… O tapos? Now what? Yun ang tanong ng midlife crisis.
Ang dami mo ng pera, napagtapos mo na ang mga anak mo, empty nest na kayo ng asawa mo. Pero ang nararamdaman mo it’s a loveless marriage. And so you feel isolated again.
When you were starting in your career, you had more genuine relationships with people. Ngayon iniisip mo: they're only friends with you because of what you have. Feeling mo walang nakikipag-kapwa sa iyo ng genuine. Parang nakikipagplastikan lang sila.
Nagiging cycle yun kasi kung hindi mo makuha ang satisfaction na hinahanap mo, susubukan mong palitan ng bagay ang tao. Bibili ka ng mamahaling relo, ng resthouse, ng yacht para lang patunayan na hindi ko kayo kailangan. I have everything I want.
When does it become a problem?
Kung recurring thought na siya. Kasi minsan nangyayari ito, nag-iinuman lang kayo e. Tapos biglang [sasabihin mo]: ‘Pare, mamamatay tayong lahat, sh#t.’ Usapang lasing. Tapos kinabukasan balik ka na sa normal mong buhay. Iniisip mo na lang ulit ang mga deadlines mo, kailan ang next ride nyo ng barkada nyo, at saan kayo kakain.
Pero may mga pagkakataon na mas malalim na’ng kagat ng krisis kaya kahit kinabukasan, kahit habang naliligo ka, nagtu-toothbrush ka, nakaharap ka sa salamin, yung thought dumadapo pa din sa isipan mo.
If it happens na may pattern na ng recurrence, masasabi mong it would be a good time for you to talk to someone about it. Kasi yung ibang tao, minsan ayaw nilang aminin na they’re going thru this. Lalo na sa kultura ng mga Filipino, bina-value ng mga lalaki ang machismo, sinasarili ang problema, hindi ibinabahagi.
Meron din tayo sa kultura natin na amor propio—yung pagmamahal sa sarili. Pero sa atin medyo weird kasi ang ibig sabihin minsan ng pagmamahal sa sarili ay huwag mong ilagay ang sarili mo sa sitwasyon na pwede kang mapahiya. At itinuturing natin minsan ang pagkakaroon ng ganitong isipin na nakakahiya.
Sasabihin ng iba: Ano pa ba ang nirereklamo ko sa buhay? May bahay naman ako, may kotse naman ako, may trabaho ako, tapos magdadrama ako nang ganito. Ang dami nga diyan walang makain, kumakain ng pagpag tapos ikaw pinoproblema mo ang guilt mo, anxiety mo. Ang kapal naman ng mukha mo.
Iniisip ng iba na this is a Western thing. It's not really embedded in our culture. Kaya hindi tayo ganoon kakomportable na pag-usapan ito. Pero ngayon, because of social media, globalization, awareness about mental health, and all of these things, mas nagiging komportable na ang mga kabataan ngayon [to talk about it]. The boomers though tend to keep it to themselves. They’re generally not the type who would tell the whole world about their problems.
Because some people tend to invalidate what they are feeling?
Yes. Isa yun sa dahilan bakit ayaw din mag-share ng tao. There’s that usual perfunctory remark na “Kaya mo yan,” “Wala yan.” Yung simpleng phrase na everybody goes through that, akala mo it’s encouraging, pero it’s invalidating. And it diminishes the fact that no two people go thru the same thing in the same way. Like grief. Iba ang paraan mo ng pag-cope mo sa grief kaysa sa ibang tao. Kahit na magkapatid kayo at namatay ang magulang ninyo, iba pa rin ang karanasan ng isa dun sa isa.
Pero ang natural tendency kasi natin, gawin nating pare-pareho tayong lahat para kung ano ang problema ng isa ay problema ng lahat. Pero ang pinapahiwatig ng existentialism at pagkakaroon ng existential crisis ay yung sense na you are a unique, irreplaceable, unrepeatable historical event as an individual. And whatever is happening to you is only happening to you.
Some say it’s just a phase.
Pag sinabi mong phase, it gives the illusion na magwawakas yan. Whatever you’re feeling now, it will die a natural death. You will forget about it tomorrow, you will forget the pain in three months. Everybody gets over anything. Just give it time. Lahat ng wounds naghi-heal.
But a real existential crisis, yung malalim ang pinanggagalingan, hindi ka niyan lulubayan. Kasi totoo siya e. Halimbawa, ang realidad ng kamatayan. Hindi yun matatabunan ng panahon. Kahit ano’ng gawin mo, mamamatay ka. Mamamatay ang lahat ng kakilala mo. Ang lahat ng ipinundar mo ay iiwan mo sa mundo. Eventually makakalimutan ka and you will be an insignificant grain of sand in this beach called the universe. No one will care that you were here.
And that is a truth. That is a fact. Ang nari-realize mo kasi doon mga fundamental truths about human existence na kahit anong tambling ng utak ang gawin mo, hindi magbabago yun.
Halimbawa, yung pagiging individual mo. Yung pagiging ikaw mo. Kahit may asawa ka na, kahit may mga anak ka na, kahit napapaligiran ka ng coworkers mo, ng isandaang milyong mahigit na Filipino sa Pilipinas, it doesn’t change the fact that you are still an individual. That you are separate from others, and this is your life and that's their life. All forms of sharing are to a certain extent artificial. It's a social construct. At the end of the day, we are individuals.
How should one deal with an existential crisis?
I think there is a field in psychiatry and psychology that focuses on dealing with existential crisis and I see no reason why a person would be shortchanged in opening himself or herself up to a licensed professional therapist. Kasi at the end of the day, pag kinikimkim mo lang lahat, kapag sinasarili mo, nire-repress mo, you’re just delaying the inevitable. Parang bulkan yan e. May magti-trigger diyan at pwedeng magkaroon ng mas malalang event kaysa kung inunti-unti mong ilabas.
Let’s say, talk to a therapist twice a month or once a month. Kahit paano, you’re letting off steam. It doesn’t mean that it totally goes away. But I can imagine them showing you ways of coping with an existential crisis. Because that's all you can do in an existential crisis. It’s not a health condition like diabetes; you're dealing with the fundamental truths of human existence that will not go away or will not be changed by anything and you cannot unsee what you have seen.
Kamatayan, pag-iisa—hindi naman yun magbabago kasi totoo yun e. Pero the next question is: kung ganyan pala ang buhay, ano ang gagawin mo? How do you cope with that in such a way na pwede ka ring maging productive member ng society? Hindi ka lang magkukulong sa kuwarto mo, iiyak, magfu-food binge, iinom or magda-drugs. The healthiest way to cope is conversation. This is precisely why I decided to offer the Pasco Existentential Crisis Consultation Services.
Merong services na ino-offer ang psychology or psychiatry. Pero parang nasasayang naman ang expertise ng philosophers kung hindi namin ito magagamit para tumulong sa kapwa. Nakita ko na gumagana siya sa mga students ko. Kasi I’ve had two students who candidly told me that my classes prevented them from committing suicide. Inisip ko, baka may potential yung philosophy specifically on existentialism, if you explain it well enough and make it accessible to laymen na makita nila na kaya nilang humarap sa mga bagay na ganito gamit ang matinong pagmumuni.
It will help you learn to accept something na hindi magbabago. Kasi ang sakit naggagaling sa hindi pagtanggap. Pag natanggap mo na mamamatay ka, mag-isa ka, ang lahat ng ipinundar mo magiging abo, what else can life do to you? Tinanggap mo na e.
A group in the Philippines is dedicated to addressing those who have suicidal tendencies.
These are their hotline numbers:
Information and Crisis Intervention Center (02) 804-HOPE (4673) 0917-558-HOPE (4673) or (632) 211-4550 0917-852-HOPE (4673) or (632) 964-6876 0917-842-HOPE (4673) or (632) 964-4084
In Touch Crisis Lines: 0917-572-HOPE or (632) 211-1305 (02) 893-7606 (24/7) (02) 893-7603 (Mon-Fri, 9 am-5 pm) Globe (63917) 800.1123 or (632) 506.7314 Sun (63922) 893.8944 or (632) 346.8776