The first time I remember feeling like I had an existential crisis, I was 16. I had just read The Stranger for my high school English class, and had one of those “Wait, so I’m supposed to go to school for a long time, go to work, then have a couple of kids and take them to soccer games, and that’s it?” kind of moments. After finishing the book, I called my best friend at the time, who had recently moved across the country, and as she was much older and wiser than me (at a solid 17 years of age), she helped me move past that crisis by reminding me that I wouldn’t have to take my kids to soccer if I didn’t want to (soccer somewhat dominated the social culture at our high school, in case that wasn’t apparent), reminding me that life is what we make of it.
I think of The Stranger and that conversation often, as it felt like a catalyst in my life for trying to figure out some alternative pathway besides working at Livermore’s largest employer—Lawrence Livermore National Lab—and living in a house that looks like everyone else’s in one of the most affluent metropolitan areas in the country. As the “smart” one in my family, there was definitely some familial pressure on me to try to class up and “get a good job,” but it was never clear what that life was supposed to look like, or even any discussion of whether multiple years of college and a “good job” were even something I’d be interested in.
Twenty years later, and I still don’t know how to find a balance between my interests in a non-stereotypical life, and wanting to apply the education I poured thousands of dollars and tears into. As we all know, we as US citizens are not only conditioned to seek out jobs that allow us to accumulate monetary wealth, but we’re also dependent on those jobs for things like healthcare and retirement, social services that are challenging and expensive to provide for ourselves via other pathways. So often, the work we would want to do as individuals often does not compensate us at the levels we need to pay for those extensive educations while still providing social services we can’t get anywhere else. Unsurprisingly then, I don’t think that first existential crisis ever really ended, I just found ways to distract myself (just over here Waiting for Godot, too).
Regardless, in 2021, I’ve been thinking far too often about the general existential crises that we’re all facing, as it’s hard not to. At least once a week, some piece of writing I’ve read will use that term to describe the significant, global issues we’re facing (climate change, the pandemic, biodiversity loss), which only further contributes to my own sense of eco-anxiety and stress. Now I have multiple, interwoven, existential crises:
- The need to find the balance between feeling safe and secure with regards to healthcare and my future and feeling happy and fulfilled in my work (which may or may not correlate with a good benefits, probably not), and
- The feeling like I simultaneously need to save the planet but also can’t save it. As in, I started undergrad over twenty years ago, and have studied or worked in some form of sustainability in agriculture and the environment since, and things have just gotten worse (again, climate change, a pandemic that is inextricably linked to biodiversity loss, biodiversity loss).
There could be a correlation between my contribution to “fixing” the planet and poor results, and by “my contribution” I mean the contributions of others with the same profile as me, collectively, western educated scientists. Where employed, many of the methods I have learned for “improving” or “sustaining” the environment have been successful at some scales. For example, regenerative and organic ag have their places for increasing soil health and on-farm biodiversity. But, hey, maybe we wouldn’t have to make up ridiculous names for our agriculture like “regenerative” or “climate-smart” if we didn’t destroy habitats to make food to begin with? The massive dialogue around “scaling up” of technologies should also indicate how challenging it can be to promote the adoption of various practices or what have you, as well.
Additionally, we are at the point in our relatively short history as humans that we are still destroying forests and previously un-cultivated lands to grow “food,” while also simultaneously paving over previously cultivated ag lands (i.e., lands that have already been removed from their original environmental function) to develop more housing and other human-oriented spaces. I do not want to imply here that I think we should stop growing food and building houses, however. We very much need these things and as a long-time resident of the Bay Area, I feel the housing crisis very deeply. I see it in my family and friends wanting to move out of state due to the lack of affordable housing, and hopefully everyone is aware of the increased number of unhoused individuals nationwide.
So, here we are with several existential crises, a wealth of immediate, ongoing issues related to the distribution of food and housing, and a variety of other problems I haven’t even yet touched (racism, educational equity, access to healthcare, retirement, rampant loneliness in the US and elsewhere), all within a system that relies on solutions from a form of thinking (western science) that is also racist, unjust and probably straight wrong most of the time. Now it is apparent why I, like many others, are languishing or whatever we call it these days.
But, we have opportunities to do better, and hopefully get us out of this funk we’re all in. As Jia Tolentino says in this interview,
“I don’t feel that I have the right to consider giving up hope. To do so would mean abandoning or failing to recognize the work that’s being done—the strikes that are being organized, the doctors and nurses who are keeping people alive and fighting to get their patients out of prison, the millions of people who have had to risk their lives and go to work in the pandemic regardless of whether they have hope or not.”
There are many, many good people doing incredible work all over the US and the planet right now; on Friday I had the opportunity to learn from the Director of the Junction Coalition, Alicia Smith, about the many ways they are involving community-members in addressing issues like lead in drinking water in Ohio. Smith provided such motivation and inspiration for being a better human, that it seems silly to wallow in an existential crisis and stress out about what to do with myself (also, these situations remind me, again, of how privileged I even am to be able to walk in nature and reflect on my life’s purpose).
To quote Tolentino, again, though:
“I’ve also been really sick of my own brain for a while now, and in quarantine I’ve been aware of the intellectual stagnation that comes when you stop physically seeking out and experiencing new things. There’s a loss that comes from not meeting strangers, not doing things just for the hell of doing them, not having everyday avenues of discovery and surprise.”
While I always have many whacky ideas of what we need to do as a society to generally be better—can we get away from the “family unit = dad, mom and kids, and we must have a single-family house” ideal, please? This will go a long way in solving both the housing crisis and the issues of farmland loss—having far smarter and more inspiring individuals than myself working toward change is amazing motivation for the day-to-day. Perhaps these existential crises will give us a new way of looking out the world, and if we just get out and do something, hopefully that will lead to a wealth of wonderful new experiences for improving our planet.