Existential dread creeps up on you when you become aware of your own mortality.
Basically, you know that you’re going to die, one day, and you do not want to die because you want to remain conscious and because you do not understand death and what it means, so you get scared.
For me, it is like floating endlessly in a dark space with nothing to anchor myself to. I am just floating, in a silent infinity, trapped in the vacuum and behind the glass of my astronaut suit, alone.
What any creature does when they get scared is try and do things that make them feel safe, and less scared. For instance, still following the space metaphor, I might decide to start waving my arms and legs, in an odd, scrabbling pantomime, letting the movement distract me from the never-ending darkness outside the suit. I might fog up the glass of my space helmet with my breath so my world becomes a cloudy whiteness – what you see does not exist, is that not so? Or, if I am feeling especially desperate, I will tug on a little string to kick-start my jet-pack, and start darting this and that through cold space, trailing a jet of hot orange flame, pretending that I am going somewhere, headed for some destination, when in reality I am simply occupying a different patch of darkness and hopelessness and confusion.
In truth, what I actually want is to return back to my landing pad, or spaceship, or Moon Base, or whatever is the equivalent of a soft little home, where I can take off my suit and sit in a room, a room that is in a building honeycombed with rooms also filled with other safe and calm people. No, that is not exactly it. What I want is the feeling you get when you snuggle down in bed after a long day, or when you were a child held in your parent’s arms, or when the car drives back up to your house or apartment or shack or wherever you live after a long trip: that sense of a lingering, sighing “Ah…”,where you feel as if nothing could ever possibly hurt you again, and everything will turn out perfectly fine, and nothing exists, in the present moment, except a warm fullness, like two warm hands cupping the baby bird of your heart.
But once you are born you are cut adrift from your space colony. The reason why animals live so well in the present moment is because they do not possess the mental capacity to be aware of their own mortality. Perhaps that is because there was no space colony in the first place to be severed from, and it is something the humans made up, only the things we make up become real to us over time, passed onto the next generation, on and on, story slowly evolving into truth.
Floating in emptiness, however, is a little too easy. Whoever or whatever force placed us here might seem very sick, and very twisted, considering the suffering each of us undergoes over the course of life, but it is, in fact, quite as impersonal as space itself. That means that as the little astronaut wiggles about in the emptiness, scared and desperate, out from the darkness, all around, come shooting missiles: comets and asteroids and other celestial debris, to buffet and slam the little traveler this way and that, until the inside of his space helmet is fogged up with the breath from his screams.
I am sure that if you were to twiddle a little phone to the little astronaut’s mouth and ask him how he felt about being alive, you would hear only static. Because even though we use words to try and understand life, they are inadequate for describing what it feels like to be living it. There is more pain and suffering in the sum of human history than can be possibly imagined, much of it silent, much of it ignored, because the living do not care, and the frightened do not care, and the threatened cannot care. Whole countries and civilisations and peoples have been wiped out. People have done terrible things to each other, women and children slaughtered, men lying down on their battle field with their wishes still on their lips like grease after eating a meal.
We are all astronauts, floating in the nothingness, only some of us are better at fogging up the glass, or pretending the spacesuit is all that exists, or waggling their arms and legs particularly hard and fast. Some of us are hit by fewer asteroids while others are scorched by comets until they scream in a supernova-burst of agony.
And eventually, we all float and float and float until our mind goes and our body goes, a corpse in a metal suit, another bit of space debris, another bit of matter amalgamated in a certain configuration, and all that is left is the floating and the darkness, which perhaps was all that was there in the first place. So, really, we may as well try to float very, very well.