The Existential Crisis of Social Distancing

Phillip Kong

As millions across the world suffer from the vicious disease of COVID-19, a quieter crisis arises in society, particularly in the lives of teenagers. We cling on dearly to the remnants of our lives before the epidemic, searching for any sense of routine and normalcy to fill the void created by an unprecedented sense of freedom. We watch Netflix endlessly believing that we are merely in an extended March Break and do nothing more with our days than attending short virtual classes (albeit not attentively) fuelled by our assumption that Google Meet is the necessary meaningful conclusion to our highschool experiences. Hi, my name is Phillip and welcome to my TED talk.

On a more practical note, the times of social distancing have been a strange one for me. I want to address some of the struggles I’ve felt, which I think are common among my peers, and how I’ve come to understand this issue through philosophy. Ideas around existentialism are particularly relevant, discussed by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. 

So what is existentialism? In short, it is the theory that, as human beings, we are free to determine the meaning of our lives. It contradicts the theories of determinism and essentialism – that our actions are results of a previous cause, meaning that we could not have acted otherwise, and have a predetermined purpose. However, Sartre addresses the negative aspects of feeling completely free: the burdensome sense of responsibility (angst) and loss of hope and direction (despair). In modern terms, existential angst and despair are commonly referred to as an “existential crisis,” which is now also considered by some to be related to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. 

Am I having an existential crisis now that I spend most of my days confined to my apartment, lacking physical interactions with my friends and teachers? Not exactly. However, I think that I act in ways that can be explained by existentialist concepts. Firstly, I realized that I had not altered my routine by much since online learning began. I attend my classes and browse social media and streaming services as  I would on any typical school day, though the time allotted to each activity has drastically changed. A few days ago, as I finished a nine-season-long Netflix show, I asked myself, why am I not doing something different with my days now that I have so much more free time on my hands? I reached an unexpected answer. It was not that I did not want to do anything new; in fact I had wanted to learn some new skills for quite some time. Rather, I held on to my previous habits because I was afraid of making the decision to deviate from my “normal” lifestyle and what the consequences might be if I devoted hours of my day to something I was not familiar with. Is this not existential angst, that I am scared that I will be solely responsible for any decisions I make? Secondly, even when I did decide to do something more with my days, I found that I could not decide on what exactly to do. Did I want to improve my cooking? Learn about something I am passionate about? Or practice meditation and mindfulness? I had nothing to rely on to make my decision, as I was completely free to do what I wished with my time. I had also reached a state of existential despair.

Unfortunately, I do not know enough about existentialism to provide any of you who find similar struggles in their daily life a way to resolve them. However, I think following the cliché proverb “go outside of your comfort zone” is a pretty good start. This is because we find comfort in the predictability of the routine that was shackled onto us by authoritative figures (no one actively wants to go to school everyday). However, it is precisely in this state of comfort that we lose authority over the direction of our own lives. I am not saying that school is turning everyone into mindless robots, but we begin to sacrifice aspects of our individuality such as playing a musical instrument, working on creative projects, and learning skills such as cooking and video-editing in order to comply with the routine that restricts our freedom to pave our own path. In the times of social distancing, previous structures to our lives are torn down and a blank canvas is exposed for us to fill our time with something meaningful to us. It is going to be an uncomfortable transition, for sure, to develop new habits for each day, but it is the only way that we can grow as an individual and take control of our own identity.