What it Means to be Free

When I was 13, I requested that my parents sign me up with a therapist.  Being 13, I probably actually said psychiatrist on account of not knowing any better, but my folks made a wise choice and found me someone who was more interested in talking than prescribing.  That being said, now that I work with that age group, I can see that this is not as rare a request for a teen to make as I had always assumed.  A lot of my clients are brought to me by baffled parents who don’t know quite why their kids want to talk to a professional.  And when I meet with those teens who ask for a therapist, the reason is often the same: angst.

When I write about angst here, keep in mind I’m using it in a very specific context.  Not the simple dread that we attribute the word to mean now, but the philosophical term for deep-seated, existential worry first set forth by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.  Kierkegaard is generally considered the grandfather of Existential philosophy and, as such, his work is often simultaneously depressing and uplifting.  To say the least: it’s a rush, if you’re into that sort of thing.  When Kierkegaard wrote about angst, he was writing about the particular sense of total unease that comes from knowing your choices are your own to make and, ultimately, absolutely no one can stop you from making them.

Later Existentialists, like Sartre, would take a look at this and put a happier spin on it, but none of them could deny the truth that they had experienced: moral freedom is dizzying.  The idea that you could simply set out to do whatever you wanted to do left people with a lot of repellant-yet-viable decisions to ponder over.  The Existentialists, being very European and usually coming from old, old money, associated this with the death of God as a moderating force in society.  In my case, the causes for my angst were a lot closer to home: when I was 13, one of my closest friends and a real inspiration in my intellectual, creative, and romantic life, Lydia Schaab, hung herself in her room one night after dinner.

Even writing about this now, nearly 20 years later, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.  I can feel tears close to the surface and my throat closing up, my breath hitching in my chest.  The desire to disengage and mindlessly check Facebook is strong.  The fact is, young people aren’t prepared for the kinds of experiences that they’re often faced with during their adolescence.  Neither are adults, to be honest, but we’re better at faking our way through it.  Reality is quite a lot bigger than any of us, and in those moments when we get to see the real scope of possibility it can feel absolutely overwhelming, disorienting, and dreadful.

For me, when my friend killed herself, I felt cut loose from the world.  The kind of life I had lived until then, the life of a child, was suddenly an obvious illusion.  Maybe I was late to the party, but until then I had really believed that the adults in my life could protect me from everything.  Seeing the kind of incredibly sad tragedy of a young suicide changed all of that for me.  And I wasn’t alone: between that moment and my high school graduation, two more members of that friend group attempted suicide, one successfully.  Clearly, certain repellant decisions had been inserted into our group consciousness.

I was lucky, though; I found a good therapist.  This guy gave me a template for everything that I’ve tried to do in my career: he could sit with me through total numb silence, he could be my ally when I felt weak, and he could challenge me to look closely at the scary new ideas in my head.  My constant refrain in those sessions was that nothing mattered, an assertion that has proved to be quite common in my own professional work with teens.  I thought it was a real stumper, yet my therapist would calmly bring me back to the all-important question, a real question that he asked sincerely: so what?

It sounds flippant, but it’s the most important question in those moments.  Honestly, what difference would it make if anything mattered?  Whether there’s some kind of universal scorecard or not, does that change what it feels like to be alive?  And this is where those later Existentialists would hook their teeth into angst: sure, you’re free to make awful decisions, just never forget you’re still free to make the ones you believe in.  It may be true that there’s no external rulebook to how you live moment to moment, and yet we are still motivated to make choices based on our reason, our compassion, and our desires.  We are free to follow the rulebook we have made for ourselves.

Angst is a hell of a thing, and it negatively affects more people than I think anyone would like to admit.  And it is also unavoidable - when we’re very young we learn that someone else will take care of our decisions for us, and as we age this becomes less and less true.  Eventually we must begin making our own decisions, and it makes sense that we should take time to consider who we want to be, that we should pause to consider.  During these openings, our angst comes over us and stills us, like a friendly and firm hand on our shoulder in times of great anger.  Just like you can whirl and rail harmlessly on your steadying friend until you calm down, your angst can take your doubt and fear.  And when you’re ready to step forward into a life of decisions you make, your angst will lift and you will move on.