The Existential Files

Five Essential Existential Reads, Brought to You by My Ongoing Existential Crisis

After a call for more personal articles and an intriguing “relationship with your therapist” prompt, here’s the odyssey you’ll hopefully enjoy. Much like my therapy sessions, there’s no road map: enter at your own risk, but I promise there actually are five quality books at the end of this.


Almost four months ago I moved to New York from Houston and, before I left, I figured it would be a good idea to get a full body check up, head to heels, toes to tits. Everyone hates going to the doctor, but boy did I love seeing my therapist. She looks like my grandmother and sounds like my grandmother, but rather than smile and nod and change the subject like my grandmother would, my therapist gave me all the tools I’d need to dig through my own psyche.


I think what people don’t get about therapy until they go is that the goal isn’t to be fixed. The goal is to have a more complete understanding of yourself, whatever that might be. My daydreams have always been about whole lives. There’s a video game in the show Rick and Morty called ‘Roy: A Life Well Lived’ and thats basically what I’m talking about, except it consumes me. It’s 100% the reason for my identity crisis. I’m an existentialist. Sue me. 


Nina Bo'Nina Brown

Gif via RuPaul’s Drag Race


Most of my favorite childhood memories take place in the same setting. There was this flat section of the roof, tucked way in the back by the air conditioning unit, between my father’s home office and his workshop (where he kept his power tools and where, one time, I found a six foot long flatworm hanging from the gutter…but that’s neither here nor there).


I was probably five or six the first time my father hauled me up onto the roof with him to watch a thunderstorm roll through. We’d lay on that hidden little section and watch clouds speed through the sky, grasping at shades of violet and indigo before lightning shocked them into a momentary flash of daylight. 



i like thunderstorms

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As a twenty-something living in an in-the-loop apartment with a fourth floor balcony overlooking that Big Texas Sky™, my favorite way to unwind after a long day of work was (and still is) a comfortable patio chair, a steady breeze, and a brewing thunderstorm. There’s something inexplicably comforting about watching clouds. They’re impossibly out of reach, but in no way is the feeling of looking up at the clouds and feeling small, inconsequential, or insignificant my own and mine only. Anyone, everyone, could experience that same magic I did, if they just looked up and took a breath instead of stressing about their place in the universe. We could be thankful we’re not the center of it.


‘Existence precedes essence,’ a phrase popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre, is one of the central claims that resonates throughout existentialist thought, though I feel one of the most vague. Depending on which philosophers you relate to, you’ll get a different vibe. Nietzsche goes straight to ‘we’re alone, life is worthless, there’s no point.’


My fight with existentialism comes down to this: we are just one among many on Earth, this incredibly, unimaginably complex and vivacious planet that houses more organisms and species than we can even imagine. 


There are 7.4 billion humans on this planet, and we think we’re overcrowded. Now what if I told you there are up to three million different species in the Coleoptera order. The Coleoptera order is made up of beetles. Just beetles, only beetles. There are so many beetles. When’s the last time you even saw a beetle?


That’s the best way I can explain how I feel about it. We’re not meaningless. We’re just one more thing on the planet existing. Now it’s up to each of us to find our own essence.


All my therapy sessions end up sounding just like this. Thirty-five minutes of boy drama, work drama, family drama, financial drama, whatever drama, before inevitably diving headfirst into the maze of hypotheticals. My existentialist nature isn’t miserable. It’s hopeful. It’s exploratory. It’s amazed, enamored, in awe.


That’s something I do a lot while staring up at clouds and lightning. Digging for the buried treasure hidden inside my own consciousness. There are so many ‘what ifs’ to explore, so many empathetic odysseys to undertake, so many possibilities beyond my physical (but not imaginary) reach.


For me, that’s the real therapy. When my anxiety’s through the roof and I can’t zoom out and take my focus off myself, I take a breath, look up at the clouds and take a trip through my own consciousness until I remember that, chances are, I can’t fuck up so badly that the world will stop moving or the wind will stop blowing.


It might be atypical, but that’s the core of my relationship with my therapist. She gave me the tools I needed to find my own way through the court mandated misery we call life. She dives right in with me and reassures me when I misstep. She keeps the light on so I can see my way home. That’s what made my therapist a great therapist: the willingness to explore all the dark and twisty crevices my mind creates into which I spelunk. 


Plus, she gives great book recommendations. Here are five of my favorite essential existential reads, starting with the first recommendation she ever gave me:


1. Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre


Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Image via Amazon


Published in 1938, Nausea is Jean-Paul Sartre’s first novel, and, in his opinion, one of his best works. Taking place in Bouville, Antoine Roquentin, a despondent historian, develops incessant nausea after becoming convinced that his intellectual and spiritual freedom, his ability to define himself, is being infringed upon the physical world around him. His philosophical nervous breakdown and subsequent identity crisis attracts all sorts of questions; what is freedom, humanity, our place in the universe in space, in time? What is existence?


2. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett


Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Image via Goodreads


Waiting for Godot, one of the most well-known existential works, was voted the “most significant English language play of the 20th century” by the British Royal National Theatre in 1990. Two men, Vladimir and Estragon, loiter on a country road by a tree, endlessly waiting for Godot: in the first act the tree is bare, while in the second, despite the script specifying that it is the next day, leaves have appeared on the tree. The play is stripped down and elemental, inviting a variety of different interpretations, ranging from social to political to religious.


3. Notes From The Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Notes From the Underground Fyodor Doestoevsky

Image via Wikipedia


Considered one of the very first existential novels, Notes from the Underground vignettes the rambling memoirs of a jaded, isolated, unnamed narrator. Told in two parts, the first is a monologue: the diary of the retired, unnamed civil servant living in St. Petersburg, and attacks up-and-coming Western philosophies including Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? The second part is called ‘Apropros of the Wet Snow’ and describes events surrounding the underground man, who acts as a first person unreliable narrator. 


4. Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre


Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre

Image via Amazon


If you’re really feeling up for it, this is the most scientific of the bunch, reading more like a textbook than a lazy day read, but worth it nonetheless. Considered Sartre’s most important philosophical work, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, attempts to demonstrate that free will exists and the effect consciousness has on humanity.


5. The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir


The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir

Image via Amazon


Prompted by a lecture Simone de Beauvoir gave in 1945, the central claim of The Ethics of Ambiguity is that it was impossible to base an ethical system on friend and partner Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. The text is divided into three parts, “Ambiguity and Freedom”, “Personal Freedom and Others”, and “The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity”, before wrapping up in a short conclusion of Beauvoir’s views of human freedom. He writes, “We are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite”.


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