I spent most of my life living in fear.
As a kid, I was terrified of the dark and sleeping alone. As a teenager, I feared rejection and ridicule. And, as an adult, I continue to fear love. As these things go, I’d hide away from the world, sitting in my closet under the covers reading books and playing with my toys. I can’t recall other moments in which I felt as safe as I did then. But, you’d expect that kid to eventually grow up and find his way out of the closet, not to pitch a tent and remain there until he dies.
The existential thinkers teach us that alternates exclude, that making a choice invariably eliminates all of its counterparts. But, what can be more terrifying? How is anyone, let alone a feeble human, supposed to know which one is right? The closet, at least to me, is preferable to such existential angst and I can imagine that others feel the same. Many of my clients enter treatment due to a deep sense of melancholy stemming from a life lived in the details. Seldom do they ponder abstract values, instead spending their days checking off items on lists that are mostly provided to them. While some consider consciousness to be an admirable and rare trait, those clients feel imprisoned by it.
The great psychoanalyst Otto Rank remarked that “we often refuse the loan of life in order to avoid the debt of death.” We keep the possibilities in front of us and avoid making abstract choices because each decision brings us closer to our mortality, both figuratively and literally. In a childish way, we make a deal with life: we’ll remain silent as long as it agrees to not eject us. And, thus, we keep everything in front of us, merely sampling all of the possibilities to come.
However, as with anything else, the matter is complex. We’re terrorized by the march toward death, and we’re also suffocated by our thoughts of failure. When all we have are options, we don’t have to worry about mistakes. If you’re religious, you may recall questioning your parents about their values only to have them tell you that only god can know the truth. Religious subservience is similar to its secular sibling in that it absolves us of our volition. When someone else is telling you what’s important and good, you’re no longer obligated to work it out for yourself; it becomes a life lived in a closet, or a non-lived one.
The downsides to living responsibly are obvious, but what about the good parts, or at least the neutral ones? Since life doesn’t provide us with an existential blueprint, we are, in some sense, off the hook; we can make all of the mistakes we want. As frightening as a life with no objective answers can be, it can also be just as liberating; hindsight shames us for our choices, but foresight can restore one’s equanimity. You’re going to die whether or not you make decisions, and will continue to make an obvious mistake when abstaining from them. If there is an objective blueprint or decree, or at least one we all agree on, it’s the injunction to make choices. Some would tell you that they would rather fail than not try, preferring mistakes over stagnation; at least then, they can learn how to carve out new paths forward.
I don’t blame the kid stuck in the closet, but I can’t stomach the petulant adult who wishes to return there. Sometimes, people believe that I’ve taken risks and made difficult choices, but, in reality, I haven’t. I’ve taken opportunities and even made them when I envisioned myself stepping through their doors. I believed in myself when the truth was simply obvious. But, like with most, I still struggle with risk-taking when the world in front of me is dim. And, now, what I fear most is a life that ends with me knowing that it was as though I weren’t even there.