Existentialism on prom night (and lots of nights after that)

Does anyone else remember that Straylight Run song called Existentialism on Prom Night? SING ME SOMETHING SOFT, SAD AND DELICATE, OR LOUD AND OUT OF KEY.

I never really liked it but I did Google it when I was a teenager purely to find out what the song title meant – the lyrics didn’t clear much up for me and I couldn’t quite grasp what the hell this man’s prom night had involved. Nevertheless it sounded exciting and had clearly been song-worthy, and I felt weirdly jealous because my own prom had become something of a letdown the second I realised it wasn’t going to be anything like the scene in She’s All That where Usher gets everyone to dance to the Rockafeller Skank. 15 year-old me asked my mom what an existential crisis was, and she said it was about “realising your own mortality” and wondering what the purpose of life was, or if there was one at all.

My mom is religious, so she’d probably say that the purpose of life was to try and be someone worthy of heaven or something along those lines. I don’t believe in any god and I’ve never really felt too strongly either way about that kind of thing. An apathetic agnostic? I don’t know. I find if you try to flail about in search of life’s meaning too regularly you just end up struggling to do everyday tasks like brushing your hair and going to work, and everything ends up seeming trivial and petty. I guess that’s the point.

There’s a scene in Mad Men where a young-ish Sally Draper says that ‘forever’ frightens her:

“When I think about forever, I get upset. Like the Land O’ Lakes butter has the Indian girl sitting holding a box and a picture of her on it holding a box, with a picture of her on it holding a box, with a picture of her on it holding a box. You ever notice that?” – Sally

“I wish you hadn’t said that.” – Glen

Unlike Glen, I was really glad she’d said it, because I get the butter-box-feeling too. It’s always that that sets me off – the idea of doing anything (or not doing anything) forever and ever and ever and ever. Whatever we’re headed for after we die, it doesn’t stop. You can’t come back. No-one is going to wake you up, not even after 50 years or 300 years or a millenium, and say “Okay then, you can be alive again now.” You had your time in this life and this body – that was it. And now it’s over. And that’s what my tiny brain can’t ever fully get to grips with.

In terms of ‘forever’, the idea of being plain-old-atheist-dead actually freaks me out a little bit less than the idea of living in a post-earth utopia. When I was 11 I went to bible study and I remember crying after learning about heaven because I had asked if we could ever leave and was told the answer was ‘no’. “Time is different in heaven,” someone had said reassuringly, “A year in human time could be a second in heaven.” I nodded but thought “You don’t know shit” and told my mom I didn’t want to go back next week. What if I hated heaven? What if I only wanted to be there for a short time? What would be the point of existing in heaven forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and never doing anything or going anywhere else? Surely there’d be something bigger than heaven, somewhere we’d progress to? Surely even God would get bored eventually?

When I start to think about things like this (sometimes in a lonely toilet cubicle at work, but usually while trying to get to sleep), I feel claustrophobic more than anything. I start to feel like tomorrow isn’t going to happen. It’s weird. It’s like when I pretend I am as famous as Taylor Swift but then I start to realise that wherever I go in the world, there’s going to be someone there who knows who I am. I will have to exit the planet to be alone. The idea of that makes me feel like my shoulders have weights on them, like I’m trapped in a lecture theatre in the seat furthest from the door. And that’s how it is when I get the butter-box-feeling too.

Call it an existential crisis or call it a looping panic in the head of someone who hasn’t studied philosophy…I don’t mind.


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