“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell what a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which in my thought renews the fear!”Dante alighieri – The Divine comedy
The Existential Reckoning Wilderness Survival Guide is a curated collection of books, movies, music, and support tools that I discovered or invented when in 2020 I found myself without a job in the middle of the pandemic. It was an existential reckoning filled with uncertainty, trauma, and change, made even more challenging by the fact that I already live with clinical depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
I’ve included some ideas here as a start, and will add more material over time. For me, the items collected here all share the overarching theme of what it is like to arrive at a point in life where we feel lost, confused, scared, and are unable to rely on previous experience, skills, or knowledge as guides. Beyond that, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me to impose some kind of formal structure on how I share ideas or recommendations, principally because the forces at work during these types of transitions grant no quarter to things like schedules or step-by-step instructions. I thought the blog format would work well because it provides a flexible framework for me to share content in an unstructured way that is easy for you to access in small doses. I may cite themes, questions, or insights the material surfaced for me, but have no expectation that what resonates with me will always make sense to someone else or carry any meaning at all.
“I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and there was nothing left.”leo tolstoy – a confession
I know you have reached a significant transition point in life, so offer these lists and ideas as something that might be helpful. It is a constant encouragement to me that I have a male friend who shares similar tastes, interests, humor, and histories, so I’m betting some of this content will be of interest. I also know that the recommendations come out of my own personal preferences and oddball way of seeing the world so some may not resonate at all.
The existential reckoning I experienced was not a stereotypical mid-life crisis because from a technical perspective I’m already past mid-life, and it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d found myself forcibly evicted from life as I knew it. Like Dante, I found the straight way completely lost and was gripped by an acute sense that this was much more than a crisis. It was a sudden stripping away of reality as I knew it, and the forest I awoke in wasn’t just dark, it was haunted.
The experience has led me to conclude that men don’t have just one mid-life crisis that predictably occurs around 40 and features a divorce, 23 year-old girlfriend, and red sports car. For some men, especially the most narcissistic and least self-aware (meaning, most of them) this happens, but many don’t make it out of the wilderness at all.
I believe that as we grow older, men in pursuit of an authentic life face many crises, disruptions, and upheavals. I don’t even know if I’m actually out of the woods yet (pun vigorously intended). yet. Our sense of what constitutes a meaningful existence changes, and these shifts are unpredictable and chaos-inducing, like two massive tectonic plates smashing together beneath what appears to be solid ground. Thankfully, the fact that this has happened to me before hasn’t led to me beating myself up for not learning the lesson the first several-hundred times. I also know it’s likely to happen again and Stoicism has helped me come to a simple acceptance of this eventuality.
The material by authors like David Whyte and Mary Oliver will be very familiar to you, but I found revisiting these tutors helpful as I wrestled with my identity and the fact that reality seemed to be coming apart right in front of me. I’ve concluded that despite an ever-expanding nebula of books, self-help, and guidance about life, there are only about 10-15 core sources I really need, and like a good Stoic, have taken to the deep study of material that resonates with who I am as a man. You know as well as I that there is little left unsaid about effective living or the masculine journey, and that most purported ‘new’ thinking is just repackaged ancient wisdom. I stopped looking for new perspectives and have settled in with people like the Stoics, Plato, Socrates, and more recently, Hobbes and Noam Chomsky.
I hope some of this is of interest and helpful to you. I treasure our friendship and am here to support you however I can.
“Despite having written War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, at the age of 51, looked back on his life and considered it a meaningless, regrettable failure. A Confession provides insight into the great Russian writer’s movement from the pursuit of aesthetic ideals toward matters of religious and philosophical consequence.”
The book helped me feel less alone in the struggle, and it’s a very short read. I had forgotten how much I love Russian literature and philosophy, so A Confession was and remains a welcome companion.
Can you spot the real Tolstoy?
“My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfil my desires I should not have know what to ask. If in moments of intoxication I felt something which, though not a wish, was a habit left by former wishes, in sober moments I knew this to be a delusion and that there was really nothing to wish for. I could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was that life is meaningless. I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death–complete annihilation.”