Some people have an inner voice and others don’t, a fact that startles many, according to Bored Panda. While many people think their thoughts in an internal, voiced set of words, others have abstract and nonverbal thoughts. Odd revelations like this can make us rethink everything.
In an interview with Bored Panda, Ryan Langdon said that he had just recently learned of the existence of people whose trains of thought are processed as images or abstract concepts instead of conversational strings of words. He wrote an extensive entry about it on his blog and it went viral, sparking a series of epiphanies and discussions on the internet about voiced internal monologues versus abstract concepts.
Sometimes, seemingly small realizations such as these can plant seeds of doubt in our heads about what else we don’t know and never thought to ask. How did I make it to X years old and never talk to someone about their internal monologue? Does the rest of the world know something else that I don’t? Does anyone else ever wonder why we’re here? Wondering about our place in society, often in relation to others, can make us feel a sort of existential anxiety.
A Man and a Well
A popular parable about human nature involves a nomadic man and a well. The man travels here and there searching for work and a place to live, always uprooted by circumstance. He’s pursued by an elephant and a demoness and finds himself unable to climb a great tree that would save him from their pursuit. Instead, he jumps into a nearby well, cold and dark, which represents the human condition.
“According to the traditions that tell the parable of the man in the well, the human condition is one of difficulty and distraction,” said Dr. Daniel Breyer, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University. “The human condition is the dark place we find ourselves in, but the hope is that we’ll get out of the well—that we’ll climb that tree of salvation and leave the well forever. But what if the well is all there is?”
Worrying about what we’d amount to if that were the case, Dr. Breyer said, is existential anxiety. If the tree were cut down, if we stayed in the well, we’d worry what the point was.
“[It’s] the kind of anxiety associated with the potential meaninglessness of human existence,” he said. It ties in with the view that “ultimately, the human condition—the well without the hope of the tree—is absurd.”
Walking around and wondering “What does it all mean?” is a well-worn cliché in the 21st century, but knowing what makes us ask things like that—and what purpose there is in asking—can be a real benefit to us.
“According to the great 20th century Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, existential anxiety actually has three distinct aspects, each grounded in a different source,” Dr. Breyer said.
He explained that the first aspect is when we face anxiety about fate and death, and it’s rooted in our knowledge that nothing is guaranteed. “Anxiety about fate is relative in the sense that it threatens the lives we lead as the individuals we are,” he said. “By contrast, anxiety about death is absolute—it’s the awareness of our annihilation, the awareness of the threat of nonexistence.”
The second aspect of existential anxiety deals with what previous thinkers considered: anxiety about meaninglessness and emptiness. “Driven by the worry that nothing is satisfying to us, we may search for something that is ultimately meaningful,” Dr. Breyer said. “And we then may experience the dread that no such thing exists.”
According to Dr. Breyer, Tillich spoke of this anxiety as a threat to our “spiritual self-affirmation,” or our ability to convince ourselves that our lives are meaningful.
Finally, Tillich’s third aspect of existential anxiety focuses on guilt and condemnation. “Our being and our spirituality are not only given to us, they are demanded of us, Tillich thinks, in the sense that we are responsible for them,” Dr. Breyer said. “When we recognize our responsibility, we sense that in every moral act we are implicitly asked to make of ourselves what we are supposed to become; we’re asked to fulfill our destiny.”
However, if we feel we’ve failed to measure up in achieving those goals, we may suffer guilt or a sense of losing ourselves.
These can be powerful emotions and concerns looming over our heads when we stop to wonder what life is all about. They’ve plagued humanity since time immemorial and can be triggered by even the tiniest of abstract questions—including our internal monologue or lack thereof.
Dr. Daniel Breyer contributed to this article. Dr. Breyer is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University, where he also serves as the director of the Religious Studies program. Dr. Breyer received a B.A. in Classics from the University of Montana, an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University.