Even as a little kid, I was sure there had to be something more to life.
At ten or eleven, in Mexico on my family’s first-ever international vacation, I had my first-ever existential crisis. I couldn’t put it into those words at the time—I only knew that all of sudden something felt wrong. I was afraid, but it wasn’t the kind of fear you might experience when encountering a bully or a turbulent plane. This was something deeper and more mysterious, something that emanated from within. It was the sudden, overwhelming awareness that this was all there was, that every day was just going to be more of it, over and over, again and again. The details might change, the people and places and activities, but in the end all of life was just more of the same, forever.
It wasn’t like I was depressed. I have a naturally sunny disposition, and I liked my life, then and now. That only made the whole thing more horrifying. When bad things happen to you, you know you’ll feel better once the good times return. Even when you’re sad for no reason, you can imagine a future where you won’t be. But what do you do when you’re good, and your life’s good, and yet it all seems so excruciatingly insufficient?
That particular existential crisis passed quickly enough, and I never again experienced one that struck quite so deeply—as they say, you never forget your first. But the memory stuck with me, and as I grew up, I became a bit of a seeker, certain that there was something more out there, desperate to find it however I could.
I devoured stories of other searchers: mystics, cultists, artists, addicts, lost souls from Anthony Bourdain to Elizabeth Wurztel. I embraced a practiced hedonism that I told myself was all part of the search, even though deep down I knew it was probably just a distraction. I dove headfirst into a consuming ambition, and if I didn’t quite find what I was seeking there, at least for a while I was too busy to keep looking. I tried meditation and psychedelics and sexual experimentation; documentaries and podcasts and really long walks. The whole time I never quite shook the feeling that I was looking in the wrong places. Like that old joke about the drunk who lost his keys, searching under the streetlight because that’s the only place that’s lit.
The archetype of the seeker is so deeply embedded in our culture that it’s basically a cliché, but when you think of yourself as one, you still feel like the only person ever to have been on such a journey. Every seeker is looking for the same thing—even if they can’t tell you what it is—and most of them look in the same ways, but to each of them their quests feel unique. I’m reminded of that scene from Life of Brian, with the faceless crowd chanting in unison, “We’re all individuals! We’re all different!,” and the lone dissenter who pipes up, “I’m not!”
Eventually I think I reached the same conclusion all seekers do: you can search as hard as you want, but in the end, there really just isn’t anything more. Look for something long enough and you have to conclude either that it doesn’t exist or that you’re looking wrong—and if you’re not even sure what you’re trying to find in the first place, is there really a difference between the two?
Besides, there’s something just a bit unbecoming about remaining too much of a seeker past a certain age. It’s like that apocryphal Churchill quote about how if you’re not a liberal when you’re young you have no heart, but if you’re not a conservative when you’re old you have no brain. Past a certain point, if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, the problem is probably you. We’ve all met that middle-aged person who’s still looking everywhere for a meaning they can’t define, and eventually they don’t seem all that different from the old men who wander Florida’s beaches with metal detectors, nothing to show for a lifetime of searching except sixty years of bottle caps and wasted time.
There’s a passage in the book Drinking: A Love Story about how alcoholism is a disease of always wanting more. Beginner alcoholics think that phrase is about not being able to stop at one beer, but the experienced ones know it’s not just about wanting one more drink. It’s the nonstop push to enhance what you already have, the refusal to accept that any given situation can be okay just as it is. The book’s about drinking, of course, but you can look at life that way too. There’s nothing wrong with searching for a deeper meaning, but there’s a fine line between thinking there must be something more and thinking what’s already there isn’t enough.
But I don’t regret looking. It’s like when you were a kid and you were scared of the monster under your bed. On some level you must have always known that there probably wasn’t any monster. But it still didn’t hurt to turn on the light, conduct a thorough search around the room, and be absolutely, positively, super-duper sure.
Yours in acknowledging that this newsletter implies that even though I never found it myself, I still think I’m qualified to tell other people where to look,