The Longing for a Quest-Based Existence

I’ve been struggling with existential angst since I was around ten years old. Nothing I do will make any difference, I will be wholly forgotten in 100 years, everyone I know is going to die, I’m going to die, I am a speck on a speck and everything is insignificant and the heat death of the universe is coming regardless. Where others might have found this sufficient reason to relax and not try so hard, I was extremely stressed out by this, and continued trying very hard at everything. I was a very anxious child.

I continued having these moments of overwhelming existential depression into adulthood, which mixed in quite nicely with my clinical depression. I wasn’t doing anything meaningful with my life, not really. I was having these thoughts while literally working in cancer research! If one can’t feel existentially fulfilled while working in cancer research, I don’t know what will help. At some point, after starting therapy in my mid-20s, I realized that a lot of this frustration I felt was due to the difference between what real life is and what I thought it would be. Nothing is black-and-white in real life. It’s all fucking nuance, which is exhausting, especially when you weren’t expecting nuance. I was raised by my parents and the public school system to believe broadly in right and wrong, correct and incorrect, good and bad. And then the real world wasn’t like that at all! What a scam.

So I’ve had to process a fair amount of distress from life not matching up with what supposedly honest, trustworthy adults told me it would be. I think they were well-meaning adults, mostly. I think, for the boomers, they were able to more easily hold onto the conviction that things are right or wrong, good or bad, black or white. But my generation has seen a lot of shit, including some of the worst wealth inequality in this country’s history, so it’s harder for us to ignore the shades of gray. It’s hard to ignore a lot of things in a shitty overpriced rental dwelling. It’s hard not to be aware of the growing poverty in one’s city, a city that is still among the most affordable places to live in the U.S. in 2024. Once you unhook your brain from the Social Darwinism feed that was placed in white, middle-class childhood, it’s hard not to feel sad and angry all the time about the State of Things.

But the really shitty thing about all this nuance and complexity is that, for most of us, there is no easy fix to society’s problems (unless you are a billionaire, in which case you could actually solve many of society’s ills by simply throwing money at them). I can contribute to solving poverty, to achieving racial justice, to protecting people’s bodily autonomy (and I do try), but it’s slow. It’s incremental. It’s frustrating. One step forward, two steps back, ad nauseum. I am not a neuroscientist, or a psychologist, but I have reason to believe that human brains are not big fans of slow and incremental. How many conversations have you had as an adult where someone told you that over the weekend they did some hands-on project and they got it all done in one or two days and they felt more accomplished than they have in months? How many times have you witnessed someone get into a new hobby that involves creating physical objects with one’s hands and get so much more satisfaction from that than from their office job?

I’ve developed a shorthand for this angst. Humans (generally) long for a what I am calling a Quest-Based Existence. We want a clear, singular goal, we want a clear set of steps to achieve that goal, and we want to know that accomplishing this goal is a Good thing and that people who are against us must surely be Bad. Real life, for most of us, offers exactly none of that. In keeping with my parlance, I’ve heard real life described as “all side quests.” And it is all side-quests! I have to ship this package. I have to clean the bathroom. I have to pay my electric bill. None of this will Defeat the Forces of Evil or Make Me Happy. All of it needs to be done anyway.

As I said, I’ve been wrestling with this for years. Putting a name to the urge did not solve it, but it has been helpful to be able to articulate it. I’ve had enough thinky-thoughts about the Quest-Based Existence that my plan is to start writing more about it here, so that maybe it can be helpful for somebody else.