My Existential Shift – Death, Loneliness, and the Burden of Perspective
Updated: Feb 22, 2020
I’ve always been a very lonely guy. I don’t know why, but even in large crowds, I would often feel disconnected. I thought when I joined the Army that I would find camaraderie and feel less lonely, but no, I felt more disconnected than I did before. I tried to find things that would make me less lonely because it was such a terrible burden. I started seeing a psych about it a few times because it was really hurting me feeling this way. I ended up finding a few women who I had very different experiences with and who taught me a lot about my own loneliness. For privacy’s sake, I won’t name names.
The first woman taught me that I had unrealistic expectations for women. We mostly talked online, and we met up for a short period of time to get to know each other better. She was incredibly beautiful, and she held very similar beliefs to me. However, I still didn’t think it was going to work out because we had such different perspectives on society; she was going through some stuff that was really taxing me and I saw us progressing way too quickly for my comfort. This is what I told myself when we were breaking up, but looking back, I think these were excuses I told myself to hide the truth. I still felt lonely and I wasn’t ready for a relationship.
The next woman taught me that sometimes loneliness could be relieved with a good relationship, but it also could come at a greater price. This woman was beautiful, had a loving and passionate personality, and was just a genuinely great person. We saw each other on and off for several months, and after a short while, I stopped feeling lonely. I was really happy. However, there was a problem that I put off addressing and was slowly eating at my conscience. We had very different beliefs and it was affecting me. I saw cracks forming. It was taxing me in a way because I felt like I was compromising on my beliefs while being with her and for me, that was worse than loneliness. It ended really badly and on really poor terms, and it was completely my fault. I realised that while loneliness was a big burden, compromising on your beliefs was a million times worse. I felt crap breaking up with someone that I was really happy with but was finding it harder and harder justifying to myself to continue to be with.
The next women surprisingly came soon after while I was still getting over my last break up. She taught me that platonic friendships can be just as fulfilling as romantic ones. We saw each other for a few weeks while she was in Darwin and we hit it off as really good friends. I was trying to see if we would get past just being friends and if anything romantic would begin. However, we both saw that it wasn’t getting past the friendship stage and we were both happy just being friends. It surprised me that I could feel this way because she was very beautiful, shared my beliefs and had a very engaging personality. However, I didn’t feel lonely being with her. It was a valuable lesson that friends can also fill the void and help you with your loneliness.
This is where I started to rethink my life. I decided I would travel to Europe by myself and do a bit of soul searching along the way. I saw how important my beliefs were to me so I made a religious pilgrimage through many of the Catholic pilgrimage sites in Europe. This is where I started learning about my interior life and started to focus a lot more on it. I started reading a lot more spiritual books so that I could learn how to improve my relationship with God through the different levels of prayer. Now, you may be losing interest because you think I’m going to make this about how religion saved me, but if you read to the end hopefully, you will see that’s not what I’m saying at all.
So, the next year I made a promise with myself that 2019 was going to be the year where I stopped pursuing women and focused on my faith and further discerning my vocation. For the first half of the year, I was becoming very ascetical. I would pray 9 times a day, go to confession weekly, read more spiritual books like St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, St Thomas Aquinas and Jordan Aumann’s Spiritual Theology. I was also starting to have more discussions with my Dad about Theology and most of the responses I’ve made on this website have actually been slightly edited versions of the conversations we used to have. However, I still felt lonely. Only this time, I was able to control and manage my loneliness. Yet, that burden still weighed upon me.
Then I had to go out field for two months for some training exercises. My dad was fairly unwell when I left, but from what I had heard we still had several months before he was going to really deteriorate and there was lots of hope with these different trials he was going through to help his battle with cancer. I wasn’t too worried. So, I set out to Tropical Queensland with very patchy phone service to do my job.
The Army knew about the condition of my Dad and had plans in place in case anything happened. While I was out field, I was reading a book on psychology from a religious perspective called, “Introduction to the Science of Mental Health” by Fr. Chad Ripperger. It was really enlightening for me to consider the interior life more and how it related to psychology. I learnt a lot from it and had some great conversations out field with the other soldiers and officers about psychology as well as a plethora of other subjects.
However, towards the end of the first month out field, I got a message from my Dad saying that I had to call him. We usually aren’t allowed to use our phones while we were on exercise but because there was a possible welfare concern they allowed me to keep mine on me. The message was an hour or so old, and so I immediately called up to see what the urgent news was. His voice was unrecognisable. I had only heard my Dad cry maybe twice before in my entire life and my heart had already sunk when I heard it. “Grandma is dead”. My chin and mouth had started twitching already and I was holding back the tears so I could keep talking to him on the phone to try to get the details. I honestly can’t remember the rest of the conversation because I had become zombified.
I had only had this happen to me once before when I found out my Pop had died and that was heartbreaking. This was no different. I asked about the details of the funeral but they hadn’t been organised yet. After we finished talking, I went to a nearby Corporal and told him the news. We eventually went over and told the CSM (Company Sargeant Major) and he gave me a choice. “What do you want to do?” I said that I’ll continue on with the field exercise but that I wanted to go back for the funeral. He respected my decision and later after the field exercise was over said it was a big character moment where I showed a lot of maturity. However, one of my platoon sergeants who I respect was disappointed in my decision saying that family is more important than the Army and I should have just gone back.
Anyway, I made the decision because I saw no point in stopping my job until I knew the details of the funeral and then I could try to organise to go home. Maybe it was a mistake, maybe it wasn’t. All I know is that I never got to the funeral. The welfare officer in charge of getting me back got the details about the funeral too late and couldn’t pass the message on to me soon enough for me to be able to attend. I missed my grandmother’s funeral and instead I was out in the middle of the bush playing war games. Seeing as I had already missed the funeral, I didn’t see much point heading back and so I continued on with the second month of war games.
If you’ve never been on a major field exercise, it’s important to know that it is physically and mentally draining. You will never get enough sleep and some nights you just won’t sleep at all. You will be doing physically demanding work like carrying packs around while patrolling for several hours without a break. You were always on alert for the possible enemy. You were being tested in many different ways. Adding mourning to that makes it a lot tougher. I became a lot more irritable. I found it harder to take banter and jokes. However, I soldiered on and did my job.
I had finished the second month of field, and I was extremely relieved. It was a huge celebration among the boys. We were so glad it was finally done. The camaraderie was there and I didn’t feel lonely. I felt like I was really connecting with everyone there. That’s something that field does to you. You really bond with people that you wouldn’t normally bond with because you both went through crap together and you showed each other your true character. We were all very happy to go home. I was a bit concerned about Dad from some phone calls and messages I had been getting from mum. I just got onto the plane back to Darwin when I got a phone call from Mum. “You have to come back now”. I called my Lieutenant and told him what was happening, and he straight away got onto the Welfare officer and organised for me to go back down to Melbourne as soon as possible. Dad had started deteriorating significantly.
When I finally got home from Darwin, I was exhausted from field. I had a shower, packed my bags and went back to the Airport to go to Melbourne. No time for resting, I just got to the airport to catch my flight to Melbourne. My sister and her husband picked me up from the airport and gave me a warning about Dad. “He looks very different than when you last saw him so prepare yourself.” I thought it wouldn’t be too bad. How much different could he look?
I didn’t even recognise him. Was this really my Dad? Was this barely alive corpse really what my Dad had become? How much had I missed? I don’t really want to describe what I saw, but I barely had enough strength to hold back the tears. I said hi to Dad, had a quick talk and then I needed to excuse myself. I couldn’t even understand what he was saying. His every word sounded like a huge struggle. I went upstairs and cried.
The next few days we would spend our time with him. We all had times where we could just have a one on one chat with him, and he would try to say something back. My time with him was mostly silent. After a while, I told him about how I recalled when I was 13, Dad and I had just finished a big day of gardening and were drinking Ginger Beer next to the Bonfire. We both sat in front of the fire in silence and Dad said, “You know, we have a very special bond.” “Yeah?” “Yeah, we can sit next to each other in complete silence and just enjoy each other’s company. Many people think you have to talk to communicate with other people but there are very few people who don’t have to say anything to communicate with each other. That’s something very special about us.” I told him that I often thought about that moment while tears rolled down my face. I said some other things and he tried saying something back but it was unclear.
On the 2nd of August, he took his last breath, surrounded by his family. I tried to remain strong for the family through the next few days and through the funeral so they could have some emotional support. I had a good cry at mass the following Sunday after his death. After all of that, I stuck around to support Mum for a bit as I knew she was doing it the hardest out of all of us. Afterwards, I head back to Darwin.
My perspective changed a little bit when I got back. I became a lot more Stoic. I even bought a skull as a Memento Mori to have in my room. I tried to use my understanding of psychology to help me get through the grieving period quicker. However, I found a lot of the things I did before field was slipping a lot. I had lost interest in the ascetical life and wasn’t praying as much, if at all. I had even lost interest in Theology and started reading more philosophical books. I could see that I was having a semi-existential crisis, but I never linked it to my father’s death. I thought this was just part of me embracing philosophy again after such a long time (3 years). I started doing more writing to show my enthusiasm at work. I had made a lot of great friends in my platoon and was very committed to my job. I wrote an article after the field exercise for a writing competition and then later finished an article I had been working on for several months about mental toughness.
My semi-existential crisis had started slipping into my faith. I was confused about what I really believed about religion, philosophy and politics. I didn’t want to just become an ideologue for some ideology. I started writing a journal trying to express all my beliefs systematically. I also started seeing a psychologist again because I was becoming really dissatisfied with work, was feeling huge amounts of loneliness and needed help with this crisis I was experiencing.
Some of it helped, but it was changing me radically. Starting to write the journal about my beliefs was making me much more introspective, and I was meditating a lot on various positions I held and thinking about them in much more depth. This meant that a lot of what I previously believed was thrown out and it left me empty. It made me feel more lonely and I started becoming more and more depressed.
I started falling back on chatting to women to fix my loneliness. However, they never filled that hole of loneliness, and I only felt more disconnected from the world. The burden that now plagued me was my beliefs and perspective of the world. Loneliness was still a problem, but my growingly nuanced position on everything meant that I was constantly shifting my perspective and couldn’t keep a solid basis for my beliefs. I then started to question what my purpose was and what the hell was I doing with my life? I felt directionless and I knew I had to do something to change this. The psychologist wasn’t helping and thankfully she was leaving anyway so I didn’t feel like I had to tell her that I wasn’t getting anything out of our sessions. I found that the people I was talking to about these different philosophical ideas about the world were either, not interested, or had nothing of value to say. I found a lot of online commentators as having no nuance and just being blindly partisan. This placed a huge burden upon me that meant I had to go on this existential journey alone with no real support.
I became miserable, I just wanted help figuring out these big questions, and I had no one. Eventually, I went back to Melbourne and caught up with a few people and really enjoyed their intellectual stimulation. I then caught up with a good friend Br Lawrence. He was a great spiritual mentor and while we were catching up, he said something that really made me realise something. This existential crisis was my grieving process. I had never connected the two before, but I didn’t understand what grief really did to you. I thought that I could eliminate grief if I just learned to accept the reality of my Dad being dead and then being able to move on by learning to live without him there.
However, this grief cut to the core of my very being. It brought out many lessons I hadn’t yet realised. This wasn’t a dog or an old co-worker that died. This was my Dad.
You don’t realise that much of what makes you who you are is dependent upon your parents. I received my ideological upbring from my parents and especially my father. This semi-existential crisis I was having was my subconscious trying to compensate for my ideological bedrock being torn away from me. I was on my own and had to decide what I believed in irrespective of my parents. I then realised that while I thought that my beliefs were fairly independent of my parents that in many ways, they were a reaction or rebellion to them. Not having that father figure there anymore meant I had nothing to react or rebel to. Just myself.
The next woman taught me just that but in another way. She, unfortunately, grew up with an abusive father. I was quite saddened when I heard this. When I got to know her more, I realised more and more that her attitudes to so many things like love, relationships, religion were all shaped in some way as a reaction to her father’s abuse. She hated religion because God never saved her from her father’s abuse. She saw relationships as unnecessary because she saw how much better her mother was by herself. Romantic love was illusory because she never saw any love between her parents growing up. In one way or another, all of her core beliefs had in some way, been affected by her parents and especially her father.
While my family was very different from hers, I saw the same thing in myself. Now that my father was dead, I had to shift my perspective on many different things to become more independent. While I was right that as a part of the grief process I had to accept my father’s death and learn how to live without him, I didn’t realise how deep that meant I had to go.
So, what now? What is my reaction to this? Well, I’ve started praying again. I’m slowly becoming more interested in Theology again, but I’ve broadened my horizons to Psychology, Philosophy and Science as well. I’m trying to engage more with my interior life to see what else I can learn through deeper introspection. Finally, I’m trying to forge a path forward for myself to see what I will become and not staying too static, or too fluid with my perspective.
I hope you can learn something from my experience. If not, well, thank you for reading until the end. I really appreciate it.