Blow Your Stack
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Blow Your Stack

The Existential Flu Going Around

Feeling bad is its own pandemic

Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

“I’m exhausted and feeling hopeless about the world.” I should be the last person permitted to say this. Why? Because I am financially secure, healthy, loved, and — bonus — I’m an introvert quite comfortable with the isolation induced by the pandemic.

See? You’re going to deny my claim, aren’t you, to feeling exhausted and hopeless. Then, after an indignant harrumph, you’ll return to worrying about people who are suffering for real. And for good measure, you’ll tell me to shut up and move to the back of the line.

I get it. And I’m not offended. But…

I received an email last week from a new acquaintance living in a rural village in Spain, who said, out of the blue, “everything has been feeling too much.” I know what she means: She’s feeling tapped out by Covid, politics, a failing climate, and watching her teenage daughter languish in quarantine.

And then she said, “You’re never upset for the reason you think you’re upset.”

We’re in a moment as human beings — not as Americans, or Spaniards, or whatever — where misery is a collectively shared condition. Rich or poor, liberal or conservative, a vast number of us across this entire spectrum of Homo sapiens are unhappy, unsettled, and filled with foreboding, if not outright dread.

We’re all upset — and our upset-ness is all over the place.

I’d say we are existentially sore. Maybe more than sore. We are sick with an existential flu — a kind of virus that’s not rooted in microbiology or neurochemistry, but in an unshakeable perception that the world is not as it should be; things are out of joint; we are out of sorts; and bad things lie in wait for us. The bad things are quite bad — but the worst thing about these bad things is we generally feel powerless to prevent them or even take the edge off.

You know the list, all too well. Like a whole new set of Biblical plagues. Floods, fires, tornadoes, rising sea levels, and possibly new viruses. On top of which: losing a house, a job, or a loved one to gunfire. Racism that doesn’t quit. And as if that weren’t enough, how about the prospect (in the U.S., but also elsewhere) of an entire democracy crumbling to dust?

And that’s merely a teeny-tiny snippet of a list that feels like we’d have to use up all the words in the world to get the whole thing down on paper. If we even could.

If I were in the mood to laugh, I’d be laughing my ass off right now.

Why? On account of the massive irony. The biggest damn, slopping-over bucket of irony, ever. It’s a fuckin’ irony orgy. See, while we’re all so busy hating one another, compiling death-threat wish lists, trolling, canceling, and questioning our neighbor’s very right to exist, we forget to notice that fundamentally:

One: We are all in the same boat (sharing the same damn planet).

Two: We are all feeling really shitty (about almost everything).

Three: We are all terrified of things we have trouble naming outright.

Four: We are all performing denial in one form or another, whether we’re storming the U.S. Capitol or hoarding toilet paper.

Forget motives, karma, and divine justice. The existential flu is an equal opportunity exploiter of souls.

The upshot is we’re all in this together! Huzzah!

Do I feel better now? Do you? No. There’s still the list — and our abject powerlessness to cross things off it. Not because we don’t want to, but because we can’t figure out how. Add moral impotence (incompetence?) to the list of things to feel shitty about.

If you’re hoping for an uplifting conclusion — a bright light to dispel the gloom — you’re out of luck.

The world isn’t in a good place right now. Human beings are piling on the mistakes. Just because you recycle paper and plastic every week doesn’t make you morally superior to someone tossing a coffee cup out the car window. The world doesn’t work like that, sorry.

The existential flu has found you, it’s found me, and while I don’t know how to cure it, I’m pretty sure that this malaise will not be cured until every one of us fully embraces the irony of our entirely shared plight.



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Amy L. Bernstein

Amy L. Bernstein

I write stories that let you feel and make you think. Fiction, essays, poems. Whatever the moment — or zeitgeist — requires. More at