Birds, Music, and Existential Dread

When I was 16, I stopped existing. Or, at least, that’s what it felt like.

I don’t know exactly what caused it. Maybe it was my grandfather’s death, maybe the start of a personal identity crisis, or maybe it was something else I don’t even remember. But at some point in the distant memory of November 2016, something changed in my brain seemingly overnight; a thread snapped, a light went out, and whatever reality I had been a part of cracked beneath me and spit me out into an unfeeling void. Every day became a groggy nightmare— dull and distant, like I was sleepwalking through someone else’s dream. I was trapped inside my own head and nothing on the outside – not my surroundings, my friends, or even my own body – was real anymore. Most of the time, I sunk back into my own mind, unsure of how to do anything else, and let the days pass by in a blurry haze. But every once in a while, I would snap. With my hands curled tightly in my hair to keep myself from punching angry holes in the wall, I silently screamed out for help. I begged anyone who might be listening to let me back into reality—to reach out a hand and guide me out of this existential nightmare. Of course, it never worked, so eventually, I would have to gather the pieces of myself up, jam them back together into a vaguely humanesque shape, and retreat back into my foggy head. Maybe I’ll feel normal tomorrow.

The only company I ever found inside my clouded head were the unanswerable questions swirling around in the mist. Am I real? What about the world around me? Do I have a purpose?

Over the years, I’ve learned to cope with these feelings. They’ve become less of a terrifying mental ailment and more of a constant way of being; feeling a little detached from reality is my reality. But no matter how comfortable I become with the way I navigate the world, the unanswerable questions still remain. What is my purpose? Why should I want to keep fighting to be a part of this reality?

I think the struggle to find purpose and to feel purposeful is one that affects most of us. We don’t know why we’re here on this planet, in these bodies, or what we’re meant to do with our precious time here. We try to find meaning through our jobs and relationships, but we never truly escape the nagging existential question that festers in the back of our skulls: Why?

I remember the first time I ever experienced existential dread. I was young—young enough that the hours past midnight were still unfamiliar and frightening to me. In this memory, I am tucked away in the familiar creaky bunkbed in the cramped upstairs bedroom of my grandparents’ house, my sister and cousin fast asleep on beds below me. My gaze flicks back and forth nervously between the ceiling hovering just inches above my head and the old clock radio to my left, its bright red numbers staring back at me. They tick further and further past midnight, leaving me feeling more and more unnerved with each passing minute. Everything feels wrong. I shouldn’t be awake. These hours past midnight aren’t supposed to exist, not really, and accidentally stumbling upon them has lead me headfirst into a world that doesn’t quite exist. Despite the room’s tiny, cramped interior, the world has never felt so big and empty. Despite the two other children crammed into the room with me and the constant white noise of cars rushing past on the road outside, I’ve never felt so alone. If I close my eyes, I think the world might swallow me whole.

The only thing that kept me company that night, holding my hand and gently guiding me out of the terror that gripped my very core, was the radio. All night, familiar soft rock songs drifted lazily from the staticky speakers, melting into the night’s hazy atmosphere and filling the suffocating emptiness around me. Between comforting songs, the soothing voice of a late-night radio personality floated out and flooded my skull with soft words like, “You’re listening to after midnight radio...” It was as if the radio knew that I was scared, and it promised me that I wasn’t alone.

Ever since that night, however long ago, music has been a comfort in the face of existential dread. It’s grounding and sometimes, within its surreal soundscapes and nostalgic melodies, it carries a strange understanding of the way things feel inside my head, capable of expression that words alone can’t achieve. But over time, I’ve realized that music also functions as an answer to the age-old question: What is my purpose?

Art by Ember Nevins

I listen to a lot of music, and most of the time it’s just sound that keeps me company. But every once in a while, something about a particular song – whether it be the instrumentals, a certain lyric, or the sound of the singer’s voice – resonates with my being at just the right frequency, and for just a second, I feel truly alive again. This happens most frequently with the music of my absolute favorite singer, Sufjan Stevens. Sometimes his music strikes just the right chord and it’s like my brain clicks back into reality, if even just for a second. I find myself so filled with cathartic appreciation that I remember to keep fighting to exist. Just being here, listening to his music, and feeling alive is enough. In those moments, I have a purpose and I know exactly what it is.

But there’s another type of song that also serves to give my weird little life purpose, and that’s birdsong. Upon visiting home recently, I found myself inexplicably entranced by the constant visitation of birds to my family’s bird feeder. In an instant, my eyes were blown wide open to a whole world I had been previously blind to, and I latched on as if my life depended on it. I researched the most common species of birds in New England so I could start identifying them by appearance, behavior, and song. I excavated my bright yellow childhood binoculars from the mess of memorabilia in my bedroom so I could get a closer look at the birds too shy to visit the feeder. I kept a growing list on my phone of the species I managed to identify, running out of the room like an excited child to inform my family every single time I identified a new one. I felt like a kid again, wonder and excitement starting to thaw the glacier of numbness in my mind.

When I’m watching the birds – appreciating their quirks and making an effort to identify them – I feel a sense of purpose sprouting out from the fog. I’m here to pay attention, to learn, and to interact with the world around me. I’m here to fill the bird feeder up with fresh seed every morning. I’m here to listen to a song – whether it comes from the headphones in my ears or the throat of a blue jay – and feel it echo through my bones. These purposes aren’t groundbreaking in the way that we often hope for, but I don’t think they have to be. It’s enough to just exist.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that I probably won’t ever feel completely “normal” again. I’ll probably always feel a little bit disconnected from my surroundings. But finding purpose? Finding a reason to keep fighting to exist, even as just a tiny part of this endless universe? That really doesn’t need to be so terrifying. It can be as simple as a new song coursing through my veins or a chickadee waiting expectantly for a fresh helping of sunflower seeds. She’s appreciative of my existence; why shouldn’t I be?