Transience: The angst of existence


Featured image: Friedrich Nietzsche.

By James Clark Ross

‘Transience’ has caused me great distress—so much so that I feel guilty discussing it. But, while many are happy not to lay it onto the examining table, I’m willing to dissect the visceral discomfort it elicits in me right here in front of your eyes. I felt better for writing it; you might not feel better for reading it. This is your warning.

Previously when grappling with the topic of transience I explored the agony of death. We innately cling onto the idea of continuance and refuse to let loved ones go. But reality is harsh and ruthless; nature knows no fairness.

In this article I come face to face with the very experience of reality: is there meaning in our brief and fatal existences? Or are we passengers in a meaningless world?


In the existentialist view thinking begins with the human subject (human existence precedes human essence). We exist first; what ensues is a lifetime of shaping who we are. We achieve this with the observation, reaction, and adaption of our own worldviews, through which objectivity isn’t necessary to enhance our conscious experiences.

We act as free individuals. Rules are arbitrary. Our beliefs and values and virtues and desires are born within. We are responsible for our faults. There is no fortune or misfortune. We are the children who ask questions about the world; we are disorientated until we discover answers. Experience is the search for true self and personal meaning in life.

2001 A S O

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): cinematic, immaculately scored, timeless, symbolic, evocative, visceral. In the exploration of truth this film strips away what we notionally think matters. It takes us on a long journey to the abyss of reality, reassembling our minds. At the end of it you find the greatest purpose of all: yours.

There are only semblances of universal meaning: relics, artefacts, souvenirs—things to remind us of our experiences. We conceive our worlds by ourselves. Everything else is pretence: gold, the sheen we apply to life to contrive ‘value’. Our only true knowledge stems from conscious experience, of times gone by, and imagination. There is no substance.

Overwhelming powers pronounce common goals for universal gain. But to declare such universality is to purchase meaning for us—an outlook which devises a world in which we are treated as objects of others’ ideologies; where, in constructing complex sets of rules, we are dehumanised by external forces; coerced into a single direction.

Freedom is anarchy.

A reality moulded by the individual is unbounded and blissful. We individually create meaning and purpose and put ourselves at the heart of our endeavours with identity and individuality. Fundamentally, our personal relationships with people and pursuits, no matter how beneficial to others, are designed for ourselves. There never comes a point in our lives when we’re not trying to find or fix something in this vein.

But, by operating as mere individuals, there is nothing to accompany us in the dark. The freedom and self-awareness which afford us such creativity and control are offshoots of an intrinsically-cold and bleak world, in which our human desires are immaterial. The free will of individualism, an illusion or not, is predicated on isolation from external control, where such control would provide inherent meaning to what we practise.


Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in the adamant journey towards meeting the maker of the human race in Prometheus (2012): ‘If you’re receiving this transmission, make no attempt to come to its point of origin. There is only death here now… And I am still searching.’ We crave meaning, sometimes looked after by a grand force. We tend to believe we hold a rightful purpose in this world—but do we?

Why are we here? What’s our purpose? It’s punishing to believe there is intrinsic meaning in our lives, as a creator or universal way of doing things would provide, when we populate a callous universe which knows no mercy. Life is awash with brutality. Mourning and melancholy demonstrate the consequences of building meaning and then swiftly losing it.

Enveloped by transience, we are devoid of truly-lasting connections in the vacuum of a cosmos completely divorced from our conscious wills to live and love forever. Reality is unjust: we die and we don’t live to see anything flourish to the end—and nothing ever will.

ZP Theart & Sam Totman (DragonForce), Once in a Lifetime (2004)

In minds of society we all live in harmony

Truth is that we all die in vain

Nihilism and fatalism

Weak, optimistic human spirit is further crushed by nihilism. Objective meaning, purpose, and morality—the absurd pretences of collectivism. But nihilism goes further: substituting personal meaning for intrinsic meaning during short and terminal lives, whose universe owes nothing to anyone, is utterly pointless. Such ‘meaning’ requires us to adopt a reality which is intrinsically artificial. It nurtures existential angst through despair as, deep down, we know we don’t believe in anything because the Universe is empty. What we think we care for is not interpreted the same way by anyone else.  Chaos and the destruction of values are inevitable, as is the tearing down of thin and superficial worldviews in which motivation is inevitably lost.

Hope is a feeble and self-defeating response. Existential dread is the bodily reaction: the discomfort and distress in the face of nothing; the expending of mental strength; the eventual realisation that there is no intrinsic or extrinsic meaning where hope once was.

 ‘Zeus did not want man to throw his life away, no matter how much the other evils might torment him, but rather to go on letting himself be tormented anew. To that end, he gives man hope. In truth, it is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.’ — Frederich Nietzsche on Pandora’s box, Human, All Too Human.

The tension of a forged reality incubates insecurity—a reflection of the lack of confidence we have in realities we build. Hopelessness, the cure of nihilism, is another  option: what is is. Everything else is constructed and will transiently diminish in the end.

A nihilistic outlook needn’t embody misery, though. The path of nihilism rips apart the existential apprehension at meaning’s foundation. It forsakes the primal pangs of doubt and anxiety by accepting that life is intrinsically meaningless.

There is incredible power in this loss of fear.


I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism’s] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!’ — Frederich Nietzsche, The Complete Works of Frederich Nietzsche.

In acceptance we alleviate the doubt of the curious human spirit; we refuse to create meaning and invent faith where there really is none.

Pink Floyd, The Great Gig in the Sky

And I am not frightened of dying

Any time will do, I don’t mind

Why should I be frightened of dying?

There’s no reason for it…

A nihilist is consoled by the idea that everything is pointless in the end.  To pretend there is a meaning to life is to precariously hold on to tortuous falsehoods and participate in idealistic fantasy. With ‘meaning’ we are still directionless, controlled by overbearing constructs. Rejecting it is to find true freedom.

Freddie Mercury (Queen), Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)

Nothing really matters

Anyone can see

Nothing really matters nothing really matters to me


Anyway the wind blows

We are human after all

Ultimately there will come a time when life becomes stagnant: when self-awareness kicks in and we start to believe that there’s nowhere left for us to go. We’ll suffer from the torrid ponders of existential crises, forcibly stricken by depression, and be eaten alive by dread. Was it all for nothing?

Body declines and mind deteriorates—but the end of desire arrives first. Reluctantly, we let youth—dreams, hopes, plans—fade.

I was young and pissed off and had not yet grasped my own mortality, a time when physical pain and real suffering held no meaning for me. I was “transgressive…” — Bret Easton Ellis on American Psycho (1991), Lunar Park (2005)

The passage of time starts to feel quicker, accelerating. The mind is informed by perceptions of ‘short’ experiences even though the passage of time is unbroken and eternally consistent and perspective remains static in each of our snapshots.

Eventually we have nowhere to progress. We look back and count the years that have passed; wasted opportunities are lamented. The dead end approaches fast and there’s not much time left. Suddenly the meaning we’ve always felt evaporates.

Hubble captures spectacular “landscape” in the Carina Nebula

The Carina Nebula as captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope: The hostility of outer space. Death is just another reminder that we are out of sync with the Universe.

Still, we feel the need to tie meaning to our lives. To be human, to be ourselves—to long for meaning—is innate. How could we let go! Why would we?

We can, instead, hold onto a different, nuanced perspective.

A new hope: ‘the Absurd’

There exists, in the human experience, a paradox between the tendency to pursue inherent meaning and the ability to find any. But why should this divorce impede our search for meaning when we can embrace our absurd human condition to embark on the search for self and explore our place in the Universe.


In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer, Deep Thought, was ‘42’. But what was the question?

We can hope or believe that there is meaning somewhere. If there really is none, there’s still happiness to be found in pandering to human desire: meaning from seeking meaning anyway. We can sculpt it by endeavouring to answer personal questions—philosophically, scientifically, or spiritually. By crafting our own ideals confusion and anguish will be no more.

We might be tempted to reject meaning to avoid the tension and trepidation of fearing the death of things we love, from which pain looms large.


The trepidation of existence. Damocles wished to sit on the throne of Sicily.  His current king, Dionysius, granted him his wish for one day—but only if a sword could dangle over him on the single hair of a horse’s tail to represent the imminent peril a king always faces.

But to not love at all! Do we reject it out of spite for its future loss? No: the emptiness is surely worse than the trepidation.

Even if we each lived for millions of healthy years, though, there are some facts of life that will never change. Mortality is one; death is an insurmountable struggle if we choose to grapple with it. How we perceive reality and reality itself—the disruptive force of transience—depict a great collision, an unavoidable dissonance between human desire and universal fact. This is a great human tragedy which cannot change.


The Last Supper and first Eucharist, during which Jesus serves wine in the Holy Chalice. The Holy Grail, like the Fountain of Youth, was a device built from a yearning to live forever. Not only is this mightily fictitious: it’s a fantasy that forgets everyone we leave behind. © Corbis

But where there is weakness in avoiding vulnerability there is strength in hope.

Hope has forever pervaded our existence. It engenders meaning in itself, making it an essential part of the human experience. Any form of nihilism deserts such human propensities.

Life isn’t a fortunate and precious gift to cherish or be thankful for: we had no choice in it; we might never have had a choice in anything. But it is a unique experience, through which we can hope to make people happier in each of our versions of reality. There are no absolutes in life but there are countless ways to subjectively enrichen and enamour our experiences of it. We might as well enjoy its ride and embrace the Absurd.

Do not let death linger. The morrow is not forthwith; we can live today first. Emulate the youthful mind which fears no end (their trajectory is endless). Look forward to every day on this awe-inspiring planet—let beauty smother you. Reach out to change. Seek new challenges. Evolve. Find your purpose. Every breath is closer to your last.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 — Dylan Thomas, Do not go gentle into that good night

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