I had my first existential crisis at ten years old. Like so many other formerly gifted children — or, if you prefer, present-day underachievers — this early onset despair came about as the result of age-inappropriate media consumption. In my case, it was watching The Truman Show.
I’m 20 now, on the precipice of adulthood and its labyrinth of choices. So, I re-watched this formative film. And from this vantage point? It’s a coming-of-age film.
The Truman Show is a movie about the modern existential crisis. It is the story of a man who has, unwittingly, since birth, starred in a reality television show about his life broadcasted to the world 24 hours a day. The only existence he has ever known is on a massive film set — a full-scale model of idealized American suburbia — littered with hidden cameras and hundreds of actors who play every role from fellow citizen to Truman’s spouse.
With his 13th birthday on the horizon, Truman begins to question his reality. And so begins the existential crisis.
The first stage of existential crisis, according to absurdist philosophers, is the recognition that that which we had always held as common sense — our unchallenged, assumed truths — are in fact arbitrary. Truman, for example, first questioned the fact that he’d never traveled beyond his town.
The second stage of existential crisis is the revelation of infinite choice. We suddenly see that we chose every aspect of our lives — from our careers to our hobbies to our social circles to our romantic partners — and that there were infinite other choices that we could have made. This induces a paralyzing anxiety; a philosophical buyer’s remorse.
In Truman’s case, he can’t stop thinking about the creepily robotic routines in which he participates, ostensibly by choice, like his daily greeting to his neighbors (“Good morning, and in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night!”). The gravity of the second stage is the realization that you, and you alone, are in charge of your own choices.
The third stage of existential crisis is coming to terms with your mortality, that of your loved ones, and, ultimately, of everything and everyone on Earth. Once we acknowledge our incontrovertible insignificance, the tick-tick-tick of the clock on our lives begins a deafening crescendo. Truman begins to treat his life with reckless abandon; a natural consequence of the second stage, this wild behavior is his first foray into the profound boundlessness of choice.
The fourth and last stage of existential crisis is the earnest assessment of our methods for making choices in the future. Here, we accept opportunity cost as a natural part of the human experience. We truly comprehend the symbiotic nature of risk (potential cost) and yield (potential benefit).
Truman’s fourth stage plays out in the film’s final scene. Christoff, The Truman Show’s executive producer, speaks to his unwilling subject over a P.A. system – an unseen, omniscient voice.
“You can leave if you want,” he says, “I won’t try to stop you. But you won’t survive out there. You don’t know what to do, where to go.”
Truman pauses, seeming to doubt himself. Then, he speaks.
“In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night!”
Truman’s experience is much like the quarter-life crisis many of us face in college. A college student might begin to wonder why she chose the major she did, or why she adheres to the social norms she does, like participating in extracurriculars or going to college at all. They might come to regret not taking time off from school to travel, spending too much time studying or signing their life away to a corporate job that draws them away from their true passion. They might embrace the “YOLO” school of thought, using risky behavior as an outlet for their desire to exercise choice.
Yet many college students — particularly those attending elite universities — never move beyond that third stage. They persist in their predetermined paths, eschewing the risk of their dreams in favor of the financial stability and social approval offered by complacency. It is not to say that these students won’t excel in their chosen field of study or in their career; on the contrary, high achievers and existential malaise are like academic peanut butter and jelly. Still, it’s disheartening.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I bring up The Truman Show because it reminds me of Cornell. Everyone seems to be perfectly content, but we are all, at least partially, playing a role. Everyone seems to be filled with purpose, but we are all, at least partially, obeying the status quo. Everyone seems to be thrilled about the future, but we are all, let’s be honest, uncertain.
And so I implore you to lean in to your existential crisis. By earning a place at (and eventually graduating from) Cornell, you’ve proven that you are capable of excellence. But it is only by choosing to live a life that is yours that you can prove you are capable of greatness.
Inevitably, there will be those who will doubt you. I suggest you offer a polite goodbye and continue on your way. Maybe start with something like, “In case I don’t see you…”
Jade Pinero is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Jaded and Confused runs every other Thursday this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org