A Brief Reflection on Life, Death, and Existential Angst
I recently watched this clip for a class I’m taking. I’ve never seen Annie Hall, but I thought this scene was brilliant. Alvy’s experience as a young boy sheds light how we ought live when faced with our imminent death.
The 56 second clip is well worth your time, but if you prefer to skip the video, here’s the transcript of the scene:
Grown up Alvy: It’s funny, I’m not a morose type, I’m not a depressed character. You know, I was a reasonably happy kid, I guess. I was brought up in Brooklyn during World War II.
Young Alvy’s Mom: He’s been depressed. All of a sudden he can’t do anything.
Dr. Flicker: Why are you depressed Alvy?
Young Alvy’s Mom: Tell Dr. Flicker. It’s something he read.
Dr. Flicker: Something you read, huh?
Young Alvy: The universe is expanding.
Dr. Flicker: The universe is expanding?
Young Alvy: Well, if the universe is expanding, then someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything.
Young Alvy’s Mom: What is that your business? He stopped doing his homework.
Young Alvy: What’s the point?
Young Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding.
Dr. Flicker: It won’t be expanding for billions of years, Alvy. We’ve got to try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here, huh, huh, huh?
I’m sympathetic to the young boy. He is clearly having an existential crisis. The universe is indeed expanding, and this fact disrupted the natural order of this young boy’s life. He couldn’t see how anything else mattered after this revelation.
Honestly, the young boy is more rooted in reality than the adults are. He faces the facts, which are daunting, and struggles with them, as opposed to the adults who attempt to explain everything away with the idea that the boy should just enjoy the time he has. I think this is only partially true. The young boy should enjoy his life and live well, but he should also continue to wrestle with the mysteries of the universe. Ignoring these difficult facts do not make them any less real.
I think this same approach can be used when reflecting on death. Living as if death will never happen is just as reckless as living as if death is the only thing in the world. Obsessing over either one can lead a person down a dangerous path. The former could lead to hedonism, and the latter could lead to an existential crisis that leaves the person crippled. There needs to be a balance between the two extremes. We must be mindful of our death, but we must also live. By striking a balance between these realities we can begin to prioritize our lives and spend time doing what matters – loving God and our neighbor and building up the Kingdom of God.