The Soup, by Pablo Picasso

5 Existential Problems All Humans Share

Though we may all be unique individuals — from different backgrounds, living in different circumstances — we find common ground in the feelings of pain, isolation, and existential angst that structure our shared human condition.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  June 2024


While many philosophers throughout history have emphasized how suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition, it is in existentialism that suffering receives its fullest philosophical exploration and categorization.

Specifically, existential philosophers distinguish from mere ‘pain’ forms of suffering that have a more existential coloring.

These include, for instance, feelings like despair, anxiety, angst, as well as sensitivity to the tragic, absurd, or oppressive aspects of existence — anything, in other words, stemming from the fact we are individuals grappling for meaning in an apparently meaningless cosmos.

As the philosopher Jennifer Gosetti-Ferencei puts it in her book, On Being and Becoming:

Most people at some point in their lives will experience moments of suffering that have an existential cast. This is suffering that impacts your sense of self, making you wonder who you really are or ought to be, making you wonder about the purpose of your existence.

For instance, one feature of the human condition is that we move through time in one direction. Consequently, we do not know what the future holds, nor the impact our choices will have.

Milan Kundera describes this feature of existence succinctly in his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, writing:

Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can only make one decision; we are not granted a second, third or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.

This lack of knowledge causes anxiety — and all we can do is try to keep our worries at bay as we fall forwards towards an open, unknowable future.

As a paraphrase of Kierkegaard has it, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Here are some other inescapable features of the human condition that existentialists think cause angst and suffering:

  1. From the perspective of the cosmos, we appear to be miniscule beings with miniscule lifespans. (To get a sense of the vastness of the universe, consider this: if our solar system was the size of a regular circular dining room table, the sun would be a grain of sand at the center, and the Earth would be invisible to the eye. On this scale, our nearest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri, would be seven miles away. This is in a galaxy of around 400 billion of such stars, in a universe of over a trillion galaxies).
  2. We do not know why we are here, nor do we have any real hope of finding out.
  3. We did not choose the bodies, families, cultures, civilizations, or cosmos we were born into.
  4. There is no set guidebook for how we should live our lives.
  5. A time limit has been set on our existences: we will all die one day.

These brute facts apply to all humans, claim existentialists, meaning we all qualify for the angst and anxiety they give rise to — even if such suffering usually looms in the background, rather than cutting through to our day-to-day consciousness.

Importantly, then, we are all in the same boat here: as mortals unable to predict the future, we all have the same reasons for angst, alienation, anxiety, and despair.

Through engaging with our own existential suffering, we are actually engaging with a type of suffering all human beings are sensitive to.

So, though we may all be unique individuals — often from very different backgrounds and living in very different circumstances — we find common ground in the feelings of pain, isolation, and existential angst that structure our shared human condition.

Perhaps, then, it is through connecting and embarking on meaning-making projects with one another that we can stand up to — and survive in — the otherwise purposeless cosmos.

A quotation from the poet Charles Bukowski’s Pleasures of the Damned resonates here:

We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn't. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.

As does this longer passage from writer James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time:

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death — ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.

What do you make of this analysis?

  • Can you think of any more existential problems we all share?
  • Is fostering a sense of community and universality an appropriate response to such problems?
  • Or do you challenge the idea that the brute facts of our existence are problems in the first place?

Learn more about existentialist philosophy

If you’re interested in learning more about the existentialist perspective on life, consider exploring the existentialism chapter of my How to Live a Good Life guide, which discusses 7 major philosophies for life across 56 concise, self-paced lessons.

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About the Author

Jack Maden

Jack MadenFounder
Philosophy Break

Having received great value from studying philosophy for 15+ years (picking up a master’s degree along the way), I founded Philosophy Break in 2018 as an online social enterprise dedicated to making the subject’s wisdom accessible to all. Learn more about me and the project here.

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