“Sleep is good. Death is better. Yet surely, never to have been born is best.”
These lines close a 17th-century poem by German writer Heinrich Heine. The piece’s title, “Death and His Brother Sleep,” compares these two states, suggesting that we experience a bit of death each time we fall asleep. While sleeping, we glimpse the void and briefly know what it would feel like to no longer exist.
Some might find it unsettling to conceive of sleep as a practice for death, but when your head hits the pillow every night, where do you go? Exactly.
This proximity to our final resting state might be alarming for some, while others might find solace in this brief escape. Think of a time when you’ve been horrendously embarrassed or undergone immense stress or grief. When your head hits the pillow, you are free from whatever’s bothering you, even if just for a few hours. You get that sense that when you close your eyes, you collapse inward, shrinking so far into yourself that you vanish entirely.
Death, of course, is final, and so it’s impossible to know what it would feel like. Yet you can be sure your problems and worries won’t follow you into the afterlife if there is any. Under the sweet release of death, you would be free.
The thing with death, though, is that a footprint of your life would still be left behind. Loved ones that would mourn your loss, embarrassing moments that people would still remember.
But there’s a third option that’s not temporal like sleep, and doesn’t leave hurt behind like death. If you’re watching this video right now, chances are you’ve flirted with this third option; you’ve had the desire to not exist.
What exactly is this feeling? How does it differ from death? And what can it teach us about life?
The desire to not exist is stronger than death. To not exist is to have every trace of yourself and every mark you’ve left on the world erased. No one would have ever known you. All your achievements and accomplishments vanish along with your failures. To die would be to still leave behind some memory of who you were. To not exist wipes away everything you are and ever were.
While the implication is intense, the desire is often fleeting, sometimes knee-jerk. It overcomes you in an instant, maybe at a time when life isn’t going your way. Perhaps you’re going through a breakup or have lost a loved one. Or it could be that you’ve just
had one of those days where life piles everything on top of you, and you feel like you’re being crushed. You see a list of problems before you, and the fantasy of slowly drifting away is more appealing than facing your issues head-on.
Though it’s not often discussed, I would bet that most people have wished to not exist at some point. Could this desire serve a purpose in our lives? And why, at times, can it feel so overwhelming?
The word ‘desire’ describes an intense wish for something one does not have. It transcends a mere want and is affiliated with something usually unattainable.
Think about the desire for fame or fortune. To be well-liked or beautiful. Desires often surpass our daily wants and needs, like food or water. To desire something is, in some ways, to be seduced by it. You see it right before you, yet it’s just out of your grasp.
The desire to not exist is frustrating because, unlike fame or fortune that still exist within some realm of possibility, it’s impossible to have never lived. The person watching this video exists. You have existed; nothing, not even death, can change that. So, the desire to not exist can never be fulfilled. It does not spring from any coherent, logical belief.
This desire is often not discussed because of its proximity to suicide and suicidal ideation. But it’s very different. It lacks the concrete outcomes and implications of suicidal ideation. The desire to not exist can never come true, while death by suicide is unfortunately attainable.
Although it can never happen, this feeling can still be overwhelming. If you think about it too deeply and too often, it can quickly lead to a terrible mental health state. If you experience this desire in a way that’s becoming overwhelming, you should seek professional help.
For most people, though, this feeling of never having been offers a way to cope with the heavy burden of life. It provides temporary relief from whatever you’re going through and helps to decenter you from your experience. By imagining a world without you, you understand how insignificant many of life’s problems are. If the odds shifted even by a minute fraction, you wouldn’t be here today, and none of this would matter. So why should it bother you so much?
If you find this comfort when you imagine your non-existence, I would encourage you to look further into Nihilism. A nihilistic worldview detaches meaning from all realms of reality. It’s the philosophy of meaninglessness, after all. When you turn that inward and apply it to selfhood, technically, from a nihilist’s point of view, you already don’t exist. Throughout your time here on earth, there is no such thing as the coherent self.
Nihilism might sound scary initially, but it doesn’t have to be. We made a video about Optimistic Nihilism that I think would be really good to explore.
One the other end of the spectrum, though, there’s a different philosophical school of thought that centers very heavily on the existence of the self.
Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” is regarded as one of the most profound philosophical statements, and it preaches the idea that the existence of the self is the only thing we can be sure of in this world.
Rene Descartes and more solipsistic philosophers center their thinking around the existence of the self. Because you know you are thinking, you can perceive that you are conscious of your mind, proving its existence. All other aspects of reality can be thrown into doubt. How can you know that an apple is really red? Or that the people in front of you are really there? Couldn’t a malicious force be deceiving your every perception?
Your existence seems to be the only thing you can be sure of. While most people don’t live in as much constant doubt as Descartes’ philosophy suggests, most of us do experience the self as tangible and coherent. “I think, therefore I am” seems ingrained in our daily lives. Most of us, except for the hardcore nihilists out there, go about our days with the knowledge that we are. But it can be pretty difficult to experience your existence in every waking moment of every day with no break.
To make matters worse, sleep can sometimes be elusive, especially when you have much on your mind. If you manage to sleep, sometimes you have nightmares that force you to continue to exist, even in moments of rest.
Living can feel so intense because there is no escape. Being alive can sometimes feel exhausting even when you are not busy or overwhelmed. But especially when you’re overstimulated, the desire to not exist can creep in. Think about being at a party or a family reunion where you make many vague social connections with people you barely know. You must constantly be ‘on,’ performing your existence to those nearby. Especially for an introvert, socializing like this can be draining. It can make you want to fade into the background or oblivion.
Social media intensifies the need for you to be perceived constantly. Online, you always exist, even when you log off. Your social media profiles are available to anyone who wishes to find them, meaning you are perceived without your awareness. And what you post affects these perceptions, meaning you must always be your best self online. Even when showing a more vulnerable side, it’s still a part of yourself you choose to share. Not only do you have the burden of existence online, it has to be your best existence, and you must maintain it over time.
What I’ve described so far is a baseline existence. It’s what’s required of you daily as you interact with people in your family, at school and work. It’s also the existence that you inhabit between you and yourself. The perception of yourself that Descartes talks about, or your inner monologue. And at times, it’s not other people we’re sick of. You can also want to escape yourself.
The want to leave yourself is inherent in the desire not to exist. The mind sometimes feels like a prison of your own making, which makes it even more unbearable. You can sometimes get that itchy feeling, like you want to jump out of your skin. The thoughts in your head can make you feel annoyed or angry with yourself.
Unfortunately, while we can find respite from other people, we cannot escape our minds. The desire to not exist can be pointed inward, something we fantasize about when we no longer want to be ourselves.
All these aspects are compounded when life gets busy or unpleasant. Dealing with grief, a breakup or losing your job alongside the stress of familial obligations and basic self-maintenance might make you want to wither away.
This is why this desire is more common than we realize or discuss. We must remove the shame associated with admitting that sometimes existing can be tiring. We need to create safe spaces for people to share this feeling without labeling it as suicidal ideation when it’s not.
It’s not that you don’t want to be here anymore; you wish you never were. It’s a desire for stillness, privacy, and quietness, even from our thoughts.
While this desire can never be fulfilled, the feelings associated with it can be recreated, albeit temporarily. By purposely embracing boredom and engaging in mindfulness practices, we can quieten the mind and get that stillness we desperately crave.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself drifting out of your body and away from yourself. Imagine you are actively detaching from your body and then your mind. You’re essentially practicing what it feels like not to exist.
Many people use and abuse substances as a shortcut to achieve the feeling of non-existence, the temporary escape from the self. This method is unsustainable and will probably make you feel worse about yourself in the long run.
We underestimate how caught up we are in ourselves and how much our existence weighs heavy on our minds. It can feel excruciating to be alone with yourself when all you want to do is escape yourself.
But trying to do the opposite of existence, in a healthy, sober way, might satisfy your want to disappear. And when you do return to yourself, instead of feeling the crash after a dopamine hit, you’ll feel calmer, ready to face all that comes with existence.
Watch this video next to understand the power of meditation and how you can use it to temporarily fulfill the desire to not exist.