The Throes of Existential Angst

There’s an episode of the classic television series Northern Exposure (bear with me) where Dr. Joel Fleishman is anxiously trying to fill up his empty Alaskan summer days. A friend tells him that he’s in “the throes of existential angst”. This observation has stuck with me.

I’ve come to believe that I occasionally suffer from a condition that I call “cosmic vertigo”. While it would be a terrible name for a band (or a great name for a terrible band), this phrase describes a feeling I get when I catch a (usually metaphorical) glimpse beyond my daily horizon.

My first such experience was on a beach on the North shore of Prince Edward Island in my mid-teens. I was at a campground and woke unusually early. I walked down to the beach where I watched the sun rise (an altogether different experience than seeing it set).

As the sun came closer to cresting the perceptibly-curved ocean horizon, the stars were still visible on the dark side of the sky. I had the (probably illusory) feeling that I could clearly perceive the spherical nature of the Earth, and it’s position and motion around the Sun. I felt like I was standing on a giant 6th-grade Styrofoam-ball model of the solar system.

The experience was profound, but neither positive or negative. I’ve heard others describe feeling small or insignificant during such an episode. This was not so in my case. I felt solitary, but not lonely.

This is a simple, perhaps juvenile, template of experiences I would come to have in a more negative light later in life. I’ve always found myself drawn to the power of perceiving vast scale. Imagining how many years of light-speed travel we are away from the nearest star deeply intrigues me.

This attraction to grand scale is peculiar in that it transforms quickly into a morbid dread when I am actually able to grasp something of a truly grand scale. Watching the classic film, Powers of Ten, is fascinating as we move away from the earth, out to the entire solar system, then to the galaxy. Then, as we pull further from the Earth and see that our entire galaxy is a grain of sand on a giant beach. It is at a point like this that I occasionally get the feeling of cosmic vertigo. This visualization of the the Hubble Deep Field image has had a similar effect.

Like an acrophobic taking a step higher and higher up a ladder, the steps of the Powers of Ten film cross a threshold from insignificant (standing a few steps off the ground), to terrifying (standing atop a tall ladder). Where that threshold lies can seem arbitrary, and even silly, to an observer, but don’t tell that to someone scared of heights.

I’ve wondered if cosmic vertigo may have something to do with reaching the bounds of human intuition (or at least my own). I can hold in my head the concept of the distance to the Moon (roughly a five month journey at 100Km/h). Even the the nearest star, over 4 light-years away, is something I can fool myself into understanding. Much beyond that, though, one enters the realms where metaphors are inadequate and you are faced with the limits of your own perception.

Even something as simple as the mathematical constant pi (π), can trigger the dreadful pang of cosmic vertical. Imagine a number that continues on to infinity. Too abstract, perhaps, but consider the numbers of pi scrolling pie, faster and faster. They go on forever. For. Ever.


The BBC dedicated an entire documentary to four geniuses whose insights drove them mad to the point of suicide. Fortunately, I’m not smart enough to terrify myself to that extent. Maybe, though, we can all catch a fleeting glimpse of what they saw so clearly that terrified them so much.

This cosmic vertigo may be a symptom of some deep psychological, philosophical, or spiritual issue. Or,it may be the perfectly reasonable terror of an ant who realizes he’s been riding a bicycle.