The Existential Vacuum: Birth Canal of the Knockout Game?


Every parent has heard it — that dreadful lament of “I’m bored!”

Although it’s usually accompanied by dramatizations of actual pain, few parents have patience for it. Even fewer view it as something to be concerned about. That could be a deadly mistake.

I certainly didn’t view it as more than an annoyance. My children learned very quickly and early on that to complain of boredom was a bad idea. At least expressing it to me, that is. The first time those words would come out of a child’s mouth, I simply replied, “Oh that’s great. I have plenty of work for you to do. If you don’t know how to fill your time wisely, I will happily fill it for you.”

You would be amazed at how fast a child can figure out something else to do besides extra chores. One full dose of work instantly cures childhood boredom.

What about children who are never taught what to do with boredom? What do they grow into?

This week’s reading of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning brought to light what could be the answer to a problem not yet conceived of at the time of its writing. Frankl explains,

The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century…man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people wish him to do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism). ….

The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.

In most cases, when children announce their boredom, parents give them placebos rather than cures. They think it is not really a problem at all. By dismissing the issue as unimportant, the parent takes the path of least resistance and too often offers entertainment as a cure. (This is evidenced by the large sums of money willingly paid for gaming systems.)

However, if Frankl is correct, and it is a real issue, then we are in essence training our children to seek amusement rather than meaning. This could have deadly consequences.


Enter a generation of young men that have no guidance, no traditions to follow, no shoes to fill, and are roaming the streets in search of entertainment. With all of what’s left of our social taboos, not torn down but instead elevated as desirable, a “game” like knockout is a natural consequence.

Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them.

Not discounting sin, or just plain evil, so much of our society’s ills could very well be placed within the context of the existential vacuum Frankl describes.

Consider this from the forward by Harold S. Kushner,

Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.

Where meaningful work is nonexistent, and the deep bonds of a love that puts the needs of another person before yourself is replaced by serial sexual encounters, there is little to draw from in those difficult times. This leaves empty souls that are easily destroyed from within.


Photo Credit,  ShutterstockJoe Belangervarandah