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The Existential Sandwich

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
5 min read
The Existential Sandwich

The existential sandwich is when someone faces regular, day-to-day concerns that actually reveal complicated, abstract existential dilemmas.

Virtually every client I meet has an existential sandwich of some variety or another on his or her plate. You probably do, too! Tackling existential sandwiches is my specialty and, if you're already intrigued, please [book an intro session with me].

For instance, have you ever noticed yourself saying (or thinking) around some complex life situation like this?

Scenario A: Work-Related Malaise

"Ugh. I keep procrastinating on work things, even though I mostly like my job, and it's only getting worse. What is even the point of work, anyways? Maybe if I thought work really mattered, then I'd stop procrastinating. But anyways I've really just got to finish this project because my boss is going to figure it out soon and fire me."

Scene B: The Girl Who Can't Relax

"I know it's really bad, but I rarely take time to relax. I tried a meditation app, CBD oil, and a staycation, but I just can't take time off consistently. So then I start wondering why time off is so important in the first place. Maybe people are just different in this way, and I'm meant to be busy. But I've got to go on this vacation with my family and they're going to expect me just to sit around, and they'll be insulted if I spend the whole time staring into my computer, so what am I supposed to do?"

Scenario C: Is It Ok To Be A Slob?

"I know I need to organize my apartment so that I can have people over or maybe even move to a new city easily in the future, but it's just so hard for me. Sometimes it seems like keeping clean and tidy is an important part of life, but other times it seems like we've just been taught arbitrary home standards by commercials and society and they don't actually matter at all. Maybe if I bought some new shelves and boxes for my closet then I could finally get organized and stay that way."

If you've ever sounded like this, then you're already familiar with what I call the "existential sandwich."

Read on to learn about the nature of the existential sandwich and what do do with it.

Introducing: The Existential Sandwich

When I'm meeting a new client, usually the client leads with some specific, practical problems that quickly bleed into something weighty and amorphous.

But as the client keeps talking or writing, s/he consciously or subconsciously realizes what's happened and ends up capping things off with a final, practical, actionable layer.

Please assume for the moment that a burger is a "sandwich"
Since the philosophical and practical problems are layered and smushed together, it can be difficult to figure out what to do - behaviorally and mentally - in order to shift, lighten, resolve, or occasionally even solve them.

Hearing about all these sandwiches over the past 18 months has vindicated one of my original hypotheses when I opened my philosophical life coaching practice: that it's inappropriate to treat philosophical issues as separate from day-to-day choices and behaviors, and it's inappropriate to treat day-to-day choices/behaviors as philosophically neutral.

Any coach can help you to reach your ostensible goals, with a variety of tips and tricks and hacks. But that's putting the cart before the horse:

What does it mean to want something, does wanting make it good for you?
What should you want?
Who should you be?

What to do with your existential sandwich

If you're building a sandwich, you have to consider the parts both in themselves and in context. A moldy roll doesn't belong on any sandwich, it is inherently problematic. On the other hand, American cheese is not the best to put on a cheese plate, but it works well for a classic cheeseburger.

To milk this metaphor for all its worth: this same sandwich-building or sandwich-refining process is how I invite my clients to consider their existential sandwiches.

  • Is there something deeply contrary to human well-being, or your own individual personality, that you're trying to cram in the sandwich?
  • Which components of the sandwich do you want or need to work around? Which permit more flexibility?
  • How can you experiment with the sandwich without changing the essence of what it is?
    (You can add avocado to a BLT, after all, but you can't remove the bacon - or maybe you don't want a BLT at all!)

Three sample sandwiches

So let's revisit those scenarios from the intro to figure out what's in these typical sandwiches - and how to start to sort them out.

Scenario A : Procrastination / nature/meaning of work / gotta finish project

This guy needs to find a way to do some work even before he figures out the meaning of work, or its proper place in life.

I would suggest setting aside the question about whether to change jobs for a few months and deploying some productivity hacks in the meantime (pomodoros, time blocking, etc) to see where the limits of his productivity might be and how it feels (or doesn't feel) to operate near those limits.

With that experiment under his belt, this guy will soon be better-positioned to revisit what's possible or desirable when it comes to his working life. There's usually no epiphany, just an accumulation of experience and introspective wisdom that can be made more deliberate, where it used to be haphazard.

Scenario B: Failed relaxation methods / meaning of leisure / family vacation

This girl is going to have to make some choices about how she spends her time and how she pursues leisure before figuring out the proper place of leisure in human life overall.

She could try a radical experiment: going completely screen-free on the family vacation. If it seems likely that she'll hate the vacation no matter what, she could decline to attend the trip altogether and try a solo staycation instead. She could start keeping some light records about how she feels at different times, both busy and free, to see if there are meaningful patterns arising.

Probably people all need some kind of leisure for well-being, but without further information about the specific person and situation, it's not possible to specify what kind/amount of leisure fits the bill.

Scenario C: Need to clean apartment / purpose of home / where do I even begin?

This guy doesn't need to settle any high-level questions about what homes should be right out of the gate - instead he can explore them through iterative action.

Since cleaning up and decorating an entire place is daunting, perhaps he could try sprucing up just the living room or his bedroom to see how it feels (amazing? neutral? terrible?) He could spend a while looking at pictures of other people's homes, either in magazines or in more organic settings (like Amazon product reviews).

Over time, this guy will arrive at some kind of consonance between his personal beliefs about home, the state of his actual home, and his interpretation of social messaging about home.

Stuck with your sandwich?

  • Not sure how to rotate your existential sandwich around so you can get that first mouthful? (Is this metaphor totally spent?)
  • Want some help at brainstorming life-experimentation possibilities?
  • Want some support in keeping track of what you've tried, how it worked, and what you've learned?

Book an intro session with me and we'll figure out what your real problem might be and how to approach it.

Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.