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How to cope with an existential crisis | Psyche

Stages on Life’s Way. An Artist Resting by the Roadside (1831-32), by Jørgen Roed. Courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Copenhagen

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Guide

How to cope with an existential crisis

Has the world gone grey? Are you wondering what life is for? Kierkegaard’s philosophy could help you rediscover your zing

by Skye C Cleary + BIO

Stages on Life’s Way. An Artist Resting by the Roadside (1831-32), by Jørgen Roed. Courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Copenhagen

Need to know

Are you exhausted from rushing through life doing the same monotonous things over and over again? Perhaps those things that were once meaningful now seem vacuous, and the passion has burned out. Do you feel that pleasures are short-lived and ultimately disappointing, that your life is a series of fragments punctuated with occasional ecstasies that flare up and then, like a firework, fade into darkness and despair? Perhaps you are lonely or pine for past loves. Or you feel empty and lost in the world, or nauseous and sleep-deprived. Maybe you are still looking for a reason to live, or you have too many confused reasons, or you have forgotten what your reasons are. Congratulations – you’re having an existential crisis. Sometimes, the questions ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘What’s it all for?’ haunt you gently like a soft wingbeat with barely a whisper, but sometimes they can feel as if they are asphyxiating your entire being.

Whatever form your existential crisis takes, the problem, as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) saw it, was that living without passion amounts to not existing at all. And that’s bad for all of us because, without passion, rampant waves of negativity poison the world. Kierkegaard thought that one of the roots of this problem of a world without passion is that too many people – his contemporaries but, by extension, we too – are alienated from a society that overemphasises objectivity and ‘results’ (profits, productivity, outcomes, efficiency) at the expense of personal, passionate, subjective human experiences.

Vilhelm Pedersen Studies of Kierkegaard c1844-1850. Courtesy the National Musuem of Art Copenhagen

In his journal, Kierkegaard wrote: ‘What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know … the thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.’ Finding this truth, this passion, was what Kierkegaard thought could unite an existence, overcome melancholia, and help you to become more fulfilled. Kierkegaard had some ideas about how to harness the anguish of what we have come to think of as an existential crisis. Reading Kierkegaard won’t necessarily solve all problems, but it can help you understand some of the sources of your malaise and to see new possibilities for your life.

Sometimes, Kierkegaard is called the first existential philosopher because of his emphasis on the individual and subjective experience. Existential philosophers stress freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of your choices, and certainly one of the quintessential existentialist philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), found this vein of thinking in Kierkegaard’s writing. For existentialists, it’s up to you to decide the kind of person you want to be and how to live your life meaningfully. But these choices leaven despair because of the pressure that comes when you realise you’re free and responsible and have no one else to blame, no excuses for your behaviour. Anxiety, or despair, Kierkegaard wrote, is the ‘dizziness of freedom’. Despair is a kind of vertigo we get when overwhelmed with possibilities and choices. Kierkegaard described it as a similar feeling to standing on the edge of an abyss. You might be afraid of falling, but anxious when you realise that jumping is a possibility.

We are forced to make choices all the time, whether we like it or not. Consider toothpaste: there are so many types and it’s difficult to choose the one that’s best for your teeth. Whitening or stain-removal? Cavity protection, anti-plaque or enamel repair? What’s the difference? Why isn’t there one that does everything? It’s hard to know what the outcome of choosing one over the other will be. While choosing the wrong toothpaste probably won’t devastate your life, when you face more profound choices – such as what to study at college, whom to marry, whether to end a relationship, which career to pursue, whether to try to save someone who is drowning, if you should turn off a loved one’s life-support system – the closer you come to the edge of the abyss, the dizzier you will feel about your possibilities and responsibilities. Sometimes you live in ignorant bliss about your options but, once you become aware of them, wooziness is inevitable. As Kierkegaard wrote in The Concept of Anxiety (1844):

He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down.

Sometimes, the dizziness of your freedom is so overwhelming that you might feel compelled to step back, to shrink from making a choice. Making no choice, or letting someone else choose for you, can feel easier. The greater the stakes, the deeper the abyss, and the further you have to fall if you misstep. But your personal growth depends on your ability to handle big choices yourself and not to shirk them. For Kierkegaard, bravely facing up to our choices and learning to channel our anxiety in constructive ways is vital: ‘Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.’

During his lifetime, Kierkegaard made authorities nervous because he was an iconoclast who encouraged people to think for themselves. He challenged readers to break themselves free from the brainwashing of churches and community groups that preached what to do and what to believe, particularly the Lutheran Church of Denmark, with which he was at loggerheads for much of his later life. Kierkegaard also might have been deeply suspicious of today’s social media and advertising that tells us where to spend our money and time in the elusive pursuit of happiness. In a criticism that seems to have pre-empted online trolls, he proposed that ‘the crowd’ or the public is ‘untruth’ because it enables people to be anonymous, irresponsible, cowardly, and creates an impersonal atmosphere.

Kierkegaard was a Christian, ‘albeit a maverick Christian’, as the philosopher Gary Cox put it, because Kierkegaard emboldened people to develop a personal relationship with God instead of unreflectively assuming what the clergy sermonised. For Kierkegaard, living the truth is infinitely more important than objectively knowing it. At Kierkegaard’s funeral, the archdeacon who gave the eulogy told the huge crowd not to misunderstand or accept what Kierkegaard had written because he went too far and didn’t know it.

But you don’t need to be religious to glean practical wisdom from Kierkegaard’s work. He inspired many atheist philosophers. Sartre, as I’ve mentioned, deeply admired Kierkegaard. He called him an ‘anti-philosopher’ because Kierkegaard sought ‘a first beginning’ by pushing back against boring and abstract philosophies, such as G W F Hegel’s and Immanuel Kant’s, which were very popular during Kierkegaard’s time.

Kierkegaard wrote in unconventional ways. He was witty and came up with quirky pseudonyms such as ‘Hilarius Bookbinder’. Kierkegaard wrote pseudonymously not because he wanted to hide his authorship – pretty much everyone knew which books he’d authored – but to distance himself from his work; to challenge us to question the ideas he presents; to take responsibility for interpreting the text’s meaning; to inspire us to come to our own conclusions; and to create our own subjective truths. The strategy is called ‘indirect communication’. The effect of Kierkegaard’s work is that, instead of dictating and moralising, he provokes – because you can’t tell if he’s being serious or not – and invites readers to dance with ideas.

Kierkegaard uses indirect communication in one of his most famous works, Either/Or (1843), a fictional collection of letters and essays written by different characters and presenting different points of view: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. These three views, or phases, provide a possible framework for how to endure and overcome an existential crisis. The phases are not rigid steps, but rather offer a scaffolding of possible experiences on an existential journey to reinvigorate our passion for life.

Think it through

Enjoy the aesthetic elements of your life

Kierkegaard suggested that the first mode of living is the aesthetic sphere. Aesthetic living is fun and impulsive, focused on sensual satisfaction, like a child who is discovering the world with awe and wonder. The aesthetic sphere is a beautiful phase of life, passionate and sparkling with possibilities. Consider the thrill of falling in love, the delight of seeing your all-time favourite musician live in concert, the elation of sharing a delicious bottle of wine or meal with a good friend, or the exhilaration of skinny-dipping on a whim. These experiences can be intoxicating, extraordinarily interesting, and make you feel like your life is transformed if you submit to them.

Don Giovanni – the protagonist of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787), a legendary seducer who is also sometimes known as Don Juan – is, Kierkegaard suggested, the ultimate archetype of the aesthetic mode because he lives for immediate sexual gratification and sensuality. Don Giovanni is a player. He is handsome, seductive and exciting. Women find him irresistible: he has slept with more than 2,000 women whose names he records in his not-so-little black book. Don Giovanni seeks pleasure above all else, and dances through his hedonistic life.

How can you live aesthetically? Make your life as interesting and enjoyable as possible. Fall in love a lot. Rotate crops – meaning that, if you’re bored with your life, don’t be afraid to leave behind what doesn’t serve you and start planting seeds for fresh projects and new relationships that energise you. Be impulsive. Live for and in the moment. Cultivate arbitrariness for the sheer pleasure of it: go to the theatre but watch only the middle of the performance; pick up a book and read a random passage. Enjoy experiences in disruptive ways, different than what others are spoon-feeding you. Practise the art of remembering the joys of your past. Practise the art of forgetting unpleasantness by focusing on the silver linings of your misfortunes. Burn the candle of your life at both ends.

Make existential commitments to live ethically

However, an aesthete’s actions can be self-sabotaging, because, as Kierkegaard pseudonymously writes:

As when one skims a stone over the surface of the water, it skips lightly for a time, but as soon as it stops skipping, instantly sinks down into the depths, that is how Don Giovanni dances over the abyss, jubilant in his brief respite.

Don Giovanni gets his comeuppance in the end when a ghost in the form of a statue of the Commendatore, the father of one of his conquests and a man whom Don Giovanni has killed in a fight, drags him down to hell. You might not be dragged to hell by a ghost, but living purely in the aesthetic mode – though it might offer temporary respite – puts you on the fast track to a further existential crisis.

Why is this? The answer is that the aesthetic lifestyle demands a high price. Aesthetic living can be a source of existential despair when you become overly dependent on its distractions to fill the voids in your life. The aesthetic mode is dangerous when you live in a state of immediacy and instant gratification, constantly overindulging in such pleasures as social media scrolling, shopping, television, busyness, alcohol, drugs, serial romancing or casual sex. At a certain point, these activities cease to offer the enjoyment they promise, and the world turns grey.

Wallowing in such distractions only entrenches your alienation more deeply and pushes you more squarely into dungeons of unhappiness. As soon as you’ve satisfied one pleasure, you’re chasing the dragon of newness for the next high. Sometimes you’re so excited about taking risks on new possibilities, so in love with starting new projects and relationships, that you’re constantly flitting from one to the next, never finishing anything. Constantly on the move, you are like an ocean wave, surging powerfully, cyclically, with raw primal energy.

But waves froth and fizzle away indefinitely. If you’re constantly and busily churning through life, your existence amounts to a sum of moments without any real cohesion. Excitement fades and leaves in its wake disappointment and loneliness. The aesthete in Either/Or is envious of insects that die after copulation because they are able to indulge in the pinnacle of sexual ecstasy and then escape life’s greatest anticlimax – the ‘petite mort’ becomes a real one. An aesthetic life will inevitably leave you morbidly tired.

Kierkegaard’s aesthete is plagued with such soul-crushing tedium and torturous despair that he is numb. Because he isn’t truly engaged in life, he lives as if he were dead. Living void of passion makes him feel both chained by his anxieties and also cast adrift, like a spider plunging and flailing around, unable to grasp hold of anything:

What is to come? What does the future hold? I don’t know, I have no idea. When from a fixed point a spider plunges down as is its nature, it sees always before it an empty space in which it cannot find a footing however much it flounders. That is how it is with me: always an empty space before me, what drives me on is a result that lies behind me. This life is back-to-front and terrible, unendurable.

So if living aesthetically can only be a short-term solution to an existential crisis, how can you go beyond that and live ethically? Stop skimming over life like that stone. Slow down and do what you can to carve out pockets of time for reflection. Cultivate the space to become less robotic. And stop using aesthetic activities as a distraction from facing up to your existential despair.

‘Despair!’ Kierkegaard’s pseudonym writes. Despair is the entry price for transitioning from the aesthetic to the ethical sphere. Learning to love despair is an adventure in moving to a higher mode of self-development. Don’t hide from your existential crisis because choosing despair means choosing yourself. To cosy up to your despair is to choose against being beholden to your animalistic, aesthetic impulses, and towards becoming a definite and solidly grounded individual. Choosing yourself means making meaningful commitments, such as dedicating yourself to a vocation. It means setting goals and sticking to them. Dodging commitment means you’re simply hovering over life, not truly living, and as empty of substance as those waves.

To choose despair also means to choose humanity. In the ethical mode, you recognise that you live in a world with other people, that they matter, and that every choice you make must reflect a responsibility towards them. You act with honesty, open-heartedness, understanding and generosity. You focus more on what you can give to others and less on what you’re getting out of them. To cultivate your humanity, go people-watching for an hour and consider the beauty in each individual. Appreciate every person you meet in their particularity – their tasks, challenges and triumphs. Join a club and build a community of friends. Act more charitably. Help people. Commit to making the world better for others.

Choosing this kind of despair also prepares you for marriage in a way that a life of seeking sensual gratification is unlikely to. Getting married – ideally to your first love, in Kierkegaard’s analysis – reflects an ethical decision because marriage is a serious, definitive and life-changing choice. Marriage calls for a more sophisticated awareness of your existence than a life driven purely by sexual instincts. Sure, you can always get divorced, but Kierkegaard’s ethicist suggests getting married helps people take love more seriously than an aesthete would, by focusing on creating a relationship that’s stable and constant. In the ethical sphere, you actively rejuvenate the love with your partner, instead of skipping to the next relationship for thrills and a confidence boost as soon as your first one gets tough.

Face your existential abyss bravely because, Kierkegaard suggested: ‘Anxiety is the organ through which the subject appropriates sorrow and assimilates it,’ and ‘indeed I would say that it is only when the individual has the tragic that he becomes happy.’ The key to the ethical sphere is to use your despair to galvanise you to overcome your sorry dark states, refresh your enthusiasm for living, and arouse your appetite for something more meaningful in your life. You develop yourself by being patient with existence, seeing the beauty in stability, and recognising that you are your own source of happiness and creativity. You don’t need to seek excitement constantly from new external stimuli as the aesthete does. You don’t need a dance floor to dance, to enjoy life; your dance floor is inside of you, wherever you are. You nurture the ethical attitude by living intentionally (not accidentally, like the aesthete), and living each day as if it were your Judgment Day.

Leap to faith

The ethical mode can help stabilise you, but it might not be enough to resolve your existential crisis. Living ethically might even be another source of existential calamity because fulfilling your social duties can be onerous. Kierkegaard’s ethicist says of the duty of marriage: ‘Its uniformity, its total uneventfulness, its incessant vacuity, which is death and worse than death.’ Marriage doesn’t make love stay. People change and break promises, making any commitment insecure. Given how many other people are unjust and immoral, being ethical might also throw you deeper into despair. And sinking too heavily into reflection can thwart your enjoyment of life. Philosophers tend to be guilty of overthinking, and Kierkegaard’s aesthete quips: ‘What seems so difficult to philosophy and the philosophers is to stop.’

The only way truly to conquer an existential crisis is with a leap. A leap is what Kierkegaard calls an ‘inward deepening’, which recognises that the world is uncertain, but you can make a bold choice about the kind of life you want to lead. A leap is beyond the realm of feelings (aesthetic sphere) and commitments (ethical sphere). A leap is an act of will to transform your life. It’s the decision to design an existence to which you can enthusiastically devote yourself and that will uplift and sustain your being.

Kierkegaard’s leap was guided by the commandment to ‘love thy neighbour’. In Works of Love (1847), written under Kierkegaard’s real name, he proposes that universal love, or agapē, is the secret to happiness because it overcomes the fleetingness and insecurity of aesthetic and ethical relationships. Love is Ariadne’s thread of life because, as long as you love, as long as you commit yourself to being a loving person, you’ll be safe from being hurt and alone. Kierkegaard thought that this sort of unwavering faith reflects a supremely developed human being.

Perhaps you live in the aesthetic or ethical modes of life, and you’re perfectly happy and see no need to leap. Or perhaps you inhabit these realms and find comfort in your melancholy. But the rub with existential despair is that, once you have caught a glimpse of it, intentionally or not, it’s extraordinarily difficult to unsee it. If that’s you, Kierkegaard’s ideas might be a way to help you find your footing. But the only thing that will alleviate an existential crisis is to find the truth that is true for you, the subjective truth, the propulsion to leap that lies in the innermost depths of your heart. If you’re not sure what your subjective truth is, Kierkegaard suggested: ‘Ask yourself and keep on asking until you find the answer.’

Ultimately, though, a passionately lived life isn’t about an either/or choice. You can’t be all frivolous or all serious all the time. A fulfilling life is about enjoyment and ethical commitment and leaping. Your life needs some of the sort of energy, pleasures and possibilities that Don Giovanni’s life exhibits (though not necessarily indulging these in the ways he does), otherwise the world would be very dull. And the world is boring without him. You also need something of the ethical: you need to acknowledge how your choices affect other people and to take responsibility for your actions, otherwise you’ll end up alone and sad. You also need a leap to find that thing that you can devote yourself to that unites the splinters of your life, even if, for you, that isn’t a leap into religious faith. The point is to see these different dimensions of life, the ruts you might be falling into, the potential sources of ennui and malaise that stem from the way you live your life. But, ultimately, it’s up to you to choose how you juggle these spheres and how you spark your own fire to bind the fragments of your life together into a coherent synthesis. That’s the point. It’s for you to shape your life.

Key points – How to cope with an existential crisis

  • Living in the moment can be fun for a while but can also be a source of existential despair if it becomes a distraction from reflecting on our lives.
  • Avoiding existential despair doesn’t bring happiness.
  • Overcoming an existential crisis calls for bravely facing up to our melancholy, looking at its roots, and using that understanding as a platform to build stability.
  • Slowing down, cutting back on busyness, and cultivating idleness or novel perspectives on the world are vital steps in creating space for inward reflection.
  • Existential despair can be a force for good when we galvanise it to overcome our sorry dark states, refresh our enthusiasm for living, and arouse our appetite for a more meaningful life.
  • A fulfilling life calls for playful enjoyment, ethical engagement and a leap to something that can fuse together the fragments of our existences.

Why it matters

One of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms writes: ‘For a book has the remarkable property that it can be interpreted any way you wish.’ You might very well interpret Kierkegaard differently, and that’s what he wanted. Maybe. Kierkegaard’s pseudonym also suggests that, whether you do something or you don’t do something, you’ll regret it either way. So read Kierkegaard or don’t read him. Perhaps you will regret both, but perhaps you’ll also find a path towards edification.

It’s worth remembering, though, that not even Kierkegaard followed this advice completely. He never married, for example. He broke off an engagement with Regine Olsen, who was devastated. Kierkegaard was melancholy and didn’t know how to love her and God at the same time. He said he felt ‘a divine protest’. Instead of being an adult and trying to explain his feelings to Olsen, Kierkegaard thought it would be better if she hated him. So he told her he was breaking off the engagement in order to sow his wild oats. He said, condescendingly, that he was awful to her for her sake, although it seems he thought this was the easier option for him.

Kierkegaard wrote Either/Or shortly after the breakup, and the book included a fictionalised account of the relationship. He portrayed the incident in the section known as ‘The Seducer’s Diary’ in terms of a psychopathic sexual predator conniving to seduce a beautiful and innocent young woman. Olsen went on to marry someone else, and Kierkegaard obsessed over her for the rest of his life. Only later did he realise, after all his thinking and writing about existential crises, how he might have reconciled his aesthetic, ethical and religious lifestyles with Olsen. Kierkegaard saw himself as a philosophical midwife, like the goddess Diana, who could guide people to give birth to more fulfilled versions of themselves. Let us let Kierkegaard’s wisdom inspire us on our own journeys.

Kierkegaard’s journey was a definitive leap to religion. He went into great depth about different modes of religiousness in works such as Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846) and Sickness unto Death (1849). Kierkegaard worried that atheists won’t know if they’re right until it’s too late, but other existential philosophers made very different leaps. For example, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) leapt into writing literature and political advocacy.

How do we figure out where we might leap to? One tool that Kierkegaard hinted towards, for seeking possible leaps, is poetry. Music vanishes in time, painting is static in time, but poetry, Kierkegaard thought, is a higher artform because it exists both in the moment and beyond the moment. It exists spontaneously when you read and write it, and it exists across time because you can return to it and develop it. The most important role of poetry is that it can remind you to be both the composer and the composition of your life.

Poetry can be a tool to help you to stop and reflect on your being, to sit with unhappiness, to process existential dread. Poetry can act as a conduit of aesthetic beauty, preserving flavours and textures of love and frivolity in language. Poetry can teach you to be patient with your life, and to create an internal history for yourself. Your history is part of who you are but doesn’t determine who you are becoming. Poetry can help you to not forget your misfortunes (or to remember their silver lining) like the aesthete would, and to come to terms with your past. Poetry can also help you to explore possibilities for your leap, by encouraging you to turn inwards to clarify that thing that can unite your existence in a genuinely passionate upsurge of being.

Links & books

I highly recommend going straight to the source: to Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, which is the main work that I have discussed above. Kierkegaard also wrote a follow-up to Either/Or called Stages on Life’s Way (1845) edited by his pseudonym ‘Hilarius Bookbinder’. Stages revisits the aesthetic and ethical spheres, including yet another story of a seducer breaking off his engagement to a beautiful woman then stalking her, and expands on the religious themes that were only hinted at in Either/Or.

An excellent homage to Kierkegaard, which gives more detail and background to his life and work, is Julian Baggini’s Aeon essay ‘I Still Love Kierkegaard’ (2013). In a 2008 Philosophy Bites podcast, the Kierkegaard scholar Clare Carlisle talks about his book Fear and Trembling (1843) and about existential leaping. And in a recent Seize the Moment podcast, the existential psychotherapist and philosopher Emmy van Deurzen talks about some global existential crises such as Brexit and COVID-19, as well as her new book Rising from Existential Crisis: Life Beyond Calamity (2021).

The excellent film Persona (1966) directed by Ingmar Bergman is about one woman’s existential crisis. Elisabet, a famous actress, suddenly realises that she has been living an aesthetic life. She rejects the ethical sphere and takes up residence in the abyss. She refuses to move or talk. She cuts herself off from life. Her emptiness makes her monstrous. Her nurse, Alma, tells Elisabet about older nurses who made an existential leap to caring for others:

Imagine believing so strongly in something that you devote your entire life to it. Having something to believe in, working at something, believing your life has meaning. I like that. Holding on tight to something no matter what – I think that’s how it should be. Meaning something to other people… I know it sounds childish, but I believe in that.

Kierkegaard believed in that too.

Vampire films often illustrate the existential despair that lies in the tension between the aesthetic and the ethical realms. In my classes, I sometimes screen a scene from the film Twilight (2008): Bella and Edward’s first kiss. It’s a deliciously dramatic and sexually charged representation of the vampire Edward Cullen’s conflict between his animal desires (the aesthetic sphere) and his respect for the teenage girl Bella Swan (the ethical sphere). One might also argue that the Cullen vampire coven’s concern for and protection of the human communities they live in from more brutish vampires (eg, they drink only non-human blood) is a kind of existential leap.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a popular opera, and I highly recommend seeing it live. A recorded performance at the Zurich Opera House from 2001 is available on YouTube with English subtitles. The Metropolitan Opera in New York has a performance from 1990 on its site, available on demand behind a paywall. There are also numerous films that variously interpret legends of the Don Giovanni story. A comedic take is Don Juan DeMarco (1994), in which the lead (Johnny Depp) is a hopeless and deluded romantic in a psychiatric hospital under the care of a Dr Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando) who is on the verge of retirement. After spending time with DeMarco, Mickler realises that his own life is void of aesthetic passion, and says to his wife: ‘We’ve surrendered our lives to the momentum of mediocrity. I mean, what happened to all the celestial fire that used to light our way?’ His wife (Faye Dunaway) tells him that fires are a lot of trouble, hard to control, burn a lot of energy, and die quickly. Like Kierkegaard’s ethicist in Either/Or, she advocates for a good, steady, warm glow of a long marriage. The ending suggests a synthesis between the aesthetic and the ethical spheres.

For more practical existential wisdom, Gordon Marino’s book The Existentialist’s Survival Guide (2018) and Gary Cox’s witty How to Be an Existentialist (2009) are great places to start. For more on existentialism and love, I suggest my own book Existentialism and Romantic Love (2015) or my essay on existentialism in the collection How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy (2020).

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13 October 2021