Existentialism: Replacing Fate with Freewill
"Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does." - Jean-Paul Sartre
There have been so many happy, unintended, and ironic coincidences throughout my life that have molded me into the person that I am today that I sometimes find it difficult to take true ownership of my existence and/or my experience. I don't mean that in any way to be a cop-out for my past failures, nor am I humble enough to deny any credit for my accomplishments, but the foundation of me, of who I am and who I will be, has seemingly been largely out of my control. This isn't to say that I believe in luck in any way, shape, or form, because I don't. However, I do believe in circumstance, and I especially believe in recognizing and taking advantage of the few golden opportunities with which we are presented in our brief existence here on this little sphere known as Earth. For all of us, simply being born is the opportunity of a lifetime.
Case in point: 18 months after my older sister was born, my brother came along, giving my parents two equal, yet gender opposed blessings. They came to the conclusion that they were perfectly happy with their little family, and my mother decided to undergo a procedure known as tubal ligation (commonly known as having one's tubes tied) to prevent any further pregnancies. Despite their efforts to limit their procreative capabilities, I arrived kicking and screaming on a blisteringly hot day in late June of 1984. The auspicious nature of my birth was an accident, a lapse in medical competency, but it wasn't luck; it was merely circumstance, and I am responsible for molding an essence based on the events that precipitated my existence.
The musings above are based on the branch of philosophy known as Existentialism. The central tenant of this mode of thought is that the world is Absurd - that is, the world is entirely devoid of meaning. Further, since the world is inherently lacking meaning, and since any effort to find concrete value will ultimately come up short, our efforts to ascribe meaning to life will always be moot, and thus, absurd.
Obviously, existentialism is frequently misinterpreted as a highly fatalistic approach to life, but there's a flip side to the idea that meaning is a phantom; if there is no meaning to any of this, that doesn't necessarily mean that life is wasted. Instead, it paradoxically implies that we are entirely free to create and implement our own value system entirely independent of socially constructed conceptions of conformity. Since none of us are expected to glean a specific meaning from every (or any, for that matter) facet of life as we encounter it, we've thus been granted ultimate autonomy and creativity; we are the conductors of our adventure, the navigators of our journey.
For many, this idea can be quite disconcerting. The idea of ultimate accountability is just too overwhelming, as it has major consequences that infiltrate every aspect of our being. Once the slate has been cleared of even the possibility of discovering absolute meaning in any aspect of life, all that remains is a vast amount of responsibility. That is, if there's no such thing as actual, clearly-defined meaning, everything that surrounds us is merely a facade, a not-so-shiny veneer constructed by millennia of shared conscious thought and experience. In short, we, the human race, are the architects, wardens, inmates, and jailors of the very prison we inhabit on a daily basis.
Historically, existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus have offered three different approaches to or solutions for this problem:
- Suicide: Granted, this might seem a bit melodramatic, but what is philosophy other than the self-indulgent practice of contemplating the tedious? In order for human beings to self-actualize and set forth on the road to determining their own essence, they have to make the choice to live. We obviously didn't have any say in our existence, but we have been granted the option to extend it. (This is purely a theoretical proposition. I'm not advocating killing yourself, but rather the recognition that living is a conscious choice.)
- Transcendence: This option offers the chance to ignore (or transcend, depending on your worldview) the Absurd altogether and to declare intrinsic meaning in an abstract being, entity, or idea. Albert Camus regarded transcendence as "philosophical suicide" because it eliminates what would otherwise be considered "rational" thought by pronouncing something to be fact through faith alone. This option closes off the search for meaning by stating that an unverifiable truth provides all the meaning we'll ever need.
- Acceptance: This is the most common solution for non-believers, whether they're conscious of the fact that they've made the decision or not. Accepting the Absurd involves recognizing the meaninglessness of life and maintaining the struggle regardless of the void and impossibility of signification. Choosing this route absolutely means that the individual has come to grips with the fact that nothing is ultimately knowable for certain and sets us about the task of creating an earthly essence anyway. Basically, we construct our own meaning (or set of values) through our experiences as we revolt against the ambivalence of existence.
Before you run me up the gallows pole, I'd like to get something straight: Existentialism is not Nihilism. The former recognizes an intrinsic lack of meaning in the universe, but resolves to be proactive in rectifying that situation personally through experience. The latter, however, sees neither meaning nor the potential for such. Since nihilism posits that meaning is impossible and that morality cannot exist, as there is no such thing as right or wrong and no way to gauge activities, events, or thoughts as belonging to one group or the other. Existentialism may be a little emo, but nihilism is positively goth.
Existentialism is philosophical shorthand for anarchy, a word that has been attached an unfortunate stigma. It's anarchy of the mind, the body, the family, community, and accepted modes of culture. It attempts to deracinate the values of the moral elite and implode the fundamental structures of the socially conservative - both of which have become part and parcel of what it means to be a human in the 21st Century West. It forces us to confront a reality that is unsettling, disorienting, and, above all, extremely uncomfortable. It dismisses the platitudes used to indoctrinate us in our youth as it seeks to abolish everything that helps us sleep at night.
It accomplishes all of this destruction with one flick of the wrist, a flick that lifts the veil of everything we thought we knew to be true. And, if you're willing to deny the illusion of fate and substitute that with a vision built on a bedrock of circumstance, the possibilities of this philosophical pathos are infinite.