Camus describes life as a collision between human beings who have an innate craving for meaning and a universe that is as indifferent as rock, utterly devoid of meaning. No matter, Camus counsels that we should put the revolver back in the drawer.
Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment. Maybe I derive some sort of twisted pleasure from wallowing in my own self-pity. Or perhaps I’m seeking answers in an answer-less world. Whatever the case, I’ve been drawn to the worlds of moral philosophy in general and existentialism in particular lately.
That’s a big part of the reason why I decided to read The Existentialist’s Survival Guide by Gordon Marino. As I mentioned last month as part of my “What I’m Into” roundup, I thought that this book would be more prescriptive in nature. That it’d be more of a “here’s how an existentialist can deal with the slings and arrows of everyday existence.” But it’s not really that.
It’s much more descriptive than prescriptive. Author Gordon Marino summarizes key observations and theories put forth by the great existential philosophers of the past. Some of you might already know Albert Camus, the French philosopher paraphrased in the book excerpt above.
Put simply, existentialism posits that the world itself has no inherent meaning whatsoever. The burden falls completely on us as individuals to create our own meaning. On some level, this may sound bleak. On another level, existentialism emphasizes personal freedom and authenticity. You are presented with infinite choice and possibility.
That’s positive… except the near infinite freedom is also a profound source of anxiety.
That freedom, the necessity to constantly make choices, to realize this possibility and close down another, is a font of anxiety. The example that Sartre uses to illustrate this point is one of standing on a cliff edge. Looking over the lip of a thousand-foot drop, our stomachs quiver, we experience anxiety, not because we are in danger of falling but because we feel that we have the freedom to leap.
With existentialism, because you are always free to choose, because you can always create your own meaning, you are also burdened by the constant responsibility to do so. You can choose to take out that revolver, or put it back in the drawer. You do have the freedom to leap, or you can choose to simply stand at the cliff’s edge.
Maybe Uncle Ben borrowed some of his sage wisdom from French playwright Jean-Paul Sartre. And you don’t even need to be bitten by a radioactive spider to realize the power of such an observation either.
As someone who has been riddled with anxiety and existential angst for as long as he can remember, I can certainly identify with this sentiment. Maybe these kinds of concerns have become increasingly relevant in a society where we’re encouraged to “do what you love.” A job isn’t just a paycheck; it’s supposed to be a passion, a calling, a fulfilling endeavor filled with personal meaning.
A meaning that you’re supposed to create for yourself. And if you don’t find that kind of meaning in your work and in your day-to-day, the anxiety creeps in like an insidious phantasm. Are you really keeping it real? Are you living an authentic life?
Perhaps as a way of defending ourselves against our own doubts and inner voices, many of us hanker for admiration. We yearn to be desired, valued. We want to be loved as the people we aspire and perhaps imagine ourselves to be, not the flesh-and-blood fallible creatures that we are. Being loved for the sometimes kind and at other times tantrum-throwing child that we might be feels too much like pity, like forgiveness.
In a world devoid of intrinsic meaning, where you’re saddled with the responsibility of creating your own meaning, we can’t help but desire some sort of external validation. As kids, we might exclaim, “Don’t tell me what to do!” As adults, we plead, “Please, just tell me what to do.”
Am I doing this right? Am I being my “best self” and serving as a positive role model? Or is all of this just another meaningless journey that ultimately leads to the same final destination as everyone else? Oh, the melancholy and anxiety of mortal existence!