This past Tuesday, I found myself discussing existentialism in our American Literature class. I was disappointed that the groups we broke off into did not have very much time to discuss our views or how it corresponds with the literature we were reading. This is truly no one’s fault. In reality, we had a great discussion. But I doubt there is enough time in the day for me to discuss this philosophy with anyone, because I really could go on and on, all day.
I spent several years dedicating myself to exploring a plethora of spiritual paths. I read the Bible and attended churches with a variety of denominational and nondenominational labels. I read several Buddhist texts, visited mosques, spoke with rabbis about this terrifying wayward feeling I had been experiencing. I even participated in a few Celtic Pagan celebrations, thanks to my best friend and his entire family who welcomed me into their homes for these festivities.
But the only texts that ever wholly spoke to me, truly moved me, were books from the likes of Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Simone de Beauvoir. I have always been fascinated with existentialism and the concept of the absurd, and I think that is because it allows me to find meaning in my life – something that, given my lack of religion, eluded me for the longest time.
Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. It focuses on the question of human existence, and the feeling that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of existence. It holds that, as there is no God or any other transcendent force, the only way to counter this nothingness (and hence to find meaning in life) is by embracing existence. (Shout out to philosophybasics.com for the concise description. My own paragraph of explanation I just deleted was quite massive.)
Absurdism is a philosophical school of thought stating that the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd) because the sheer amount of information as well as the vast realm of the unknown make total certainty impossible. As a philosophy, absurdism furthermore explores the fundamental nature of the Absurd and how individuals, once becoming conscious of the Absurd, should respond to it. The absurdist philosopher Albert Camus stated that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning.
I believe emphatically in free will and the meaninglessness of life. And while you may believe in God, Krisha, Xenu, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, my reality is no more right or wrong than yours. What matters most is what you do with the time you have on this planet, and how you treat the world around you. Life truly has no singular meaning or purpose, and if there is a meaning, we cannot begin to comprehend it. Therefore, life cannot have meaning until you give it meaning and you find your purpose. With this new understanding my confidence, happiness, and feelings of liberation have increased exponentially.
Looking for some literature to help you wrap your head around existentialism? Look no further, here are my favorites!
- The Stranger/The Plague/Myth of Sisyphus – Albert Camus (I lumped these together because I adore each of these books, and couldn’t pick just one)
“I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.” (The Stranger)
- Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk
“It’s easy to cry when you realize that everyone you love will reject you or die. On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone will drop to zero.”
- Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”
- Nausea – Jean Paul Sartre
“It’s quite an undertaking to start loving somebody. You have to have energy, generosity, blindness. There is even a moment right at the start where you have to jump across an abyss: if you think about it you don’t do it.”
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
“Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”
- Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
“He again told himself that it was impossible for him to stay in bed and that the most rational thing was to make any sacrifice for even the smallest hope of freeing himself from the bed. But at the same time he did not forget to remind himself occasionally that thinking things over calmly – indeed, as calmly as possible – was much better than jumping to desperate decisions.”
- Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett (Have patience with this play)
“The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.”
- Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut“It’s a small world,” I observed.
“When you put it in a cemetery, it is.” Marvin Breed was a sleek and vulgar, a smart and sentimental man.
- Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
- Steppenwolf – Herman Hesse
“I believe that the struggle against death, the unconditional and self-willed determination to live, is the motive power behind the lives and activities of all outstanding men.”
In essence, it’s not what you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you. Yeah, I quoted a Batman movie. I’m not the only one drawing parallels, though.