A truth that is true for you.
Finding meaning in life? An existentialist spin on a timeless question.
I’ve been listening to another Great Courses audiobook and today I’m plunging down the rabbit hole into Existentialism.
I first read Camus’ “The Stranger” about a year ago and never got it out of my head. It’s an odd book. The main character of the story is a young man who commits a murder sort of just because and is sentenced to death but really doesn’t seem to mind that much. The point of existence is pointless for Camus’ protagonist—we all just are and nothing matters so there’s nothing truly worth concerning ourselves over.
Camus is trying to say that life is exceedingly ordinary. He insinuates that we assign all sorts of importance to situations that are intrinsically unimportant. In the narrative of the universe, we are no more than a spec upon a spec drifting through time.
Haven’t we all thought about our lives as rather pointless at one time or another. If you haven’t, you’re probably a psychopath, in my opinion, and you ought to take off that belt you made with the ears and noses of all your favorite playthings and reflect for a minute.
Life isn’t always meaningful. In fact, most of the time it’s boring and fairly meaningless.
If you’ve ever taken a long dump at work to burn time, then you should be able to relate. We’re all just burning up time trying to make ‘the most of it’ as we drag ourselves along. Most of us would happily give up the whole charade. In fact, most of us are only working so that we can.
My biggest peeve with Medium is the volume of articles that pledge riches and independence if you follow “these three simple rules!” Or life-hacks, or ancient Hindu … whatever. We’re kind of like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the mountain each day just so it can roll back down the other side. We’re reading and writing the same article, over, and over, and over. It seems like a PR campaign that we’re waging against ourselves to hammer down a narrative that we just can’t quite accept.
So here’s my existential spin on the whole meaning of life question: What if all life is and ever has been is just one big dumpster fire? Jean-Paul Sartre probably would have said life is absurd, but dumpster fire seems apropos for the moment. And what if all there is to do about it is sit back and roast marshmallows?
As Shakespeare penned and Faulkner echoed:
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Yes, yes, yes … your life is full of meaning. You create beauty through the sway of your thoughts and actions. It’s a choice that resides in the mind.
True, but the world is bigger than you, and your choices aren’t all yours. Like when California is burning to ground (again) this summer, it won’t be a matter of choice. Some things just are. How about disease? I’d like to meet someone that chose to get cancer — if there is a Randy Marsh out there, please, please, please write me. And ultimately, when we die, it will probably not be our choice. When you step back a bit and look at the whole picture, it’s really only the small things, the trite decisions that we get to make. Our great misunderstanding is believing that our work, our pocketbooks, or that our purpose means anything in the context of nature.
Nature is a cruel and indifferent master.
We’ve fought against nature since the dawn of man. We discovered fire, agriculture, mathematics, and built civilizations to insulate ourselves from the cruelty of the natural world. And over millennia, humanity inched itself out of the wilderness. And now we’ve even begun to act as if we were the indifferent master of nature. But we’re not there yet, and there might be a very scary place where humanity stops existing in any recognizable form. Sci-fi scenarios aside… We are of the earth, and to the earth, we will return.
But wait, there’s more! Ed Valenti and Billy Mays were right. Modern society lives in a world of more — always more. And that in itself can become problematic. Every day we confront a vast and dizzying array of choices. Choices like how to live, who to be with, what to do, and how to do it. These choices create real anxiety for people. Even small choices can have consequences that have the potential to reverberate in very real and impactful ways — like Rosa Park’s decision to sit down.
Kierkegaard wrote extensively on anxiety, which he believed came from our freedom to choose while staring in the face of almost infinite possibility. Kierkegaard described our situation as a man standing at the edge of a cliff looking down; the feeling he has as he looks down is both dread of falling and a complete freedom to jump that is exhilarating.
Once made, some decisions can’t be unmade. The big decisions in life typically fall into this category. And many of us feel tremendous anxiety over those decisions: our freedom to choose and the hope embodied in choice intoxicates us, but we also dread the outcome of our decisions when they are made poorly, and often there is no way to know until it’s too late. We’ve all made decisions with a pure heart and desire for good that spun out of control and ended in a place far from our hopes.
And so many of us outsource our decision-making. Instead of thinking too hard about our lives or taking the risk of being true to our own passions, we follow a path carved out for us. We grow into an expectation for us — a life in contrast to the unique potential housed in the unfettered creativity of the human spirit. The dizzying vision of choice and possibility is too much for us, so we follow someone else. Some of us live our lives without ever really having risked anything. We grow up, grow old, and die as software engineers, mortgage bankers, Uber drivers, and grocery store clerks; it makes little difference because, whatever we were, to Kierkegaard, we were never truly us. Kierkegaard famously wrote that on his tombstone he wanted only this inscription: The Individual.
I’ve spent my share of time pondering over what this life is for. I’ve known people that weren’t going anywhere fast and were having a great time doing it. Live fast, die young — what’s the difference in the end anyways? Is that foolish? Or is that freedom?
You are not defined by the path you walk today, the choices you made yesterday, or your plan for tomorrow. I believe that it’s a matter of choice. We can exercise some degree of conscious choice in how we choose to experience existence. But I feel that we must find balance.
Take what works and leave the rest because philosophy is ripe with thought on how to live.
And amid the clamor of self-help articles you’ll come across today on Medium, if you can take anything from my thoughts on existentialism, perhaps it will be this:
- Don’t take life too seriously. Most of it is mundane and ought to be treated as such. There’s a lot of peace and freedom in these words.
- Be true to yourself. You’ll never find meaning walking another person’s path. This is the challenge.