April 02, 2020

Getting existential

When I was 20, I got bit by a bug that wouldn’t let go. It could go dormant for years, but symptoms would eventually reemerge.

The bug was existentialism, a philosophy popular in the post-World War II era but long since out of fashion.

It wasn’t really a school of thought. Thinkers associated with it generally denied the label and disagreed with each other. They spanned a century and were all over the place politically. Some were religious, others atheistic. Some were authors and artists more than philosophers. People associated with it include Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvior, Karl Jaspers, Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Frantz Fanon and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

It was more mood than system, but one theme is that we are thrown into this world (to echo The Doors) without being consulted about it (to echo Kierkegaard). Then we have to improvise.

Other animals have more of a genetic script. Our lives would be easier if that were the case. We’d spend less time wondering about what we’re going to do next.

We’re here first and then have to figure out what to become within the limits of our situation. To get fancy, our existence precedes our essence — hence the term.

In other words, we have a kind of freedom. For existentialists, this isn’t freedom as in, “you can do or be whatever you want,” but more like a weight, as in, “you will always bear the burden of your decisions.”

For Sartre, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Here’s a simple example. I’m a longtime runner, although these days it looks more like walking (my rule: you’re running when you think you are).

Imagine we’re running a 15K (9.3-mile) local race, like the Poca River Run or the Dirty Dog Trail Run. You start out. It’s cold. Your lungs hurt. Ditto legs, feet and body. Part of you wants to cry or quit or walk, speaking from experience. What to do? If you quit, you must ask if you could have kept going. Could you have gone any faster? Should you have stopped to avoid injury?

It’s a decision you must make. There’s no external coercion.

That’s a mild example. But existentialists remind us that we make our decisions in the context of mortality. We are fragile and, at some point, we’re going to die. As for what, if anything, happens after that, there are beliefs but no certainty. It is our finiteness and mortality that make our decisions matter.

In an essay published shortly after the end of WWII, Sartre wrote: “We [the French people] were never more free than during the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, beginning with the right to talk. Every day we were insulted to our faces and had to take it in silence. Under one pretext or another, as workers, Jews, or political prisoners, we were deported en masse. Everywhere, on billboards, in the newspapers, on the screen, we encountered the revolting and insipid picture of ourselves that our oppressors wanted us to accept. And, because of all this, we were free.”

He meant that people were responsible for their decisions of whether to resist or collaborate with the Nazis at whatever cost.

He went on to say: “Exile, captivity and especially death (which we usually shrink from facing at all in happier times) became for us the habitual objects of our concern. We learned that they were neither inevitable accidents, nor even constant and exterior dangers, but that they must be considered as our lot itself, our destiny, the profound source of our reality as men. At every instant we lived up to the full sense of this commonplace little phrase: ‘Man is mortal!’ And the choice that each of us made of his life and of his being was an authentic choice ...”

It’s when we hit these “limit situations,” in an expression of Jaspers, that we realize the burden of our freedom, our choices and our decisions — which brings us back to our current situation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

At this moment, rich or poor, lucky or unlucky, mainstream or marginal, we are all facing a limit situation. (Actually, we’re always in one but mostly choose to ignore it.) We don’t know how long it will last, how bad it will get, who will be next, who will die or who will recover. Outbreak or not, we’re all temporary problems. But the things we think, say and do matter now.

Here’s the question: Knowing that we’re just here for a little while, what do we do with the time we have?

I can’t think of anything more shameful than to have to say at the end, “I spent my life making lots of money while making life worse for other people.” Or “I devoted my career to taking away health care from millions of Americans.” Or “I stood in the way of people taking meaningful action about catastrophic climate change.” Or “I spread hatred and fear of people who were different.”

That’s true whether we die to God, to karma or to nothingness. Our decisions matter.

We own them. And they own us.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

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