I have been widely interested in the human mind and the ability of the human to think about its own human existence. I think we have all once in our lifetime experienced an existential crisis. A crisis where you get confronted with the nothingness and meaningless of life. This crisis will lead to severe anxious feelings. Maybe there is another way to live your life? Maybe there is existentialism as a way to life your life?
Recently, I heard about the existentialist movement as a way to deal with existential despair. It could be a potential solution to deal with these uncomfortable feelings. You should know this way of thinking will not provide you with any solutions nor will it make you feel happy and content all the time. The real question though is, if we should live an Epicurean lifestyle and be widely indulging in all our pleasures or we should find a balance in our existence and accept the uncomfortable feelings that are associated with human life itself.
This blog post is for everybody who is interested to know more about this very practical philosophy that could be applied in your life and potentially lead to a sense of personal freedom and autonomy.
What is Existentialism?
Existentialism is a cultural movement that came up during the 1940’s and 1950’s in Europe. It was a movement that went against the degradation of a human to a pure mechanical reality. There was a fight against the rise of the industrial century in which a human just becomes a “thing”. It focuses again on the individual experience of being a human.
Sören Kierkegaard is seen as the father of existentialism and thinks about the “truth” as an experience through our daily and mundane lives.
Existentialism spread to German and America after World War 2 when people felt alienated from technology and science. They felt at the same time alienated from religion and technology or science. Why did people feel alienated from technology after World War 2? It was probably because people lost their trust in technology as it had killed millions of life during the war. This made people focus again on human existence.
Existentialism is not only a philosophy but it extends to different fields like arts, film, and psychology. It stems from the interest in human existence and life. Art was seen as the expression of human life and its congruent emotions. Existentialism could be seen as the mirror of sensitive human beings in the twentieth century.
Some famous existential philosophers, who actually most of the times refused to call them existentialists, are Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger, and Camus. Nietzsche is also known as an existentialist with his most known phrase, “God is Dead”. He said this to identify the new era in which God had no prominent role anymore and it was time to find for meaning through yourself.
Minor note, not all existentialist are against religions. For example, Kierkegaard tried to unite his existentialist ideas with his Christian beliefs. It is not because you are an existentialist that you cannot believe in a God.
What are the main ideas?
There are about seven general themes that can be extracted from these famous philosophers. I will try to explain them in layman’s terms. There is no need to make a philosophical piece that would be hard to digest.
1. Philosophy as a way of life
The point of philosophy is not to only read or study about it but to see it as an actual part of your life. You should not see philosophy as being separated from your life experiences. Philosophers are only there to provide you with some concepts and framework. You are still the one that needs to choose to integrate these concepts into your life. Otherwise, reading about philosophy would be completely absurd and pretty pointless to say the least. (If it is not all ready.)
Existence is both a philosophical as a human problem.
2. Anxiety and authenticity
I have to be honest. This was one of these times where I had some difficulties with completely grasping the essence of what they meant.
Normally, anxiety is something that you should avoid and ban out of your life. The existentialists argue differently.
Feelings like anxiety, anguish, and fear play a central role in Existentialism. They argue that people should feel them in order to accept the nothingness of human life. People should fully engage in the experience of this existential thread. They believe that in some sense human life is both lived through suffering, sin, anxiety, happiness, joy, and contentment.
Anxiety will also help you to understand feelings of being alone are normal to experience. This way you will accept the uniqueness of life.
When you choose authenticity, you will accept life the way it is. Authenticity refers to a form of transparency. You can be completely responsible for who you are. An authentic life can be described as your personal narrative in which you show the whole unedited version of yourself. It is not like any autobiography you would normally read.
There is also a link with autonomy. When you commit to a certain role and the rules that go along with that role, you choose to autonomously express this role as your own being. This is in contrast with an inauthentic person who occupies any given role without any personal commitment.
This means that an individual is free in his own decisions, regardless of preexisting cultural, social, or religious values. This movement entails responsibility. If you want to be free as an individual, you need to take responsibility for yourself and your consequent actions. Society will see freedom as toxic and will stress the importance of community. While I think community and collectivity are still very important, the same group can only function as well as the strength of each individual. This individual needs a sense of freedom to make better decisions. He needs to foster a feeling that he is free in creating his personal narrative.
This is an important concept that I should talk about in relation to the aspect of freedom. You can be a free individual but you should always remember that this freedom takes place in a given context. Everything from my body, emotions, relations, environment, and to all the possible given circumstances will support my feelings of freedom. It is because I live in this context and not in a separated vacuum that my life and freedom becomes meaningful. Your freedom is always in relation to your situation. You need to understand the given context to make meaningful decisions that will lead to the expression of freedom.
Each of my acts says something about how I view others but, reciprocally, each of their acts is a view about what I am.
Existentialism has one major theme and that is human existence. Unlike other philosophies which emphasized the existence of thing, nature, or God, existentialism will put its entire emphasis solely on human existence. Human existence is the main driver to create meaning in your life.
My existence consists of forever bringing myself into being and, correlatively, fleeing from the dead inert thing that is the totality of my past actions. Although my acts are free, I am not free not to act. Thus, existence is characterized also by ‘exigency’.
*Exigency can be defined as an urgent need or demand.
The absurdity of life should be lived through and expressed in the form of emotions. By the expression of these emotions, we will come closer to the essence of life!
6. Irrationality or absurdity
You can look at life and see it as an extremely absurd phenomena. Let us look together at why life could be so absurd:
The perspective on science
Science has no reason on its own for existence. We can describe science in the most elaborate and beautiful ways but we cannot explain why science exists. It is probably not necessary to search after the meaning of science but it still gives rise to the absurdity of life.
Why now and here
The fact that you are thrown onto this world to express yourself as an individual but it does not benefit from your existence is pretty absurd to say the least. You are in the end completely alone surrounded by strangers who undergo the same feelings of absurdity. You could ask yourself why you are in this planet and why you are here at this moment. All these questions will lead to existential problems and feelings of alienation.
Human action on its own will never be free. Once you have completed an action it becomes a part of the world. It becomes a thing. The absurdity of human life is that in order to become who you are, you must be what you are not. You should not be a thing. If you alienate yourself from your being and just become a product of society, you will lose your freedom. On the other hand, human action is also a part of human being. We are throwing around some paradoxes here.
In order not to go into complete despair, you should accept these feelings of absurdity as a part of life. There is no reason to run away from them nor is there a reason to be fearful about them. The answer lies in radical acceptance.
Another theme that is closely related to absurdity is death or nothingness. Death defines the nothingness of human existence. The unaware person tries to live as if death is not actual. He tries to escape its reality. Heidegger provides us with another view on death:
My death is my most authentic, significant moment, my personal potentiality, which I alone must suffer. And if I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life and only then will I be free to become myself.
7. The crowd
There is also a social dimension in Existentialism. No, it is not only about the individual. Your freedom will involve a certain resolution or commitment that cannot be seen separated from other human beings. You cannot neglect the influence you have on others. and you should feel the responsibility to act on these authentic feelings and give back to others. You should be able to share your sense of personal freedom with others. There is no point of freedom if you feel alienated from others and cannot connect with them.
An inauthentic individual will choose his values according to other people. I suppose you can sense the critical view of existentialists on mass political movements like communism or even capitalism.
What can we learn from these ideas?
Now that we have learned about the theoretical framework of Existentialism, it is time to give some practical advice. These are my personal interpretations of Existentialism. I do not claim in any means that this justifies the ideas of the philosophers. I guess the point is always to make a certain vision your own by adapting it to your needs. Let us get practical.
Acceptance of feelings
One central theme in Existentialism is that you accept all your negative feelings like anxiety. It is time to stop feeling sorry for yourself and talking about how bad you feel. Everybody experiences these bad feelings. Some of us will however experience them way more frequently than others. Sometimes even in a way that makes it pathological and professional help should be searched for.
The point is that feelings are an integral part of your life. You can and should express them. You could use your writing skills like me to express your emotions with pen and paper. Music is there to translate your pain, too. You could use art to communicate your sense of directionless and nothingness with.
The expression of feelings will relieve us in some sense of their hard burden.
Full responsibility of life
You can not be free without taking full responsibility of your life. This is a sentence that you need to keep in your mind when you are complaining about bad circumstances or other people.
I have been avoiding responsibility for almost my entire life. That is the reason why I felt so alienated from my own being. You cannot truly be yourself if you depend on others to define who you are.
Side story about my own recovery
I have recently taken the decision to fully recover from my eating disorder by applying the homeodynamic recovery method. (Provide link) Shortly put, this method demands that you eat at least 2,500 calories to restore the homeostasis and balance in your system. The consequence of following this method is that the body will overshoot its set-point weight. There is a potential that you will be heavier than you would normally be for a given amount of time. This will lead to social stigmatization and bad comments.
I know though it is the only way for me to recover completely. I take the full responsibility of this decision even if in the end it would be a wrong one. This is my subjective truth.
You, just like me, should not fool with yourself and finally commit to your goals. When you finally commit to your goals, you will finally start to believe in yourself.
Personal freedom and relationships
You can be free and at the same time foster deep relationships. I personally think that a lot of us have superficial and meaningless relationships because we change ourselves in order to be liked. True relationships are only formed when you show your authentic self to the other. If the other person does not like the authentic version of you, there is no point to form a deep relationship.
Personal freedom is by no means an egocentric decision. It is a decision to escape the herd and be yourself. It is a decision to alleviate your ego from the constant stress that is associated with the need of fitting in.
A less stressful and more authentic you will only lead to better communication and cooperation. I truly believe that.
Short note: True authenticity is something that I do not see as a reachable endpoint. It is something you should strive for but because of the fact that our lives are conceptual and influenced by the environment, true authenticity is merely an utopia. That does not mean the pathway to reach it is not meaningful as well.
Social media identity and alienation with your true identity
We are all alienated from our true identity because we constantly want to show another picture from ourselves to the world. Do you still remember the analogy with your own personal narrative? I think this idea is pretty applicable here. It is difficult to be truly authentic if you create content for likes, followers, and social approval. We almost create two different worlds where we co-exist in. We do not realize how much that exerts energy.
You do not need to keep up with the Joneses. You may risk the possibility that some people will not like you that much. It is absurd though to think that your life becomes meaningful if you get likes from other people. If you extract meaning out of the opinions of other people, you are playing a very dangerous and fragile game.
Try to match your real identity with your social media identity. If you cannot deal with the potential negative comments, you could create an anonymous account where you share your real opinions. This will relieve this sense of alienation that is hot topic in today’s world.
Spend less time in your head
I, like so many other, spend so much time in my head. I thought that the meaning of life was always I needed to find by thinking about it. Maybe we should all consider to spend less time thinking about life and more time experiencing life? Would that not be a nice idea? Who wants to follow me?
It is not because my name is Thooft which means “The head” in English that I should give my head all the attention.
Experience life by going into nature. Experience life by connecting with other people. There are no limits on how you can experience life. There is only the amount of time that you are wasting that limits you to experience the beauty of life.
You should not be special to be unique
You should not be smarter or better than everybody else. We all want to live outstanding lives, have lots of money, and live in fame. We do not want to be average. Sadly, average is defined by the fact that most of us are average. Even if you are better in one domain, you will probably be still average in most other domains.
There is one huge revelation, “There is nothing wrong with that!” You are unique in the sense that there is nobody else like you. There is no need to define this uniqueness in comparison to others. You need to define uniqueness as a part of yourself.
Commit all your time to full self-expression. Nobody really will care if you remain average, so neither should you!
What is existential psychology?
Existential psychology is rooted in the philosophical movement and touches on the following main ideas:
- Anxiety is inherent in human existence.
- People’s need for meaning in a meaningless world.
- The importance for people to make their own choices according to their own authentic desires.
Otto Rank, a former collaborator of Sigmund Freud was an important precursor of this movement. Rank believes that everybody can undergo a personal transformation if they take full responsibility in the here and now.
Another leading example of the existential psychology was Victor Frankl who developed logo-therapy in order to discover the meaning of life.
There are 5 major existential crises that will form the foundation of therapy of existential psychology:
The conflict between people’s awareness of the inevitability of death versus their desire to keep living.
The conflict between people’s need to feel connected versus experiences of rejection and the realization that their own experience of life can never be fully shared. In the end they will always be alone.
The conflict between people’s desire to know who they are and how they fit into the world versus the uncertainties because of conflicts between self-aspects, unclear boundaries between self and non-self, or limited self-insight.
People’s experience of free will versus the external influence on their behavior and the responsibility for their choices.
The conflict between people’s desire to believe that life is meaningful and the events and experiences that appear random or inconsistent with one’s basis of meaning.
Experimental studies have shown that these 5 existential concerns have a persuasive influence on people’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Research has also shown these existential concerns have the most influence when they are activated outside of awareness. This supports the idea of existentialists that existential concerns have a major (unaware) force in human behavior and ignoring them will only deepen the psychological conflicts that are associated with them. This means you have to confront yourself with these conflicts and therapy could potentially help you with this.
All the ideas that I have outlined here are part of a bigger movement. They are part of the need for humans to express them in this changing climate. I do not agree with all the ideas that existentialists have and neither should you. There is also not a lot of scientific proof to give existential psychology to people with mental disorders. I do not advice you to try these practices yourself if you experience any symptoms of a mental disorder. You should always find professional help and you should never follow advice given on the internet.
Every philosophy gives you the ability to have a new framework where you can integrate your own framework. I understand that the ideas of Existentialism can be very extreme and harsh to some. Just remember that philosophy is not an objective truth. You still decide for yourself which mental framework can help you to retain more meaning out of life.
Existentialism started as a big cultural movement after World War 2. After World War 2 People felt the need to express them again as humans and not as machines serving the society. Existentialism touches on some very important and contemporary topics like authenticity, freedom, existence, nothingness, and connectivity. It encourages people to express feelings of anxiety to come closer to their own subjective truth. In order to live a meaningful life, humans should embrace the absurdity of life.
Existentialism is by no means a philosophical movement that will fit the needs of everybody. The main idea of this article was to let you think about a couple of their main ideas and its significance in your life.
Tell me now: “What have you learned from this article and how will it potentially change the outlook on your own life?”.