I believe it sometimes takes a heroic effort to create meaning and love out of a life that feels devoid of both. We need a sense of purpose to hold us in hard times---as author and Auschwitz-survivor Victor Frankl wrote: “Suffering minus meaning equals despair”. He felt that if one has a sense of responsibility towards someone or some work, he will never feel the urge to throw away his life. He felt that if one knows the “why” one can bear the “how.”
The Existentialists wrote passionately about this kind of struggle to wrest meaning out of meaninglessness, and like a scrawny kid developing muscles, they believed we all have the potential to create meaning and live an “authentic life.”
The existentialists were writing to motivate us to consciously develop our sense of meaning and purpose, whereas the psychologist Carl Jung felt that the issues lay more in the realm of the unconscious. He developed a theory of consciousness in which he expressed his feeling that all neurotic behavior after mid-life was due to lack of a spiritual focus. He saw that most people turn to “spirits” rather than to Spirit, and told Bill W., the founder of AA—that only an experience of Spirit can counteract the spirit of alcohol---or as he said in Latin: “Spiritus contra Spiritum.” But today we take Spirit literally in religion and drink, and then find that aggression--- whether jumping off a bridge, abusing a child, or going to war--- is often a last resort, done half-consciously. Jung offers us other possibilities to consider.
Conscious change has a better chance of happening when we dare to look at things through the eyes of ‘Spirit’ and when we understand what Spirit uniquely means for each of us. Existentialists remind us that we create our essence with each responsible choice, and that there are innumerable ways to be authentically present. Jungians would point to the center of the circle-mandala (which shows up in all cultures as a religious symbol) and explain that there are as many ways to the center of the Self as there are people alive. Astrologers would spend hours talking about the relation between character and fate; arguing that a change in character alters one’s fate. But nobody has said that any of it’s easy. Even so, I invite you to look at things differently as you read through these musings, and ponder how these three ‘ingredients’ might change your life in subtle but profound ways.
Do you remember reading about those “French Café sitters” who would earnestly debate existentialism for hours over coffee? Jean Paul Sartre was the unacknowledged sage of the group. But his strident atheism and fictional dips into the theatre of the absurd were not endearing to most of his friends. Rather it was Albert Camus, with his humanist agnosticism and compassionate sense of the importance of “responsibility” that gave existentialism a heart.
The existentialists believed that we live in a world devoid of innate meaning, but that our free-will choices and decisions really matter. By attempting to live a life based on our values and not just the cultural norm, they believed we create an authentic life and create meaning for ourselves and others. “Existence precedes essence”, they would say, and they believed that the life choices we make need to come out of a deep connection with our personal values. For them, to live an in-authentic life, based on bourgeois unreflective values, would create such a false existence that our lives would begin to crumble as we saw our shallowness reflected in other people’s eyes….thus Sartre’s comment in his play, "No Exit" that “Hell is other people.”
Camus was not a stranger to these ideas, but embraced them and became politically and socially active in the French Resistance Movement in World War II and espoused a softer and more humane response to the radical ideas of these times. As a rebel with heart, this author of “The Stranger” was an outsider at times, but also perhaps a precursor to the beat generation in the US that evolved slightly after his time.
Both of these men, and the Existentialists that came before and after them, felt the uniqueness and isolation of the individual living in a world that so often feels hostile or indifferent. For them it didn’t matter if God did or did not exist because ‘He’ seemed indifferent to the plight of their time--- living during and between the World Wars--- when their Judeo-Christian backgrounds didn’t hold up well to the level of evil they were seeing, nor to the level of alienation they witnessed in the techno-industrial working world. They passionately caught on to the idea that what could possibly carry us out of this meaninglessness is our courageous use of freedom of choice--
Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus challenged the religious assumptions of their time and crossed a threshold of thinking after which they were mocked as being pessimistic, pedantic, and weird. They hadn’t invented these ideas, but popularized them in their novels and in their “café conversations” that were heard and documented around the world. Yet there were other thinkers who went before them who led the way. The basic tenets of existentialism were first presented by Soren Kierkegaard in 1843 in his book Either Or and later developed by Martin Buber in 1923 in his book I and Thou and then again in 1927 by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time.
Today, one could say that existentialism is the philosophy that underlies all our academic, scientific, and psychological assumptions. In polite society, there are no metaphysical assumptions allowed anymore. Existentialism could be called the current religion of the modern world. One could make a case that existentialism is the philosophy that most people really believe, no matter what their ‘religion’ is. This is because whether it’s the old American dream of “from rags to riches”, or Napoleon Hill’s power of positive thinking, or the New Age creation of our own reality, there is a sense that we have an almost terrible freedom, and that we are more powerful and responsible than we would like to believe. It’s uncomfortable to believe this, and most of us find economic or personal dramas to excuse us of the responsibility of this freedom. But as uncomfortable as it is, if we dig deeply we’ll find gold.
The early existentialists were like lonely heroes. They proselytized action and encounter with life as coming before any innate meaning. They urged us to heroically force life to mean something---to choose values and act from those values again and again against a culture that unwittingly tries to disempower and hypnotize us all into a collective sleep. The existentialists were champions of creative people and those who sought freedom in which to make their choices. And they knew how hard it was---as Camus said:
“If there is a soul, it is a mistake to believe that is given to us fully created. Rather it is created here, throughout a whole life. And living is nothing else but that long and painful bringing forth.”
In that long and painful bringing forth there’s a tendency to lose a sense of meaning from time to time, and just as you must stop the bleeding when an artery is cut, you must also stop the bleeding away of meaning. Otherwise, we lose energy and creativity as depression and inertia steels over us. And when we look to the creative giants of our day, we see that even productivity itself isn’t a guarantee against loss of meaning---Van Gogh was an example of that.
In the next post we’ll look at the link between existentialism and astrology, and particularly in navigating one’s life direction and soul purpose. ~elizabeth spring http://www.elizabethspring.com/ firstname.lastname@example.org