Existentialism is something I’ve been studying for awhile due to its ties to psychology and psychotherapy that I’ve been learning about in university. In the context of psychology, existentialism focuses on five “Givens”: (Check out this site for a more detailed description of all of this: http://www.existential-therapy.com/General_Overview.htm It’s brilliant, IMHO)
1. Freedom, Responsibility, and Agency – Many people think that freedom involves escaping responsibility. Life gives us responsibilities which can hinder us or make us feel like we are not free, therefore, we go off on our own to make our own freedom.
However, one can be existentially free, even if one is not “politically” free. Meaning: There is a consequence to everything and we must be aware of that. That’s the Responsibility part of the existentialist equation.
The freedom part comes in when we realize that we are completely free to react to something. No one can make that choice for us. The freedom you have in any situation, is what you will learn from this and how you will respond, which is the Will and the Agency part.
An excellent book to read on this subject is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who became a prisoner of quite a few concentration camps during WWII, including Auschwitz. He provides an excellent overview of human nature in the context of a concentration camp, but also credits his survival to the realization that he had the ultimate freedom: psychological freedom. The freedom to take what is given and make the choice of how to react to it. He found meaning in the most undesirable of circumstances, which is hard for us to imagine based on the relative comfort of our modern lives.
2. Death, Human Limitation, and Finiteness – Death is the one destiny that all living things share. If we are born, we will eventually die. What happens between the two points of birth and death are what matters, and this is again where we can exercise our existential freedom of choice, awareness of consequence and will. Some people completely avoid enjoying the beauty of life because they feel that the true beauty lies in some afterlife where one will be judged on their austerity and perfection (or lack thereof) in life. Some people enjoy things in life a little too much and infringe on others’ enjoyment. (Criminals, etc.)
In my mind, life is about appreciating life because we will all eventually die. It is also about finding balance in life (not dwelling too much on death and not denying it). What would you do differently if you knew for sure you would die next week? What would you regret? What is stopping you from doing that now?
Rollo May, another psychologist, has written a number of books on various aspects of life with an existentialist focus. My favourite is: “Man’s Search for Himself” (1953), Delta 1973 (Reprint). ISBN 0-385-28617-1
3. Isolation and Connectedness – It’s not “all about me” in existentialism. It is about finding connection with others, practicing empathy and being a part of something meaningful with others (whatever that might be is up to you – again, that Freedom!) It is also looks at how we isolate ourselves: Interpersonal – how we can isolate ourselves from others physically or even become involved in relationships that are not meaningful; Intrapersonal – not being fully present in the relationships we have; and Existential – the feeling that we can never really overcome that isolation. However, the Existential Freedom comes from acknowledging that limitation, finding meaning in it and doing what we can to make our connections/relationships more meaningful.
4. Meaning vs. Meaninglessness – Finding Meaning, like Freedom is one of the cornerstones of existentialism. There are three types of meaning:
False – These are the myths of power that we create, i.e.: power, money, sex. They don’t make us existentially free, nor do they give us real meaning in life. The Dalai Lama, in his book “Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for the new Millennium” (ISBN 0-349-11443-9), tells the story of his stay with a fabulously wealthy couple. They had it all, it seemed! When he peeked into their medicine cabinet, he took note of the anti-stress pills, anti-depressants and other things, which told him that all of that wealth didn’t seem to be working too well for their mental health.
Transitory – These are the things that help us cope with any situation. They are our values, which are good to have, but not the end-all-be-all of existence. i.e.: service, faith, education, leadership, growth as a person, etc.
Ultimate – This is the “type of meaning that aids in the transcending the existential issues of death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness.”(http://www.existential-therapy.com/Special_Topics/Meaning.htm) Some might argue that this is where a relationship with God, or the Divine (however we may see it) comes in: the spiritual self. I see it as being how do we grow, learn and make meaning out of the topics of death, isolation, freedom and meaninglessness? How we do that is up to us once again – Freedom.
5. Emotions, Experience, and Embodiment – This involves embracing, accepting and finding meaning in our emotions… all of them. Even the ones we don’t like. The quest for Individualtion in the Jungian sense (unifying all of the aspects of the self and transcending basic existence) is a good example of this given. It’s difficult to do, but is very liberating when it is sought and achieved!
From what I’ve learned from the philosophy of existentialism, we have a lot more control over our own existence and situations than we give ourselves credit for. We have more freedom than we give ourselves credit for and, as a result, more power than we ever felt possible. Yes, there are consequences and, yes, there is responsibility that comes with that existential power… but the freedom, meaning and higher understanding of ourselves as human beings is so worth it! (In my own opinion, of course!)
The interesting thing about philosophy is how it is interpreted by each person.