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What Is Existentialism, and How Can It Help Us Find Meaning in Life?

I exist, therefore I am

I exist, therefore I am

Existentialism is a philosophical way of thinking about our existence and was started in the late 1800s by thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky. The breakthrough for existentialism thinkers came after World War II with thinkers such as Sartre, de Beauvoir, Kafka and Camus. Apart from Kafka, they all lived in Paris and had a considerable following. Many argued that their philosophy was for people with money and nothing else to do but think.
Existentialism is old but still alive and relevant today. Existentialism helps us feel less helpless. God is not in charge; we are. Existentialism is naturally non-conformist.

Existentialism is a reply to essentialism that survived unanswered since Socrates and Aristotle said that essence comes first and we must become who we were meant to be. Existentialism says no; we are thrown into existence as empty vessels, and we give our life meaning by making choices. We have both freedom and responsibility, according to existentialism. It’s hard to believe that this grew out of a period when people had neither freedom nor choice.

Existentialism focuses on the individual and the struggle of passing through life. Existentialism focuses on what is true for the individual rather than the collective. Existentialism is subjective; it includes feelings and considers them more important than thoughts. We are individuals; even when part of a group, all we have is ourselves. Existentialism asks the essential questions: What does it mean to be human? What is the meaning of life? How should I live my life?

Existentialism says we need a human view, not a God view. Religion denies death, but existentialism says death is the only thing we can be sure of. Existentialism says religion is bad, but 84% of the world is religious, so are they all deluded? Essentialism used religion to appeal to people who wanted answers to why we are here. God created us; now be grateful and live essentialism said.
According to existentialism, humans are born without purpose, but our ability to choose as we please allows us to create purpose or essence in life. We are not predefined, and there’s no purpose to our existence other than the purpose we create ourselves. Existence comes before essence, according to existentialism. God didn’t create us. We’re the creators, according to Sartre. This theory is easy to both believe and disbelieve.

Existentialism is about the meaninglessness of life, the absence of God and the loneliness of being a thinking individual. Descartes said I think therefore I am, but existentialism supports the notion of “I feel therefore I am.”
Is there no room for God in existentialism?
Yes, there is. Existentialism allows God to be a part of the picture, we’re still creators, but we get to decide who God is; the great big unknown has a role to play in people’s lives, not as dogma but as a creative tool to be used to our joy and happiness. Existentialism says that because we are here for an unknown time, it’s important to lead our own lives and create our own meaning of life.

Existentialism is difficult to understand because there’s no specific teaching or metaphysical claims. Nothing can be denied or disputed. Existentialism states that we have choices, and yes, choices are part of what makes us human, but choices are also illusions, so part of what makes us human is an illusion. We have all agreed on this illusion. We could ask ourselves if we really exist, as we could very well be an illusion.

People don’t necessarily set out to choose bad acts; they are set in motion by previous choices made by self and others. Choices affect more than the chooser, and so while we must be responsible for our actions, we can never fully be responsible as we don’t have a choice, and we don’t have free will, but what we do have is the illusion of both. Each chosen act says something about how a person views others, and reciprocally each responding act is a view about that person. This is called situatedness in existentialism. Freedom is never absolute, except in the mind, but situated. Freedom is subject to facts outside a person’s control. While Sartre said we are condemned to freedom, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, another French philosopher of the same era, said that freedom is a matter of degree.

Back in the 1800s, Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Humans feel anxiety because we are weighed down by the responsibility for all our thought and actions. This responsibility creates a feeling of both dread and exhilaration. Questioning an author’s authority was part of Kierkegaard’s method of indirect communication. He wanted to force people to decide for themselves, to make their own stand on issues affecting their lives. A good example of existentialism theatre dealing with anxiety and the absurd is Samuel Becketts play Waiting for Godot.

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Nietzsche used the word Übermensch to refer to his ideal human being and refers to the fact that we have to overcome traditional values, the herd mentality, and even overcoming ourselves. Instead of dreaming about life after death, overcoming helps humans embrace life on Earth here and now. Nietzsche also famously said that God is dead, but humans created God, not the other way around. God is very much alive and has been throughout times because this is our way of making sense of why we’re here. We created God to keep in contact with our original selves, which is not of this Earth, but this theory strays from philosophy into ufology and the paranormal.

According to Internet philosopher, Alexander Bard, the God of today is the Internet. God never dies. God is recreated. We live in a participatory culture, and together we’re recreating what it means to be human. Syntheism is online, a religion in the making as God is the Internet. In response to existentialism, Syntheism asks everyone to contribute to what it means to be human. Of course, if we spend all our time online, even in our online communities, we remove ourselves from reality.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky said: “If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible”.
We see what we want to see. We ignore what we don’t want to be revealed to us. When Descartes said, “Conquer yourself rather than the world” he meant that we should act without hope, but he didn’t mean we should live in despair; instead, we should commit to ourselves and the life we want to create for ourselves and those affected by our life choices. Sartre said there is only reality in action. We must act to be.

Simone de Beauvoir said that one is not born but rather becomes a woman by our choices. So we can choose to become heterosexual women and deny a bisexual nature or choose to be either gay, transsexual or asexual. Everything is natural, and we contain all possibilities, and this would explain why so many come out as who they really are when they are older; when they dare to choose according to one’s nature rather than the culture one has been born into, but in reality, we have no choice.

We are born with our sex, either male or female, but our brain is not a finished product, we evolve into what we become, and we can only become what we are meant to be. Still, we contain all the choices. Life is, therefore, a conundrum and an illusion. We can learn from philosophers and other believers, but ultimately our truth is what will sustain us. We ourselves give our lives meaning, and when we lose our purpose, when we like Albert Camus says, try to think of a reason not to kill ourselves, we can’t find those reasons outside of ourselves, not in philosophy or religion, but within ourselves. The only one that can save a human from ending their life is themselves.

There are many terms in existentialism one has to know to understand this philosophy. Absurdity is part of living. Humans seek purpose. Humans want to follow their passions and face obstacles; the world is not orderly and often not meaningful. Life is duality and, therefore, absurd. Alienation is another term and has nothing to do with being an alien. However, many humans feel as if they are here visiting from somewhere else, life itself has many layers of absurdity and one of the best ways of feeling less like a stranger is getting to know oneself. Being born poor and feeling like the victim of poverty is living in bad faith. In existentialism, there is such a thing as making a bad choice or bad faith. Sarte said that to live in bad faith is to deny our responsibility for our thoughts, choices and actions.

Existentialism talks about living an authentic life, and to do so, we have to align our words and actions with our beliefs and values. We have to become who we were meant to be. Critics of existentialism have said that it’s a dark and pessimistic philosophy with no hope. Some have argued that existentialism invites people to despair and nothingness. Some ask, if we have no purpose, what’s the purpose of the universe? This question is part of cosmological existentialism and goes beyond our human existence.
Existentialists believe in subjectivity as opposed to scientists who are always objective in their view of the world. There is no such thing as a bad person or a good thing; it is what we choose. The existentialist view supports the notion of “I feel therefore I am.”

The first-person perspective of the world is a valid view of the world according to existentialism, while science always sees people in impersonal, objective ways without emotions or regard for individual points of view. We have no purpose other than the purpose we decide for ourselves. We have to become non-professional philosophers; it’s necessary to become who we were meant to be. The most important thing in life is to get to know oneself; the most important dialogue is with oneself, not God unless God is self. We need to go within to find the truth. Existentialism states that we’re free to choose and act and therefore responsible for everything that happens to us; we can’t blame circumstances. We are what we have chosen to be. Depending on viewpoint, freedom is either absolute or situated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Tina Brescanu

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