Tag Archives: Existentialism

A Leap And A Precipice

When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing a title of my own: “Free Association.”

Recently I came across an article by David Orr, author of The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. According to Orr, Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road.

Frost, it turns out, was mocking Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, readers assume that Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.

We can’t experience a life we didn’t lead—we only know the path we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.

Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. A heavy smoker for over fifty years, he carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts. He was depressed but never diagnosed because a doctor might have the audacity to suggest he quit smoking.

My father died at age seventy in the hospital where I was born. Doctors assumed he had lung cancer, but we never found out because he refused any tests.

Naturally, I inherited his nerves. Three years prior to his death, I was hurting so much I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses, but it’s easy—when you think about it—to fit a bottle in your mouth.

There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.

Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down.

“This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”

He spoke from experience, having survived as a young man what doctors called a “break from reality.” In the days leading up to his hospitalization, he had visited different churches, determined to find his calling into ministry.

I don’t know if my father found God, but he did take solace in the poetry of Frost, Tennyson, Keats, Byron and Blake. A student of language, he conducted his ministry as a high school English teacher for thirty-two years.

He looks human to me now, but as a child I saw him as a larger-than-life figure of strength. I remember disagreeing with him many times about my choice of friends, but I also remember how hard he fought for me, like the time my bike was stolen. Acting on a tip from a neighbor, he confronted the kid’s parents and threatened to call the police. The kid confessed, apologized and never messed with me again.

These are the pictures I paint of him in poems and stories. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father—retracing his steps, repeating his sins.

Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. One of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, didn’t believe in fate. He argued that we must create our lives every day out of nothing. Without being consulted first, each of us was thrown into the world, and this thrownness throws us for a loop. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.

No stranger to mental illness, German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

To create my life out of nothing, I must, at every turn, risk my life. Faith—in myself, in my father, in God—requires both a leap and a precipice.

This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.

Whether or not we recognize our path, it’s easy to get lost in the woods.

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Master Of Fine Arts

For fun I google E.M. Cioran: “We are all deep in a hell, each moment of which is a miracle.”

A Tumblr page contains the line, along with other solemn notes. It’s the work of a woman—a tender soul/MFA candidate professing interest in:

poetics, critical theory, semiotics, poststructuralist philosophies, anti-essentialism, misanthropy, pessimism, introversion, & solitude.

YOUR PLACE OR MINE?

This gem, under “about”:

“I had always been aware that the Universe is sad; everything in it, animate or inanimate, the wild creatures, the stones, the stars, was enveloped in the great sadness, pervaded by it. Existence had no use. It was without end or reason. The most beautiful things in it, a flower or a song, as well as the most compelling, a desire or a thought, were pointless. So great a sorrow. And I knew that the only rest from my anxiety—for I had been trembling even in infancy—lay in acknowledging and absorbing this sadness.”

— Hayden Carruth, Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays

I’M HARDER THAN LIFE ITSELF—A TREMBLING INFANT.

I pen suggestive lyrics with her in mind:

a hummingbird
with nectar lungs
I catch her tears
upon my tongue

***
my head is crowned
for sweet repose
her highness perched
atop my nose

In a dream I lie beneath her feet, absorbing sadness.
“They won’t come clean,” she says. “See what you can do.”

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Cosmic Insignificance

Nietzsche on the nature of reflection:

When we try to examine the mirror in itself we discover nothing but things upon it. If we want to grasp the things we finally get hold of nothing but the mirror. This, in the most general terms, is the history of knowledge.

I could use the bulk of this post to conduct a close reading of the above quote, to pick apart its internal logic, illustrate its underlying tensions. But today I’ll concern myself not with what Nietzsche says, but instead what my choosing of this passage says about me.

Essentially I want to know why I’m drawn to philosophy in the first place and how this interest relates to my depression and anxiety.

Does a depressed way of thinking lead me to agree with Nietzsche that attempting to know something is futile? This sounds simple enough. My misery loves the company of Nietzsche’s pessimistic worldview.

In addition, does my anxiety recognize itself in Nietzsche’s thoughts on the impossibility of knowledge? Do I suffer from metaphysical hypochondria—the constant fear that reality isn’t real, that I have no self, that the world is an illusion? The vertigo of knowing that nothing can be known for sure? Makes sense. Afraid I’ll float away, I ground myself in doubt.

But the psyche is an ocean and so far we’ve only touched the surface. I argue that choosing this quote reflects a deep-seated existential angst that manifested itself long before any symptoms of my illness appeared.

I suffer from depression and anxiety because my entire being is engaged in an existential crisis, and has so since birth. My illness is both an expression of and response to this crisis. When I’m depressed I feel nothing because I am, at my core, Nothing. When I’m anxious I worry this Void will consume me.

Some people lift weights, get high or go to the shooting range as a means of coping with their cosmic insignificance.

I go to the library, where great minds thrive. And there I find Nietzsche. And there I find joy.

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Destined To Be Free

“We do not know what we want, and yet we are responsible for what we are.” –Sartre

“Freedom of choice
Is what you’ve got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want”
—Devo

A brief sketch of Sartre’s basic assumptions regarding human reality, as found in Ashley Woodward’s Nihilism in Postmodernity (Aurora: The Davies Group, 2009):

We are each of us lack. The fact that we desire proves that human reality is lack.

We create existential projects in an attempt to overcome this lack.

We want security and freedom. We want to be free to make choices, but we also want to be a secure foundation for those choices.

“God is a self-consciousness and the necessary foundation of himself.” We, however, did not create our being.

Man is that being whose project is to be God. Man fundamentally is the desire to be God.

But the desire to be God is futile; it cannot be realized.

Thus all of our projects are futile: “It amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.”

A possible path to overcoming nihilism: Sartre’s outline of “existential psychoanalysis.”

Human beings are motivated by the desire to be God when they are in unreflective or impure reflective states of consciousness.

At some point, in an unreflective or impure reflective state, we each make a choice regarding our specific project—but this choice is essentially the desire to be God and is thus futile.

We must create our own values, and freedom is the criterion that guides the creation of values. There is no God. There is no human nature. There is you choosing your life for yourself on your own terms.

Nihilism must be confronted in the personal life of the individual.

To be free, to be authentic, is to act, not simply think. Freedom is freedom only when it is exercised.

***

What interests me here is Sartre’s concept of the specific project. What is my specific project? As a child I wanted to be like my father, a high school English teacher. But I can’t handle the thought of teaching high school, mostly due to my severe depression and anxiety. My father was depressed. Did he teach me to be depressed? Was I bound to inherit my illness and thus not as free as Sartre imagines?

If I set out to be a teacher and then got sick, does this mean that my depression prevailed over the pursuit of my specific project? Can I create a new project? Is my life somehow doubly futile because I feel incapable of fulfilling my original futile project?

Is my project simply thinking about my project, the role of human suffering, the indifference of the universe, the fullness of my Lack? Am I not destined to write, to wonder, to philosophize?

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The Secret Time Won’t Tell

I’ve written many times about our inability to know the world, to understand and tame its restless energies. Often in this thought I’ve assumed a pessimistic tone, arguing that trying to know anything is futile. But that’s the coward’s way out. There are truths we can grasp; that most of the world remains unknowable does not mean nothing matters in the end.

This week I’ve been reading The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism, published in 1988 by Donald A. Crosby. Among the many facets of nihilism that Crosby examines, is the nihilist’s contention that nothing is certain and thus life is absurd and meaningless. Crosby concludes much of what I mentioned above, and he finds the nihilist’s perspective regarding the impossibility of knowing anything as shortsighted and dangerous.

Crosby discusses God a lot. He writes that, at least in the Christian tradition, people assign limitless knowledge to God. Humans are destined to search and search for answers, but we’re fundamentally incapable of finding everlasting truths. To illustrate why this realization need not lead us to despair, Crosby includes an insightful passage attributed to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing:

If God held all truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left the persistent striving for the truth, and while warning me against eternal error, should say, Choose! I should humbly bow before his left hand, and say, “Father, give thy gift; the pure truth is for thee alone.”

Say we suddenly knew everything. The Quest would end. There’d be nothing left to ponder. No mysteries to uncover.

The Truth is clever, elusive. Although silence is often the answer to my calling out, in my persistent striving I’ll keep listening for the Secret time won’t tell.

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Letting God Have It

Life is full of challenges, stressors, disappointments. What if I could leave everything—my depression and anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, unfulfilled wishes, guilt over hurting loved ones—in God’s hands?

“Here you go, God. You get my shit together.”

Of course this is pure fantasy. It’s a reflection of my desire to relinquish personal responsibility. A sort of letting go by letting God have it. God as the impossibility of God. My inability to unload the Burden. The bliss that never comes.

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A Real Page Turner

I remember from my childhood reading the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Instead of going in order from the first chapter to the last you could pick up a CYOA book and head in numerous directions.

On page 5, for example, you’d be presented with options: If you wanted to scale the mountain to avoid the bear, go to page 27; if you wanted to run into the forest away from the bear, turn to page 39, etc. Each choice led to another series of choices. Multiple outcomes existed; there was no straight line.

My life is its own Choose Your Own Adventure. I enter every day a world created by an Author other than myself. Options abound but no clear path presents itself. There’s always a bear to contend with.

I choose blindly. Sure, I can weigh options and consider where each might lead, but I’m deceiving myself if I presume to know what the future holds.

Sometimes I flirt with the idea of closing the book entirely. What’s the point in picking one path over another when all contain obstacles I might not overcome?

But then I gather myself. I believe in the promise of the story. I want to see how it ends, this book I’ve devoted my life to. My fingerprints smudge the corners, each page retains my trace. Choosing has no easy answers, but not choosing is out of the question.

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