An Easy Take on Existentialism for Your Inner Hipster
How should I live my life?
This is a question that was, is, or will probably be pondered by someone at some point in their life; which may be stated with other words and phrases as abstract as “What is the meaning of life?” or “Why do I need to be born?” to as concrete as “Which major should I choose for college?” and “Does money always bring happiness?”. Of course, nothing is wrong with that. Nothing is wrong about wanting life to have a purpose and importance.
As far as anecdotal evidence goes, the most and second-most popular answer to this question goes something along the lines of ”To be helpful to others, to be a good human” and ”To be authentic to oneself and to follow one’s passion”. While the former might be considered to be withering away in this time of history, the latter has been seen in many places, used as a justification to many contemporary arguments.
Other than the classic, coming of age, don’t-follow-money-follow-your-passion story, take, for instance, the transgender phenomenon. These are the people who sexually express themselves differently than the common idea of their corresponding birth sex. But why? More often than not, it is because they thought they are not supposed to be that way; they feel like they are trapped in the wrong body. It may be caused by genetic-hormonal factor and/or environmental, but it always causes some kind of dysphoria, a feeling of dissatisfaction of their life. They feel like they are not themselves.
But who are ‘themselves’? who are you?
The idea of authenticity commonly revolves around the idea of essence: that there are something within that correctly defines us. ‘Being yourself’ then, is to follow this natural self, one’s own persona, not mimicking someone else’s, despite of external pressure. This may sound obvious, but this doesn’t paint a clear picture of ourselves.
For one, you can’t deny the fact that what we are right now is partly influenced by others: how our parents raised us, what social environment we have faced in our life, etc. Sure, we have some control of it, which is the common focus when people talk about such thing: control over what to trust, what to believe, and what values to accept; but we can’t control what idea will be given to us in the first place. There will always be some external influence, some form of inauthenticity, that defines us.
There’s also the paradox of self-improvement: If I want to change myself such that I will be something other than what the world commonly refers to ‘myself’, am I being myself because the decision comes from within? Or am I being inauthentic because I’m not adhering to ‘myself’ as it is?
Some people then evolve this idea of essence not so much in a sense of discovery, but also in a sense of ordainment, which results in a grander and more abstract look of essence that is immune to such problems. Life is created with a certain goal, a certain telos, and it would be wise for us to honor it. Surely, the phrases “You’re born for something great” and “God has plans for you” alike are the most likely answer for someone asking for a motivation to live.
In the recent days however, such view of the world has become disfavored, as modern theories produced by the scientific method continually disturbs an antrophocentric view of the world.
Heliocentrism, an idea that is popularized in 16th century, has convinced the world that earth, the place that we live, contrary to popular belief, is infact not the center of the universe, a somewhat priveliged position in the general arrangement of the cosmos. It’s just one of many other equally ineteresting planet in the solar system, nothing inherently special about it.
Charles Darwin, in the 19th century, communicated the idea that by observing the remnants of ancient living being, it’s likely that they’re not just pop into existence. They evolve from one another, by the mechanics of random mutation and natural selection. In this picture, human is not a special, necessary being that has the power over the earth and thus inherently more special than any other being, we’re just another fork of the evolutionary tree.
The general advancement in the field of astronomy also contributed to this adage. As larger and more distant planets, stars, and galaxies has been discovered by modern sophisticated equipment, astronomers – professionals and hobbyist alike – continually feel how little and fragile we are, that we are just a ‘pale blue dot’ in the universe, as Carl Sagan says. The grandness of space from which also stems the belittling question “Are we alone in this universe?”, a question that can’t be conclusively answered yet and further remind us about how insignificant we are.
Unless you’re a true believer – that somehow someway life has some hidden truth behind it all – there’s an overwhelming argument that humanly existence is… nothing special. We’re here, right here, right now, and there seem to be no easy and comforting ‘why’ to explain it. We’re contingent and impermanent, a point of view that is very unpleasant for someone to hold.
Albert Camus calls this phenomenon The Absurd: the conflict between the human tendency to seek intrinsic meaning and the human inability to find any. Life, any life, however well regarded it is, is really nothing more than a representation of The Myth of Sisyphus, an ancient Greek myth of an Ephyrean King, who is condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain just to watch it roll back down so it can be rolled back up again, a symbol of the utmost futility of existence.
As abstract as it sounds, of course not many people are aware of The Absurd. Most people are happily pushing their boulder of existence without asking enough ‘why’ and strip the world of its prejudices. Either they’re satisfied with one of the many objective systems that tries to make sense of existence that they’re taught as a child or they never had an event that leads them to question things in the first place. But those who asks enough ‘why’ and received enough silence from the universe, who realizes that none of the explanations makes any coherent sense of reality, are deemed to meet face to face with The Absurdity of The World.
Realizing that the world is such an Absurd place is certainly not a pleasing experience, a dread that elicits an avoidance of it. Many people has used it as a justification for suicide: to escape The Absurd by ending existence in the first place. One realizes that all of the suffering in one’s life, was done in the name of nothingness. One realizes that life is not worth living and one might as well end it as soon as possible.
Many people also tried to deny The Absurd by creating a logical structure of truth in which the world is not Absurd, one whose truth value is dubious, and sometimes, so zealously held, it never got questioned in the first place. Maybe you believe in a metaphysical system like Karma, that all good and bad things in the world will be somehow avenged and acted upon you eventually, thus you must live in accordance to some morality. Or, maybe you believe in a cultural system that says things like it is the duty of a father to provide a financial means for the family and it is the duty of a mother to be around the house, because that’s how are things supposed to be.
This denial of The Absurd often leads to something very limiting, a feeling of must-ness, that things have to be a certain way, which often accompanied by the rationale ”I don’t have any other option”. It’s to say that one can’t change one’s major in college because it will ’waste’ the years that have been spent. It’s to say that one can’t spare the time for a hobby because one can’t neglect their works. It’s to say that one had no choice but to be competitive in a field to be successful, otherwise one will not be able to ’survive’.
However, the world is Absurd and we’re not infact limited by any guardrails that tells us how should we live our life, be it religious, capitalistic, cultural, or some concept of a normative personal identity, unless we say it so: that sometimes a criminal got away with their bad deeds and Karma ‘decides’ not to take action, that a father figure and a mother figure has little to do with their gender, that you can infact change your major, or spare enough times for anything, or do something without being competitive, with enough self-control and willpower, that the hobby – work dichotomy is something we arbitrarily impose to ourselves.
In the absence of any inherent logic in the world, we are condemned to be free. Even in an ultimate physical imprisonment, we’re free. We have the choice to either attempt to escape, use the time to reflect our life, or starve ourselves.
We shouldn’t escape or deny the world’s Absurdity, rather, we should try to accept it, as it is the gateway to the fullest way to live. Accepting that the world is indeed Absurd might suggest that you should just ’face the reality’ and accept the fact that everything we do is futile, but the voidness of the world also grants us freedom, an existential freedom to choose our own purpose, to decide what’s important to us, to decide what our life should be, subjectively.
This is a much more stable base to rest the ”What does it mean to live authentically?” question upon: It’s not to follow the fundamentally right path, it’s to realize that – as humans know it – there is no path and you are free to choose your own direction, be it the existing hard socially constructed path, a direction that only a few has headed into, or everything in between. It’s to live with existential freedom in mind, to scornfully accept The Absurd.
It doesn’t matter what you do, what matter is that it’s meaningful to you. You’re the ultimate determiner of your life and only you can evaluate its greatness.
One must imagine Sisyphus happy.