Existentialism as a philosophy offers an incredible wellspring of wisdom for living the good life. I found great solace in it in my late teens and early twenties and still return to it with great joy whenever I can. A recent article in The Marginalia (formerly Brain Pickings) has brought me back to the brilliance of existentialism by way of the great Albert Camus (1913 – 1960), one of the youngest writers ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
For Camus, the starting point of all life and all reflection is absurdity. Think about it, think about this big crazy world we live in. Think about the astronomical odds against our even existing. This planet, its perfect distance from a not-too-hot and not-too-cold star. The existence of water, carbon dioxide, and oxygen in just the right amounts. The rise and then death of the dinosaurs. And, in just the last couple hundred thousand years, a mere blink in the great geological timescale, the evolution of humanity.
Think, too, of the incredible meetings of all of our recent ancestors. The near-misses when our fathers, grand-fathers, or great grand-fathers were at war and the bullet or bomb just missed. The miracle of technologies and medicines that kept our forebearers alive and allowed them to meet. Then us.
How absurd. Or at least, how unlikely this all is. Yet, here we are.
Facing our Despair
Camus famously said, “there is no love of life without despair of life,” and noted that the natural progression from absurdity is despair:
Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful. An analysis of the idea of revolt could help us to discover ideas capable of restoring a relative meaning to existence, although a meaning that would always be in danger.
To back up a moment, the move from absurdity to despair might be clearer if we think about our search for meaning. For thousands of years, humans have held to one or another belief system that gives us meaning. The most common of these beliefs is monotheism: the idea that God gives us meaning.
But the existentialist says no, there is no god that got us here. We just exist. That’s the starting point. And along the way we might dream up a god or gods, but these come after the brute fact of our existence.
So facing our absurd existence strips us of the idea of a god who has created all of this for us. Thus, there is no meaning, at least not yet. Thus the despair.
However, as Camus says, out of this despair we can revolt (from a world that has given us a false sense of meaning) and find our own meaning. As creators of our own meaning, we grasp the immensity of the responsibility we have over our lives. While all that has brought us to this point is absurd, what we have now is a profound opportunity to see that past and to creatively mold our future.
Freedom and Unfreedom
Since much of the 20th century was dominated by devastating wars in Europe and beyond, the existentialist philosophers that emerged from the continent were deeply aware of humanity’s potential to become slaves of ideology. The ideologies that can control people are everywhere. The ideology of fascism or authoritarianism is an obvious one. But subtler ideologies act on us every day.
Perhaps you are good at a hobby like carpentry. Someone then refers to you as his “carpenter friend.” And over time you become known as the carpenter among certain people. You may even begin to think of yourself as “the carpenter.” Without consciously knowing it, you will have taken on an identity and all that comes with it. The identity and the stories around it can become quite fixed, so much so that if you injured yourself and were unable to do carpentry, you would be incredibly sad.
We form these identities and stories all of the time. They give us some security and direction in life. So they are not all bad. But they are problematic if we fail to realize that they are mere constructions. Whatever labels we have, whatever stories we tell, they are all made up. They all can change.
This is the opening of the doorway to freedom. When we realize that the future has an amazing openness to it, we awaken spontaneity.
A Mindful Conclusion
If you are lucky, you might be able to live in this place of open spontaneity all of the time. But most likely, something will happen that pushes you back into the ruts of pre-realization life. As a mindfulness practitioner and teacher, I’ve seen this countless times with myself and with students. Realizing that we don’t have to live within our stories and their limitations is an amazing and empowering thing. But forgetting happens, again, and again.
The best thing we can do is to take note of that feeling and the understanding it pointed us toward and to practice seeing our stories again and again as well. We’re never completely “free” of the absurdity of our world. Even if we come to grips with things as they are now, we must know that things will change. The ultimate good life from this perspective comes in developing adaptability to all of life’s twists and turns. When we can do this, we become the author of our own lives. Our pains become our teachers. Our setbacks become opportunities for the next advance.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.