According to existentialist thinkers like Jean Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard, we are born into a cold and empty universe with no meaning. Consequently, when humans fully comprehend this void and isolation is when the "self" is born. The practice of living existentially is a parallel process of defining the essence of who we really are and accepting our unique place in the world.
Understandably, many readers will struggle with this concept, but one must remember that existentialism is nothing more than a philosophical orientation, a school of thought that has been around for a long time. Hence, let us examine it as such -- a subjective theory that is not necessarily meant to be taken literally. Tolerance of the many schools of thought that exist can deepen and expand our previously-held perspectives and may also help us understand each other better. Regardless of your education and background, "To grow wise, one must always remain a student."
Therefore, if we expand on this theory, and we are indeed thrust into a meaningless universe, then the "meaning" that we do give life is our own to give. However, early in childhood, the young mind is quickly influenced with prior meanings and systematically colonized with belief systems handed down from other generations, our parents, society, religion, the media, etc.
Reassessing ourselves in relationship to this prior meaning and cultivating our own personal self by choosing how we want to live and who we want to be is the essence of living existentially. Psychologist and author Dr. Irvin Yalom said, "Each of us must decide how to live as fully, happily, ethically and meaningfully as possible."
Search for Personal Meaning
Living existentially suggests that the search for personal meaning is never-ending. We are constantly asking, experiencing and transforming ourselves as we adapt to life's circumstances and as we relate to others. Life is not meaningful enough; we must give it meaning. In this ongoing search, we learn, grow and mature as we create our own reality. We do not adhere to fixed beliefs about ourselves, others and the world around us. Being human means discovering and making sense of our existence on a regular basis. We do not stop evolving as human beings and there is no destination to reach.
The insistence on self-awareness and its need to examine our life is what being human is about. Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
So, we stay in the inquiry and we challenge all the previous meanings and belief systems we have been raised with and start to formulate our own. But first we must know ourselves and understand our limitations as humans also. We must learn to adapt and struggle with forces beyond our comprehension. For instance, we are unavoidably subjected to loneliness, depression, guilt, fear, anxiety, etc., and we accept that awareness and act accordingly.
Taking personal responsibility for choices we make also forces the formation of the self because we stop blaming others and stop playing victim to circumstances. Hence, the self learns to define itself based on its own sense of agency. It does not rely on others to tell us what to do. So we are compelled to make authentic and independent choices because no one is going to do it for us. If we do let others do it for us, we are not living existentially and most importantly, we are not living into our true self.
Sartre said, "You are free to choose; in other words, invent. There are no signs in this world." And even if there are signs in this life, the truth is, we choose how to interpret those signs.
We are social and relational creatures. But identifying the self within interpersonal relationships is not easy to do. In other words, we cannot escape the interdependence we will always have with other human beings but we can forge a solid sense of self within that interdependence. If we cannot, we may become the sum of other's expectations of us or we may become victims of negative parental interjects that live inside us. We could easily become people pleasers and alter our personalities at any moment to fit it in to what family and society wants of us. Hence, we can indeed push for connectedness and intimacy while still maintaining core issues of self. The self acknowledges and respects the individualistic spaces that separate us as humans. The self understands where "I" ends and "you" begins.
Accepting Death as Inevitable
We are all aware that we will indeed die one day just like everyone else. For most, it is a scary and disheartening fact of life, one that people typically choose not to think about very often. But if the self is prepared to view death as a condition of living that inspires further awareness and positively augments the beauty of life, then death is merely a tool -- a value-enhancing step in life's journey.
Awareness of an end to our lives gives our lives meaning. It thrusts us into giving the short time we have on this earth significance and purpose. Knowing this helps us to appreciate our relationships, our careers and all the other good things in life better. Lastly, everything that we love and cherish in life, everything that we value with tremendous passion and gravity, is anchored only by the sobering awareness that we can lose it all very easily and quickly. Without this mortal fragility, these values would not be valuable and life would not be worth living.
Life As a Poker Game
According to this ideology, life becomes one big poker game. There are many different ways to play poker, but generally you begin by being dealt a particular hand of cards. The draw of these cards is of course random, so you have no control over what is handed to you. But, ultimately as the game progresses, you must choose to do something with the cards once you know what you have. Therefore, for the sake of the metaphor, let's imagine that the cards represent life circumstances:
For example, you could be born with a "good health" card or with a "chronic illness" card. You could be born into a life of privilege or a life of poverty or somewhere in between. You could be born into a family with abusive parents or into a family with kind and loving parents, etc.
Now again, what the self does with these life cards is totally up to you. For instance, you can bet, you can raise, you can bluff, etc., and (depending on the type of poker game you are playing), you can sometimes even discard a few cards and get new ones. Or, you can fold your hand and wait for the next round.
In addition, there are others playing in the game, too. You cannot see their cards and they cannot see yours. You must factor in who these other players are and perhaps what they might be thinking. You must consider countless possibilities and consequences based partly on your life cards and your in-game decisions in relation to the other players. Without the other players there is no game.
But remember, to succeed at poker or to live a relatively long life, you cannot only rely on lucky life cards. You may get a few good hands dealt to you here and there, but it won't last. There are no guarantees. The skill you acquire in playing your life cards wisely is the key to survival.
Tools for Living "Existentially"
I will accept that I will be forever changing and creating myself and that I will never be a "fixed" or foregone conclusion.
I will use mindfulness and active awareness skills to make conscious meaning out of life's experiences. I do have some control over my thoughts, feelings and actions.
I will take full responsibility for all the circumstances in my life by doing what I can to make them better today. There is no one to blame anymore.
I will be more aware of the choices I make today and accept that I alone, am the author of my destiny.
I will remember who I am in relation to others and be an authentic separate individual. I will differentiate myself from others and let them experience the uniqueness of who I am.
I will use the rest of my time in this life wisely and accept that the prospect of death is a concept that actually helps me live life more fully.
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