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Making Existential Concepts Accessible to Everyone
Anyone who has struggled with the concepts of existential philosophy will appreciate the difficulty of applying it to their own life. The writings of Nietzsche, Sartre or Heidegger for example, even if they are original and innovative, are complex and difficult to understand. His ideas also challenge the premise on which much of Western thought is based. Nietzsche declared that “God is dead” leaving him to find meaning beyond a supernatural power. Sartre suggested that “Existence precedes Essence” and that we are free to create ourselves in any way we want. Heidegger, unlike Cartesian dualistic ideas, offered the concept of Dasein – we are an existent, “thrown” into a world not of our choosing and challenged to respond to the Call of Consciousness – to engage authentically with what it is “being”. ‘.
So how can existential philosophy be of relevance to us in the 21st century and more specifically to the complex juggling act in most of us? To answer this question, it is useful to examine a number of existential themes, for example, freedom and choice, anxiety, responsibility, authenticity and the last concerns. However, these are words used in our everyday language but with different existential meanings. So how can we understand their existential meaning when the original writings are often inaccessible?
I tried to convey these concepts in a direct and accessible way through the language of Myths. For many of us, the concept of Myths has mystical connotations and is understood in an allegorical, legendary or fabulous way. This is not how I offer Myths, but as unquestioned assumptions that influence every aspect of our decision making. Myths are therefore pervasive, fictitious, made up, made up, simulated or false. In our social and cultural world, we are bombarded with expectations and pressures of how to dress, what to eat, what career to pursue or how to relate to other people. We are constantly told what to expect as we enter different stages of life, as if each of us were no more than members of a cloned group. We can, of course, choose how we respond to these expectations. We can conform, withdraw or act as individuals or institutions to bring about social change. However, those unquestioned assumptions are so pervasive that we can never break away from their stronghold and consider our choices beyond a narrowly defined set of options. Our culture and socialization prevent us from exploring the wide range of options available. Rousseau said: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.”
Thus, the existential meanings of choice, freedom, anxiety, responsibility, and authenticity require interpretation at a level that makes sense in our daily lives. Let us briefly explore the following eight Myths and the existential themes they suggest.
- The myth of identity – “If you want to be happy, you have to conform to other people’s expectations and be someone other than who you want to be”
- Myth of selfishness – “You are selfish if you put your needs before those of others”
- Myth of the group – “It’s better to be part of a group than to be an individual”
- Myth of commitment – “You can’t change things in your life once you commit to them”
- Myth of certainty – “There are certain things in life that are fixed and solid and can always be relied upon”
- Myth of morality – “There is an indisputable moral code by which I should live my life”
- Myth of dishonesty – “I must be discreet and modest in all my interactions rather than honest”
- The myth that you can’t change – “Earlier choices in my life mean that future change is not an option”
Each of these Myths, and others, impinges on our daily life and limit our choices. Each of them deserves further explanation and discussion in its own right, with some that are happy and possibly causing strong reactions in you.
The two central themes underlying these Myths are Freedom and Choice. By engaging with our freedom and realizing our choices, anxiety and responsibility arise. Faced with the ultimate concern of our own mortality, our limited time on this earth means that we must make choices and we will never know the rightness of those choices – especially if we accept that no moral code exists in its ultimate form .
A central theme in existential philosophy is that there is an objective reality into which we are born and which exists separate from ourselves (Kierkegaard 1954, Nietzsche 1938). So we climb into a belief that we are no free and unable to create who we want to be – our social and cultural Myths dictate the reality of our lives. Sartre (1948) says that we act in Bad Faith in an attempt to deceive ourselves that we are not free. We try to build numerous structures through roles, norms, cultures and beliefs to define our sense of reality – to give the illusion that there is a plane that we fit into and belong to. As Van-Deurzen (1997, p 46) says: “It is the basic ability to deceive oneself, to shake oneself from sleep, to be content with illusions; the basic human realization of self-deception; bad faith or bad faith’.
So how can existential philosophy be of relevance to us and our lives as professional women? What are our choices and how can we live with the anxiety of challenging the status quo or questioning the justice of our decisions? We have to live in the social world and consider others and the rules that allow us to realize our choices. The problem is not to refuse everything that is expected of us – the problem is that we have a choice. The question is whether we challenge unquestioned assumptions, expand our choices and live with the anxiety that implies a meaningful life.
The validity of our choices is often questioned when we become disillusioned with our lives, despite having achieved many of the things we dreamed of. We long to have it all, but we find it increasingly difficult to juggle our work, our children, our homes and our health! We believe that if only balance could be struck between the different areas of our lives, we could relax. Invariably, this balance is never achieved and we become observers in our lives, wishing for the day when everything will improve.
The question is “What do each of us really want from our lives?” The Myths of Society often result in us choosing from a limited range of available options – it is assumed that “having everything, but in balance” is the way forward. Maybe it isn’t. Perhaps the parts that make up the budget were never questioned. Perhaps this is the reason why many women lawyers are now leaving the profession. The different parts that make up the whole cannot be easily juggled! Perhaps we never take the time out of our busy lives to examine the full range of options before us? We choose from a narrow range of choices on offer, but never stop to think to think “outside the box” and create the life we want.
As an existential psychotherapist, I believe that each of us is the best judge of what is right for us. However, by examining the role of Myths in our lives, we can expand our options, reconnect with our choices and judge the justice of them. My own practice, informed by existential principles, offers the opportunity to develop a vision of what your ideal life would be. This provides a criterion against which all future decisions can be based – the question “Will this contribute to me realizing my vision?” keeps you on track.
However, accepting anxiety as an inevitable part of committing to our choices is an existential reality. Rollo May (1975: 21) says “Commitment is the healthiest when it is not”. without doubt, but in spite of of doubt Believing it fully and at the same time doubting it is not at all a contradiction: it presupposes a greater respect for the truth, an awareness that the truth always goes beyond everything that can be said or done at any moment.”
MANN, CE (2005) The myths of life and the choices we have. Australia: Koromiko Editions
MAY, R. (1975) The courage to create. USA: Norton
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