Existentialism is a branch of philosophy that gives more importance to the lived experience of people rather than any theoretical understanding of human life.
Paul Tillich, a Jewish American existential thinker, has described his brush with existentialism. He said he had read up a lot on existentialism, and he saw himself as an expert, but he truly became an existentialist only during the 2nd world war when he saw innumerable dead bodies of his fellow beings strewn all around him, and all his theoretical understanding of human life became irrelevant in that moment, and in that very moment he became an existentialist.” Existentialism is therefore about lived experiences and not speculations about human life.
It encourages us to look at the core issues which are difficult to grasp and come to terms with, rather than shirking away from them, the issues such as inevitability of death, loneliness, the absurdities and uncertainties in life, meaning in relationships, purpose of life, authenticity, freewill and understanding what a normal and a good life.
As opposed to many therapies where conflict resolution is seen as central to the process of therapy, existentialism sees the main problem that can cause stress as – not engaging properly with the outside world, and the job of a therapist is to help clients engage properly with life. For an existentialist human life is not about resolution of conflicts and achieve freedom from one’s symptoms, but to experience a new form of reality through enlarging one’s consciousness, and at times, as a result of it, one starts experiencing a deeper pain that they were avoiding.
According to existentialism many conflicts cannot be resolved on their own terms, something else emerges on the horizon, and the conflicts fall by the wayside.
It is about living fully and engaging well with life which can increase one’s happiness as well as distress, and the distress in this context is also seen as richness of human life.
However, the downside of this philosophy is that people start overindulging in their lived experience and in the exercise of their freedom without thinking deeply about the consequences of their actions and their yet to be lived experiences.
Existentialism believes that basically we are free human beings, and the limitations that we see in our lives are largely self-imposed. This freedom comes with the option of exercising one’s choice and how we respond emotionally to every situation, and we must assume responsibility for making those choices, rather than relying too much on our destiny.
Existentialism believes that we are fully responsible for who we are. We are the authors of our life. Who we are today, is a result of what choices we had made in the past and if we want things to be different, then we have to be very careful about what choices we are making right now.
Existentialism also talks about the limit conditions and the phrase used here is “thrown conditions,” which basically means that although we are free to act, there are certain constraints imposed on us because of our genetic make-up and the environment that we live in, but within those parameters we are free to do things. And If you are doing the things right, the parameters keep getting bigger and bigger.
The example given here is that of playing chess – when two players start off, the freedom to act is the same for both the players but if one player is not playing the game well, his freedom gets curtailed and eventually he may reach a point where his King is directly under threat.
In a similar fashion, if we are not playing the game of life well, then our choices will keep getting curtailed and we may reach a point where we may find ourselves in a prison, and if we still don’t exercise that freedom properly within the prison, we may end up in solitary confinement.
People often get caught up either by the idea of total freewill or total determinism. Determinism would mean that everything is governed by the law of cause-and-effect. What one person sees as his freewill can be seen by a determinist as the effect of some causes that had existed in the past and the person was not free to change the course of this cause-and-effect chain, and that cause in the past was also an effect of some other cause in the remote past. This line of thinking doesn’t leave much room for exercising freewill. Opposed to this, those who believe in freewill don’t want to see human beings just as machines that are responding to the external and the internal stimuli.
According to existentialism it is possible to integrate these two ways of thinking – it is possible that some of our fellow beings live their lives like a machine, they are governed by the cause-and-effect laws, and they don’t exercise the freewill that is available to them. Despite not exercising their freewill they can still lead a comfortable and normal life. It would be very much like robots or very sophisticated artificial intelligent devices that respond appropriately to all the situations and enable a system to function normally.
Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher, has argued that we do have, in addition to a fully functional automatic machine, a freewill which very few people exercise, and thereby they are able to change the direction of their destiny which was set out by their physical, mental and spiritual make-up. It’s like everything is governed by the law of cause-and-effect, but still human beings are given the ability to create new causes out of their freewill which will bring into effect new effects.
Existentialism also talks about inevitability of human suffering and understands human suffering in terms of the two broad categories: ontological and ontic.
The Ontological means its inbuilt in human life, it’s inevitable, it can’t be remedied because that is the default setting of human life and one must accept it; whereas ontic has been described as clinical, remediable, and something can be done about it and we must exercise our free will to correct it.
Following this argument, people have understood existentialism as nihilistic, as according to this philosophy, we cannot eliminate the negative forces from our personality completely. These negative elements and suffering are bound to be there, and we have got to accept it. This comes with the fact that we are human beings, one day we will die, our loved ones will die, life is uncertain, anything can happen to anyone at any time. No matter who one is, a good life is not guaranteed to anyone and many of us end up seeing our lives as broken, not complete. It can cause unhappiness if one doesn’t understand the definition of normalcy properly.
We normally assume that normal life means having a reasonable amount of money, caring and loving parents, supportive and understanding spouse, a well-paying job, a good house to live in, freedom from illness, and if that is missing, then we conclude “my life is not normal”.
We must understand that human life consists of thousands of different dimensions and it is difficult to hold onto all of them indefinitely. At some point, something will get broken. If someone’s life appears intact, perhaps you have not examined their lives under a microscope. We have examined our own lives under a microscope, and we can see all the blemishes and scar marks, but we haven’t examined others lives under a microscope and generally people don’t share all their personal painful details with others, unless one is a very close friend, and they are willing to self-disclose. As a result, you end up feeling “I am the one stuck here and everybody else seems to be getting on fine with their lives”.
Existentialism, therefore, makes us aware of the reality that from a worldly perspective we all must contend with broken lives, and if someone’s life appears intact to you, it’s as yet, it will get broken in due course in one way or the other.
Ontological suffering, be it anxiety, depression, loneliness etc., means that there is no remedy for it, and one has got to accept it. When it comes to loneliness, the gap is unbridgeable, no matter how hard someone else tries they can’t understand you 100%.
I have come across people who are always surrounded by relatives and friends but in a private conversation, when you have a heart-to-heart chat with them, they tell you that they have felt lonely.
As opposed to the ontological loneliness, there is also an ontic loneliness which can be remedied. If you are feeling cut off, not involved, or included and missing togetherness; you can seek situations where you will feel a togetherness and this loneliness will go away. In a similar fashion, there is an ontological sadness and an ontic sadness, and there is an ontological anxiety and an ontic anxiety. Therefore, one must make all possible efforts to eliminate the ontic sadness and ontic anxiety.
The clinical implications of this discussion are that sometimes clients take their ontological suffering, which is inevitable, as ontic, and start looking for it’s causes and remedies. In this process they start finding faults with their circumstances and people in their life. On the other hand, there are people who see their ontic suffering, which is remediable, as ontological and do nothing about it. I’ve come across several clients who suffer from significant anxiety and depression but seek no treatment assuming this is how life is and should be. I must admit here that this distinction is not as clear-cut as I have made it out to be. Sometimes there is a big overlap between the ontic and ontological.
The ontological can get compounded by the ontic and vice versa.
Existentialism also discusses the absurdities and uncertainties in life, but instead of seeing them as problems that should be remedied, it sees them as something that must be understood better and worked with.
Now I would now like to discuss some other specific issues in relation to existentialism.
Existentialism describes the concept of freewill further in terms of the concepts of essence versus existence.
A common example that is given within the existential literature is that of a chair, and they encourage us to think of the first chair that was made in this world. Before that chair came into existence, its blueprint was there in someone’s mind, that blueprint has been described as the essence and the chair as the existence of something. For human beings, the word essence will therefore mean – the plan, the grand design, the calling, the purpose of our being here in this world.
According to many religions and schools of thought, we have come to this world with a certain purpose and have been given certain specific gifts that others may be lacking. We must figure out our calling and act in accordance with it using those gifts.
Existentialism on the other hand believes that we exist first, and it is given to us to choose our own calling or the purpose of life. There are no grand designs, no blueprints, no tracks to be followed. Our journey on this plant is not that of a road trip or a train journey. It is like the flight of an eagle; we can choose our own path.
According to existentialism, we are not a creation but a creator. We have the spark of the Divine that makes all the important decisions, and we should become aware of that, and act accordingly. To put it differently, we are nothing else but what we make of ourselves. This can be explained further by giving the example of a father-son story.
Believing that essence comes first would be like – a father giving money and a flight ticket to his son and asking him to go to a particular place; for example, Australia and he will meet a person there who will take him to a cattle farm, and he can run that cattle farm if he wants to, and he will be introduced to a girl and if he likes that girl, he can marry her. Whereas existentialist would say there is no father, and there are no plans for you. You create your own plan, you ring your bank manager and find out how much money you have got, and you decide whether you want to go to Australia to run a cattle farm, or go to London to run a café, or to Los Angeles to work as a musician.
Another important issue that existentialists discuss is authenticity, which means our thinking, speech and conduct is consistent with our inner reality. One is true to one’s inner self, there are no false fronts, and it is more than just being truthful. According to existentialism, its very important for people to become authentic and in the long run, it will help them manage their stress better.
If I am speaking the truth, I may find that in the short-term my stress has increased, but in the long run it will protect me from more stress. Secondly, in order to speak the truth, I will have to muster some courage and the fact that I have been able to speak the truth means that I have already become a stronger person. People may not agree with you when you are speaking the truth but eventually, they will come round and realise that you were right, and that will help you in your relationships with other human beings and will bring less stress in future.
Moving onto relationships, existentialism gives a lot of importance to relationships. According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French philosopher, we are connected with other human beings the way our hearts are connected with our limbs, and we are generally not mindful of this deep connection.
If there’s any problem in relationships, and we can’t cope with it, we break off with our fellow beings, not realizing that our relationship with them runs much deeper than any difficulties that we see in the relationship. It’s therefore better to solve those difficulties with our best possible efforts over a reasonable period of time, and let go of the relationship only after that, if things are still not working.
Jean-Paul Sartre, another French philosopher, saw relationships differently. According to him, hell is the other people, which means that when you relate to others, you take their existence into account and care about them; you end up curtailing your own self-interests and self-care, you cannot be true to yourself and in a way, become less authentic to yourself.
To give a mute example, if a mother is looking after her family, it may come at the cost of looking after her own self, or if you have a guest come over and stay with you, you are not free to act in accordance with how you would like to be in your own house. Hence, you are losing some authenticity.
Martin Buber, a German American theologist, on the other hand, saw human relationships in terms of two broad categories I-It and I-Thou. According to Martin Buber, we lose authenticity if we are in an I – it relationship, but we gain authenticity if we are in an I – thou relationship. He explained these two categories of relationship further. According to him, I – it relationship means that we are using the other person as a thing, it’s more like a business transaction, if they’re useful to us we want to know them, and if they’re not, we don’t acknowledge their existence. He said If one is in I – it relationship, they lose authenticity; it doesn’t matter whether one is the abuser or abused, a victim or a victimizer.
A victim who has assumed the role of a victim, deep inside he doesn’t want to be a victim; and a victimiser, if he reflects deeply will find that deep inside he doesn’t want to be a victimiser, but he has chosen to be one due to his own lack of compassion and selfishness. Both parties lose authenticity in an I – it relationship.
Martin Buber talks about a different kind of relationship where you have a positive regard for other human beings, and you want to treat them in a friendly manner and as equals. If you have that attitude towards other human beings, you become more authentic because that is who you are deep inside of your consciousness.
We can understand relationships in a different way as well, which I normally call – the default setting of relationships.
There are two ways of understanding this default setting. Number one – Togetherness and second – separateness.
According to the default setting of togetherness, there should be feelings of togetherness in relationships and that is normal. If that is missing, then that is not normal.
On the other hand, if you take separateness as a default setting, it will mean that we are all alone, we were born alone, and we will die alone. Every relationship has its boundaries, beyond those boundaries we are all alone, nobody can understand us 100% even if we lived with them around the clock. We can’t understand other human beings 100%, the gap is unbridgeable. That brings a sense of aloneness and separateness. If we see separateness as a default setting, then the selfish acts of other human beings will not disturb us, but when we see love, affection and care, and true love which also exists, then that will make us happy, and we will see that as a boon. True love also has its boundaries and beyond those boundaries we are alone.
Contrary to this, if we see togetherness as a default setting, then any show of love, affection and care may not make us happy as we will take that for granted. But any sign of selfishness from others will hurt us.
It is therefore better to see the default setting of our relationships in terms of separateness, and we can enjoy our togetherness with fellow human being better.
© Kishore Chandiramani, Consultant Psychiatrist
Emotions Clinic, Education and Training Centre Cic, Staffordshire, England