Existentialism and Genuinity

Don’t let anyone take away your right to be free – especially yourself

I must admit – the depth of my knowledge on existentialism before beginning to write this blog was pretty thin. I’d read The Outsider by Albert Camus, and loved the Absurdity of it. The way the lead character Meursault just ghosts through his life unflinching and uncaring when it’s basically being wrenched from under his feet, with a complete lack of concern for… well, anything, was powerful and poignant. I genuinely revelled in its hopelessness and found it strangely alluring. Based on that, and the common misconceptions I had of existentialism (roll-neck sweaters, long, thing European cigarettes, drinking coffee all day in Parisian cafes, moody and hopeless questioners of the point of existence – actually, some of that is spot on), I never bothered to dip my toes in those particular waters.

More to life than Thanatos

I loved Freud, Lacan and their psychoanalytic determinism and I felt they had all the answers I’d ever needed – philosophically speaking. But some time later (a good ten years) I was given a book about the key players in existentialism by my mother and father in law – Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Cafe – and I suddenly stumbled upon a newfound appreciation of the philosophy. In fact, it was bigger than that – much bigger. I’d always had a pretty positive outlook as a kid and in my uni years. And while my experience of work (sports journalism) was different to many of my friends (in that I enjoyed it), some of my philosophical leanings had possibly turned a bit bleak.

Even when I say that, I’m not entirely convinced my outlook was always THAT bleak, but when having conversations with my wife Pru about the biggest question of them all, I would suggest the meaning of life was death (or more accurately Freud’s Thanatos – the salmon swimming back upstream to die/humans seeking the state of inertia and peace they had before birth into the big, wide world of signs, symbols and Sartre). I also once told her that I couldn’t see humanity lasting another 200 years due to the accumulation of so many instruments of mass destruction – with Donald Trump at the helm we might be lucky to see out another 20! I also cited the threat of killer diseases as another reason for my grim forecast – but I was only being honest – and thus pessimistic (I can be a terrible pessimist and actively chastise the football team I support more than I ever praise them).

Sartre saves

Having said all that, I always retained faith in the inherent goodness and compassion of humanity (which I have previously suggested comes from our inner life force Genuinity) and I certainly wasn’t expecting existentialism to divert my thoughts on the future towards a brighter outlook. But that’s exactly what it did. It pointed me back in the direction of seeking out and defining a more positive philosophy for myself (and the whole bloody world to be honest). It wasn’t a depressing, moody, non-life affirming way of thinking at all – it was the exact opposite. At least it certainly was for Jean-Paul Sartre in his earlier years. When I say early years, what I mean is that Sartre always felt compelled to stick up for the small guy against the bigger, oppressive bully types. It’s just that his mantra became increasingly tolerant of violent revolution, and retribution, in his later years and that probably belies his true socialist (though not particularly harmonious) leanings.

However, what made Sartre so important, what makes Sartre so important and what will always make Sartre so important is that his existentialism championed the following traits for people acting in ‘Good Faith’: choice and responsibility. A successor to a school of thought and ideas that began with Soren Kierkegaard, Sartre (and Kierkegaard before him) believed that ‘to be’, as existents, we are free – free to make choices. And we had to be responsible for our choices. When we tried to avoid making choices or shunning that responsibility (because, let’s face it, life is hard), Sartre suggested we acted in ‘Bad Faith’. He gave the example of a waiter who, rather than just BE himself, acted in the manner of a waiter, gesturing and performing in a waiter-type manner, presumably to give off the illusion that he was good at ‘being a waiter’. But for Sartre, this kind of almost ‘lying to oneself’ or ‘denying your true self’ was no good. Of course, existentialism began with Kierkegaard, a man who had a lot to say about Anxiety and Dread. For Kierkegaard, dread and anxiety plague the free individual – once we come to terms with the magnitude of being responsible for our own choices and their consequences and possibilities, we truly exist. But is there any escape from this?

It’s easier to pass the buck

It is those anxieties which often make it so difficult to avoid Sartre’s Bad Faith. Often the road of least resistance seems the most favourable, and that means shunning responsibility, avoiding big choices. This route of escape offers the ‘sufferer’ security and certainty. Often it’s easier to just pass the buck. Let’s just think about freedom for a second – because it’s an immensely powerful thing; it’s liberating but can ALSO be constrictive. Suppose your hiring a new assistant at work and your boss tells you that you can have the final say on who you choose to employ. That sounds pretty good without too much thought, doesn’t it? You can get exactly the type of character you want – someone you believe is capable of doing the job and also someone who you reckon you’ll likely get on with. But with that freedom of choice, one only needs to start considering the wider implications with a tad more depth before things begin to unravel and it becomes an existential minefield.

Say you have two candidates – one seems confident, outgoing and well qualified; the sort of person who would settle in well to your team. Then there’s the other candidate – they’re much more introverted and seem to be lacking a bit of self belief, but they’re even more qualified and actually very witty, humorous and likeable, but in a weird sort of a way which you’re not sure you co-workers will appreciate. You might weigh up the pros and cons of each candidate for a while and then decide that you think the first candidate will be a better fit for the team. And that’s your choice – your boss has already made that clear, so you’ve assumed the responsibility and made a decision. Good for you. But, hang on a second, what about that second candidate. The nervy one. They did have a lot to offer as well. And they did seem to be quite desperate to get the job. And you get a feeling when you spoke to them – that maybe they might be the sort of person who may not take rejection all that well. In fact, they sort of seemed to have an air of someone who might suffer from depression. Oh no, what if they really needed that job to make some late credit card payments – or maybe they just needed someone to finally give them a break? Oh man – what if they end up hurting themselves? Have I made a mistake here? Should it even matter what the rest of the team think of who I employ, as long as they do a decent job? You know what, on second thoughts, I’ll just let my boss take the lead on this one – they can decide who we hire.

And there it is – that’s how easy it is to suddenly become crippled by anxiety, weighed down by one’s conscience, and opt for an act of Bad Faith. It’s too hard to make that call, it’s too much responsibility, I can’t bear the potential consequences so I’ll just shift that responsibility onto someone else. See – acting in Good Faith isn’t that easy after all, is it?

Authenticity

You need to take responsibility to be what and who you WANT to be. You have the power, you make the choices and, when you do decide to take on that responsibility and make your own choices, Sartre said you become ‘Authentic’ – you act in Good Faith. To exist is to choose. And every day of your life is full of choices, both immense and important and minuscule and (almost) irrelevant (seemingly anyway).

Just think about taking a shopping trip with a friend with low self esteem. Perhaps they want to buy a shirt which they love but it looks bad on them – it’s ugly, too tight and the colours don’t suit. What do you do? Tell them the whole truth and almost certainly hurt their feelings? Tell them a few white lies and try to sway them from buying it? Or just avoid telling them your thoughts and let them do what they want – as it’s their choice anyway. Even a simple (let’s face it, comparatively mundane) problem like this throws up all sorts of opportunities to act in Bad Faith. In fact, it’s arguably impossible to figure out exactly how to act in Good Faith in this instance. I would suggest, that if you’re friend asked for your honest opinion on the shirt, the only way to act in Good Faith would be to give your honest assessment and tell that whole truth. And I think it would be hard to criticise anyone for their honesty in such circumstances – there is real bravery and honour in such an act. Your friend wanted your honest opinion – and you truly valued their friendship. So they deserved your honesty. You took the responsibility of telling them the truth and you made a difficult choice, even though it probably wouldn’t have benefited you in any way.

Listen to your inner voice

It is at times like this that thinking about Complex Niceness and Genuinity can help to work through such social minefields. This person is your friend – and you don’t want to hurt them. That compassion flows from your Genuinity. And you should listen to it. Let it inform your decision-making process. This is when Complex Niceness enters the equation – when you apply reason and a priori knowledge to those compassionate inner-self feelings. Is there a middle ground to be found somewhere between being honest AND sparing your friend’s feelings? What do you know about them? What sort of a character are they? What’s their essence? Do you think they could accept a harsh truth? Does it benefit them to even receive complete honesty from you in this circumstance? One solution might be to simply find some other shirts that you think would look good on them, and suggest they try them on? Follow your Genuinity and apply Complex Niceness to find a solution that works for what you believe is best. There are no right answers with this sort of thing – but acts of Good Faith are to be commended, even if they don’t always lead to everyone being happy with the outcome.

My personal feeling is that taking responsibility and being honest in these kind of situations is admirable. And that people who act in this kind of way deserve respect for their courage – if those actions are also guided by acts of Complex Niceness derived from one’s Genuinity, then, whatever the outcome, you should at least be able to reconcile with the fact that your intentions were compassionate. This would be a good time to quote the founder of Taoism – Lao-Tse, who (supposedly – no-one really knows for sure) wrote: “From caring comes courage.” I like this notion – and others taken Benjamin Hoffman’s The Tao of Pooh – such as the idea that ‘those who have no compassion have no wisdom’; that knowledge and wisdom are different things – knowledge doesn’t care, wisdom does. Plus the fact that the Latin word for heart is cor – suggesting that courage and compassion are synonymous.

A practical guide for living in the moment

What’s so great about Kierkegaard, Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and many of the other existentialists and phenomenologists, is that they wanted their philosophy to have a direct impact on the way we live our lives – in the moment. Now. Kierkegaard in particular sought a practical guide for living our lives – he insisted that truth is subjective and that we are accountable to our own choices and what we make of our existence. To have a wife or no wife – family or no family? To participate in the expected ‘norms’ of your societal peers or lurk in the shadows as an outcast? Kierkegaard saw these societal expectations as illogical and neither more rational than the other. Forced by inadequacy and despair – we are in a state of paradox – a crisis that needs to be resolved. Well, Complex Niceness, Pure Niceness and Genuinity can help to resolve many of these crises – although they can never rid one of the troubles of anxiety. That’s just part of humanity’s hard-wiring I’m afraid.

The point is – existentialist philosophy can be a force for Good. Rather than opting for acts of Bad Faith, shunning our freedom and rejecting responsibility, we can choose to be politically active. We can reject inaction and passivity and choose to consider the feelings of others – we can choose to stick up for the little guy. We can choose to be kind, compassionate and Nice. We can choose to take responsibility and we can use our Genuinity to guide us.

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2 thoughts on “Existentialism and Genuinity

  1. Thanks for your interesting analysis of the (often-neglected) ways in which the existentialist perspective can foster true hope and concern for human dignity. It is of course no accident that Sartre’s famous defense of existentialism, delivered October 29, 1945, was dubbed “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” What is perhaps more interesting, and perhaps far more telling, is the unexpected ways in which Sartre et al.’s philosophical ideas fostered other ‘humanistic’ endeavors.

    For example, in 1959, Harold Fey asked various thinkers and public figures to write an essay “reflecting their intellectual and spiritual development over the past ten years.” In response to this request, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. crafted “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” In this essay, while addressing a myriad of influences on his own intellectual/spiritual trajectory, King explicitly cites existentialism as a significant component of his education which woke him from his Kantian “dogmatic slumber.” King notes: “I became convinced that existentialism…had grasped certain basic truths about man and his condition that could not be permanently overlooked.” Further: “Its understanding of the ‘finite freedom’ of man is one of existentialism’s most lasting contributions, and its perception of the anxiety and conflict produced in man’s personal and social life as a result of the perilous and ambiguous structure of existence is especially meaningful for our time.”

    I think that King is here emphasizing, as you have above, the profound interplay between the individual recognition of freedom and the attendant responsibility, not merely to the integrity of one’s own identity, but equally to the identity and dignity of all of the other individuals with whom one exists. Or, as Albert Camus noted in The Rebel to summarize his recognition of the Absurd as a shared human condition: “I rebel—therefore we exist.”

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    1. Thank you Steven for such a wonderful comment. You’ve captured the ‘essence’ (couldn’t help myself) of my thoughts perfectly there.

      The Dr King stuff is fascinating – I think Sarah Bakewell mentions it in her book At The Existentialist Cafe, which I’d really recommend if you haven’t read it.

      It’s just a shame people have clouded views over such amazing areas of thought like existentialism and (I think) psychoanalysis, as I believe there are so many things embedded in these disciplines that can help us live us better lives if we embrace them. I guess that’s part of the point of my blog.

      Thanks again for your assessment – it was a pleasure to read.

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