What Is Existentialism?
Existentialism, in part, is a philosophy of contrasts. Many of its statements and beliefs seem to be based on contrasts. On opposites. On ‘different from the crowd’. For me, as a strong proponent of NVC, it would seem that existentialism would pose a very difficult position. Or does it?
Personally I am very comfortable with ‘opposites’ And I love contrasts. In textures, sounds, temperature, colour, people – everything. The very fact that everyone is both unique and yet the same is, to me, not just existential but also very much NVC.
That we are born alone and die alone is one of the existential core beliefs and if I am to be classified by that belief alone, then I am definitely no existentialist? This belief is the opposite of what I understand NVC (aka Non Violent or Compassionate Communication) stands for. Dr Marshall Rosenberg said: “We are born in relationship and this is how we live”. I would suggest that even in death we want our most loved and cherished ones by our side, holding our hand.
So much of what existentialists stand for and believe touches the very deepest part of me? I feel existentialist…
Back to contrasts, one of the things I loved most about growing up in the Middle East was the rich texture of contrasts: a camel ‘parked’ alongside a glossy Mercedes outside a palatial home in the desert; little fish swimming in the toilet bowl of an opulent marble bathroom in a mansion; rich colours in magnificent Persian carpets hanging on bits of old rope in a rag-tag marketplace; the smell of fresh roasted coffee in the same market; a skinny cow wandering about with her bell, in complete freedom, just one meter from the front revolving doors of a modern, bronze-glass hotel.
I feel an affinity with this ‘philosophy of contrasts’ based, it seems to me, on filling our needs in a way that is both realistic to us and exactly in alignment with our senses. In so many ways contrast shouts ‘freedom’ to me. In that freedom I find the respect and trust to address my needs in exactly the way I choose.
I very much enjoy my work and love the fact that my clients are all so very different. And yet there is so much we all have in common.
Perhaps what I identify with in existentialism is what seems to me to be a fierce need for autonomy? I know autonomy is ‘big’ for me and I see that it is for existentialists too. I guess the bottom line is that, like everyone else, I am a unique person with a unique needs blueprint – a thoroughly NVC belief – despite whatever labels society may choose for me?
Am I a new breed of existentialist? Someone who thinks ‘relationship’ – not least of all with myself – is equally as existentialist as being alone? An existentialist who needs relationships and every single one of of the precious needs I talk about with my clients. An NVC existentialist – with a twist of Imago and decorated with a bit of TOT!
Existentialism is a philosophical movement that came about in the late 19th century. It is not an abstract set of theoretical truths. Rather it is a no-nonsense philosophy that encourages you to take a hard look at your life and ask two essential questions:
1. Who am I?
2. How shall I live?
Existentialists believe: Wake up – right now – and start living authentically. I believe NVC offers us the perfect set of tools to do just this.
There is no particular school that offers a systematic account of existentialism. Its founders were fierce individualists who avoided labels, detested “isms,” and refused to be lumped into any group. (I feel my heart cheering…)
There is no grand philosophical system here. Essentially, existentialism exists at the intersection of the essays of Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre, the novels of Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoevsky, the religious writings of Soren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich, and the plays of Harold Pinter and even William Shakespeare (particularly Hamlet and King Lear). Clearly, existentialism is older than the term itself and has been lurking in the sidelines for a very long time.
The philosophy is based on six general themes:
1. Acceptance of the Absurd. Each of us drops unexpectedly into this world, in a universe where time — at least as we know it — has no beginning, no end and no pre-set meaning. It is an inexplicable mystery. This realization is hardly new, of course. Ecclesiastes kicks off with the words “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. What does man gain from all his labor and toil here under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3). Existentialists believe that it’s only when you confront the fundamental absurdity of life that you begin to live honestly.
2. Personal Freedom. Life itself may be meaningless, but you give it meaning when you begin making important choices. These, in turn, reveal who you are. With freedom of choice comes responsibility. Taking ownership of your decisions means not blaming your parents, your spouse, your teachers, or anyone else for the shape of your life. More responsibility brings greater freedom. And with it: hope.
NVC believes that everyone does the absolute best they can, with the tools that they have and, for me, fits right in with these themes.
3. Individualism. Existentialists are keenly aware that society continually pulls us toward conformity. There are immense social pressures to go along, get along, and live pretty much like everyone else. Existentialists challenge us to buck conventional wisdom, express your true nature, and follow your dream, whatever that may be.
NVC (and I) believe that if you address your personal needs, you will indeed buck conventional wisdom, express your true nature, and follow your dream.
4. Authenticity. Most people are so consumed by desire, guilt, fear, or anxiety about what other people think that they find it almost impossible to follow their true calling. However, it’s only when you begin to do what you want — and not what others expect — that you begin to live authentically. But expect resistance. Institutions want to mold you. Other people want you to go on their trip. It’s far easier to live unthinkingly as part of the crowd. Yet authentic individuals are in control of their own lives.
5. Passion. Being passionate and engaged is crucial. This doesn’t mean acting crazy or hysterical. Quite the opposite, in fact. Existentialists believe you should devote yourself to a cause, one that you’re willing to organize your life around, perhaps even die for. For Kierkegaard, that passion was the pursuit of truth. For others, it may be artistic expression, healing the sick, or building a business that employs hundreds and serves thousands. In all walks of life, you’ll find that passionate men and women are more purposeful.
6. Acceptance of Death. Life is finite. Yet existentialists don’t see this as a reason for pessimism. Facing death is what forces you to take life seriously, use your time wisely, and make meaningful choices. The conscious awareness that death will come invigorates life.
Nietzsche, the philosopher most closely associated with existentialism, refers to it as the noble ideal. Your life, he argues, is an unwritten book that only you can write.
Or, he says, visualize your life as a kind of artistic project, except that you are both the sculptor and the clay. This concept runs throughout existentialist works. Kierkegaard says “to exist is an art.” Martin Heidegger counsels us to learn to “dwell poetically.” All existentialists agree that life has the meaning you choose to give it. Sartre even declared that man is “nothing else but what he makes of himself.”
This view, once considered revolutionary, is fairly widespread in the West today although the Catholic Church, for instance, decided that Sartre’s ideas were so dangerous that it placed his entire works on the Vatican Index of Prohibited Books… Including those he hadn’t yet written!
Ideas can indeed be explosive and teaching that one should live life on your own terms and make your own decisions and life choices, rather than according to the dictates of the institution, was unthinkable. How could the Pope control his people if he was encouraging them to think and act according to their own hearts?
Existentialism is often thought of as the philosophy of freedom…
But what price does that freedom carry? Are you then tied to the beliefs of the existentialist dogma? Or – as I hope and believe – is there no such thing as existential dogma? Is true existentialism truly free?
No matter how things stand in your life today, one thing is scarily sure: you choose how to interpret your every situation. You choose how to respond. Doing nothing is absolutely a choice.
We cannot avoid the consequences of our actions — or inaction. We may get away with a mask but not forever. The naked truth seems to make many people profoundly uncomfortable: they don’t want to face up to the world as it is; they don’t want responsibility; it’s easier to blame others or traumatic circumstances or even just bad luck.
Existentialism is sometimes called “the no-excuses philosophy.” You may be old. You may be sick. You may be broke. You may be disabled. You may be a single mom. But existentialists say you start from where you are and move forward.
How? Sometimes we feel frozen and unable to move but if we take a deep breath, explore who we are we can accept our reality and tentatively begin to move again. Another existential ideal which is very NVC.
Growth is rarely easy. Pursuing authenticity requires continual and honest re-self-examination, Building your life – and ReBuilding it when your castle gets knocked down.
You find and understand things about yourself that you prefer – or certainly find easier – not to know and you face them anyway. It may cause discomfort or friction with those you love. Until you realize that, like you, they are also doing the best they can? We all have the same needs.
Inauthentic lives, by comparison, are shallow, trivial, and unsatisfying. They are often marked by the dogged pursuit of material goods, social status, or the approval of others. And yet I’m aware that, even in saying that, I am judging others and telling them how they ’should’ live? This is not my intention.
In many ways existentialism is a return to the roots of philosophy, a return to the ancients’ concern with truth, virtue, and the art of living well. Existentialism offers a guide to the perplexed. It shows us not just how to live, but how to flourish, how to create meaning in a senseless world. Those who reject this philosophy often do so not because they don’t understand it but because they can’t face it.
Existentialism provides a practical way of thinking about the world. It offers personal freedom and empowerment. For me it is the path, along with NVC, to dignity and nobility.
Like so many people – and very unlike the no-nonsense existential belief that life is finite – I’m aware that I fritter away so much of my time and put off until “someday” the things I really want to do today. Or is that just a part of the essential pondering and growing toward decision?
After all, to rush off ‘half-cocked’ would get us nowhere (and no gun will fire properly if it isn’t fully cocked).
An existentialist recognizes that each day, each moment, is precious and irreplaceable. Yet, as mere humans, we need to ponder? We need to get to know ourselves and address all of what we are? We need to think about (procrastinate?) what we are to do before we do it, or as my Dad taught me: “think twice, cut once”.
Are you a pure existentialist? Or perhaps you are a little more as I am – an existentialist with a heart that is also based in NVC and very conscious of the importance of relationships. Not forgetting, of course, that most important relationship with the yourself.