Column: Why existential thought is liberating

Columnist Hunter Bassler on why we should embrace the flexibility of life.

All of religion, no matter the infinite amount of differences, stand by a rallying cry. From Buddhism to Satanism, all religions claim that the essence (the nature) of a thing is more essential and unchanging than its existence (the mere fact of its being). This is simply stating that, even before we come into existence, we possess inherent identities and values; an individual cannot define itself. This idea is present in every religion. However, there is one school of thought that goes against this line of thinking. That belief comes from a philosophical theory called existentialism.

Existentialism was created by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre was the first to state the fundamental existential doctrine that “existence precedes essence.” Existentialism was built around a number of key insights.

The first insight is that things are weirder than we think. Existentialists pay special attention to the moments where the world reveals itself to be far stranger and more uncanny than we believe it to be. These are the times where the logic we rely on daily fails us and when the world becomes amazing and/or terrifying because we simply do not have the capacity to understand what’s going on.

When we go about our day-to-day lives, we take our existence as a given. Most live through life on autopilot, going through their routines without thinking about them. Existentialists question this.

The second insight is that we are free. Acknowledging the first insight is disorienting and scary, but Sartre wants to propose these to us for one reason — their freeing aspects. Life is a lot odder than we think, but it also is a lot richer in possibilities. Things do not have to be how they are.

In existentialism, as one becomes closer to realizing just how free we are, the individual faces what Sartre calls the “anguish of existence.” This feeling is characterized as the realization that everything is terrifyingly possible because nothing has a preordained purpose. Humans are just making it up as they go and are free to be free at any moment.

The last insight is that we shouldn’t live in bad faith. Sartre characterizes “bad faith” as living without properly embracing freedom. We are in this state whenever we tell ourselves that things have to be a certain way and shut our eyes to other possibilities. Whenever we think that we have to do a certain job, be with a certain person or make our home in a given place, we are living in bad faith.

Existentialism prides itself on believing that things don’t have to be the way they are. It flourishes on the unfulfilled potential that we have as individuals. Existentialism teaches us to accept that existence is fluid and encourages us to create new outlooks, habits, institutions and ideas.

As with religion, there are many branches of existentialism that go more in-depth with existence as a whole. I will be touching on these in future columns, but the most important thing to understand is the basis of this thought process. The thinking that life does not have some preordained meaning and is not inherently logical can be a feeling of relief when we feel oppressed by tradition and the status quo, and that is exactly what existentialism offers us.

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