Ah, existential questions. Those rising, dreadful things that strike at you in the dark moments of tragedy or introspection and strip away the fleeting illusions of life revealing the truth of absurdity. We have all been there. Most brush those questions aside, but they are there. Lying dormant in the long grass of the mind, waiting to pounce when you least expect, like my goddamn cat who leaps out to scratch the back of my leg when I am walking down the hall.
I know why people avoid these questions. They are powerful and terrible and downright earth shattering when we happen to stumble across some less than desirable conclusions. But they don’t have to be. They can be some forceful motivators for taking responsibility and action in your life.
So let’s look at 3 questions that are at the heart of our existential fears and that deserve the opportunity for an answer that won’t make you weep when you consider them.
Now, I want to make one thing clear before we start, while I am drawing on the extensive knowledge I have in regards to Existential philosophers and Existentialism in general, I am drawing more deeply from my experiences of and in the world. That is the root definition of existential after all. The word existential with a small e just means those things that relate to existence. And that is how I will be handling these questions. A little academic and a whole lot of experience. I hope that you will consider them the same.
What is the meaning of life?
Follow along with me because I am going to get really depressive and bleak to start, but I pick it up at the end. Ok. What is the meaning of life? Well. The truth is, life has no meaning. It has no quality of meaning inherent to its existing. There is nothing essential of life that can be pulled out of it and used to validate your reason for living.
Now, while nothing can be pulled out of life to reveal its meaning, you have an opportunity to put every fucking shred of what you want in to life and create a fucking mountain of meaning.
That’s the thing. We look for meaning in life and when we grab at that whisper thin tendril of smoke that we think is going to be the meaning we want it disappears in our grasp. We are trying to grab at phantom things. And that grasping gets us hurt. It makes us doubt the point of living. It makes us doubt the meaning of everything. But here’s the thing, we just have to realize and accept the fact that there is nothing hiding behind that curtain of life except for what we end up putting there.
Now there is an amazing amount of freedom and value in that fact. Think about it. You get to decide in every moment what your life means. You get to decide what is critical to your existence – what you need to survive and what it means to be alive. You get to do what matters to you and by doing so give meaning to your life.
As Existential philosopher Albert Camus said;
“The literal meaning of life is whatever you are doing that prevents you from killing yourself.”
And for some people that will be friends and family, lovers and more; those close bonds of fraternity and love that we can create and nurture. For others, it is financial and career success; security and accomplishment. And still others, it is art and beauty and the creation of dreams; a pursuit of those imagined things that we seek to bring into the world. My guess is that inside you there is a little bit of all three and undoubtedly a million more major and minor moments of meaning that have accumulated in your life.
And that’s your fucking meaning of life right there.
It’s unique to you and nobody else is going to see it exactly the way you do and it won’t be anyone else’s meaning, but it is A meaning. The most important meaning because it belongs to you and it keeps you moving and motivated to continue to search for the other meanings you can find.
Who Am I?
At some point in your life you are going to look at yourself in the mirror and stare deep into the color of your eyes, where it starts to darken around the pupil and you can see the reflection of yourself again, and you are going to ask yourself, who the fuck am I?
If you don’t ever do this in your life, then I am fairly certain you have no reason to read any further. Seriously. You can just click the back button and go about your business because what I have to say is not going to register for you. Ok. Good. Now all we have left are the people who are serious about understanding themselves.
The thing about who we are is the same thing about the meaning of life. We are nothing by birth. We have no identity. We have nothing that makes us, us simply by virtue of existing. As Existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre so eloquently put it.
“Existence precedes essence.”
What does that mean? It means that first you come into existence and then you are tasked with the responsibility, freedom and duty of creating in every moment who you are and what the authentic version of yourself is. And you do that by evaluating your life as often as possible and asking the hard questions that require honest answers.
When you get to a point that you are able to seriously question who you are as a human being, and who you want to be, that’s when the answer begins to form. But it’s a slow simmering answer that is going to take a long time to boil. It’s going to take you a lifetime to find out who you are. And just at the very end of it, that final little piece of breath that you hold on to, that’s when you are going to truly know who you are.
You are going to look back at every moment of your life, play it all back and decide what you had become because that is all that life is. It is a series of becomings. From moment to moment you are transitioning to some other you. You are never a static version of yourself. To take a quote from pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus and alter it to try to sound clever; you can never step into the same river of you twice.
But wait, before you go storming off and decrying my flippant, if witty, word play, I have a consolation gift. You don’t really have to wait until you die to know who you are. You can pretend to die a little each day and take a moment to reflect on who you are and who you should be.
I want to be clear about something. I am not literally telling you to pretend to die. Ok? You don’t have to pretend to die or do any dying of any sort. Not even dyeing of eggs. No dying. Got it? Good.
What I am saying is metaphorical. I am saying that each day you should take time to reflect honestly on the person you are. And the person you are is revealed through your actions. What good things do you do everyday. What things did you do that added meaning to your life? What things did you do that satisfied your passions and your dreams and your reasons for life?
So you answer all those questions about yourself honestly and that will tell you who you are. It will tell you if you are kind or cruel, poisonous or healthy, strong or weak, focused or a mess. And whatever you find in there is who you are. No sugar coating. No lies. Be honest and look at what you find. What you do makes you who you are. That’s it. The things you do say everything about who you are. Not what you say or what you intend or what you think, but what you fucking do!
But this is the key part right here. If you find out who you are and you don’t like it, you can change it. That’s right. Remember, you are never a static version of yourself so there is always the change. You just have to point yourself in the right direction. Point yourself forward towards those things you want to become.
How do we measure life?
The grandfather of Existentialist thought, Soren Kierkegaard once wrote;
“Life is a thing that has be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.”
This means that, your life is not going to make a god damn bit of sense in the moments of living it, it is only after we have lived through our situations that we can come to see them for what they are and we can come to value and gauge the meaning of them in our lives. And that is part of knowing how to measure your life. Recognizing that in some moments it is not going to add up to much until you can look back on it.
But that is not the whole of it, so let’s try to be aphoristic with another measure of life.
Life is measured in moments. No. That’s too hallmark. Life is measured in stages. No. That’s too generic. Life is measured in time. No. That’s too technical. Life is measured in stages of the moments in time. Borderline philosophical, but utter bullshit. Life is measured to the accuracy with which we have the capacity to calculate. There we go. That is reasonably fucking philosophical and cryptic enough to sound wise.
Let me explain. The way that we can measure our lives – that we can set the currency of our lives on the scales of the money lender – is if we know what each coin is worth. And that’s what you need to get clear about in order to properly measure the depth, the breadth and the weight of your life.
This means you have to understand what’s important to you and spend your precious time and energy on pursuing that thing. And sometimes that can mean following a dream to the exclusion of all other things. Pushing so hard towards some goal that you refuse to look away for fear it might vanish. If that’s you, then you measure your life by how fucking hard you pursued that dream. Not if you catch it, but how hard you work for it. We can’t always control the catching, but we sure as hell can control our effort towards it.
But, to come back to Kierkegaard, the final weight of our life is only going to be measured after we already know how far we have come. I know we want to be able to measure how far we have to go to get to some state of mind or some ideal life or some perfect situation, but we will never know the full dimensions of that thing until it is behind us and we have moved on to measuring other future things. So the best we can do is live forward and let the measuring come after.
This means finding those “truths that you can live and die for” as Kierkegaard so desperately sought and giving them out into the world. Those great, meaningful, extraordinary things that you are capable of need someone to birth them into the world. You are the only one who can give them life. So until we get to the point of having most of your living in the rear view mirror, we measure our lives by how fucking deeply we live them.
We measure our lives by the leaps of faith taken in the directions of dreams. We measure our lives by the bounds of relationships that we have been able to foster and grow. We measure our lives by the miles of roads we have put under our feet and the reams of paper we have devoured in the pursuit of intellectual things. When we measure our life that way the final measurements we take at the end are going to be absolute and square and will fit us to perfection.
Ok. I went a little tongue and cheek for this article, but I had to. This is heavy shit. These are the kind of questions that can drag you down; far enough where you have trouble getting up. I know because It happened to me. I got lost in the clear emptiness of the answers. The fact that there is no inherent meaning to life and that I have such a heavy responsibility to create who I am and have only retrospective means of measuring the quality of my life. That shit weighed on me for a long time.
But eventually I left that go and focused on the other aspects of the answers to these questions. The parts of the answers that the Existentialists wanted us to focus on.
This is my fucking life and I get to decide what it means. I get to decide who I am and I get to decide what it looks like when I am done. I have an amazing amount of freedom, and yes, responsibility, to do whatever I need to do to make my life matter. And the best part is, I only have to make it matter to me. Nobody else get’s to tell me if I am doing it right or if I am being the right person because those are things I have to decide.
In short, I am not accountable to any other definition about the meaning of life and who I should be and what my life adds up to and that is a heavy, beautiful fucking burden that I want to hold close and wear with pride. I hope you decide to do the same and not shy away from these existential questions and see in them the power to take responsibility of your life and give it everything it needs to matter.