How, Then, Do You Choose to Live? – Trebbe Johnson
Human existence feels very fragile these days, stripped of any formerly reassuring belief system or sense of security that we had thought capable of keeping us safe. Every one of us on the planet, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or social background, finds ourselves at risk of contracting a virulent disease and not just dying from it, but dying alone and horribly. Even those of us who for years have insisted that climate change is the one topic worth confronting began worrying more about maintaining a distance of six feet from everyone outside our own household and washing our hands whenever we touched something we hadn’t recently kept an eye on. We find we are confronting our own mortality and that of our loved ones in an entirely new way. Loneliness has become widespread, revealing itself in unexpected ways as we “self-isolate” in our homes, bereft of all the roads of possibility we took for granted—roads that might lead to a restaurant, a movie theater, a playground, a bookstore.
In the United States, our culture is also coming to terms with its own long sickness. Finally, after 400 years, we are waking up to the realities of racial prejudice and injustice, sexism, and the fact that this nation was built upon the genocide and land theft of indigenous people. Even as we struggle to cope with these big problems, we must still manage to live with the immediate and personal hard times that preceded or arrived during the pandemic. Your elderly parents fumble to understand where they are. The tremors from your wife’s Parkinson’s get worse. Your child is killed in a car accident. You are deep in debt and don’t know how to tell your partner about it. Your brother is addicted to pain pills and won’t get help. Even the concept of help has been kidnapped. You can’t just go to a doctor anymore or a therapist or a Twelve Step meeting, unless you do so on Zoom. You cling to what you know and whom you love as if your life depended on it, which, really, it does.
The French existentialists who lived and wrote in Paris beginning in the 1940s knew what that was like. They were driven to define a way of behaving with meaning and integrity through the enormous and sometimes horrifying predicament of individual existence. Like us, the existentialists were facing massive and sweeping changes to their world and were driven to confront threats to life they could never have imagined as children. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Richard Wright, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others had lived through, first, the occupation of Paris by the Nazis during World War II, then the obliteration of life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bombs dropped on those cities by the United States. After the war ended, details of Nazi atrocities committed against Jews and millions of others began to emerge. Human cruelty seemed to have no limit.
The existentialists asked: Is there any overall purpose to life? If not, why do I keep searching for some meaning and purpose to my own existence? How can I grasp my own ultimate aloneness and still be connected to others? In a world with so many problems, what difference can any small action of mine possibly make? How do I keep going when I feel as if my life has been turned upside-down? Will I ever be happy again? If I do feel momentarily happy, am I betraying the larger, grimmer reality of things? And how, then, do I choose to live?
The existentialists and their followers sought to define some way to exist in this fearsome new world. Although existentialism has been widely viewed, and often ridiculed, as a conversational exercise for intellectuals in cafés, questions about how to live actually affected everyone, claimed Jean-Paul Sartre, the founder of the movement and its chief spokesperson, for just about everyone alive had a new and pressing sense of history and their own part in it. The burden of this knowledge forced people to choose whether they would respond as heroes or as cowards. Everything we do, said Sartre, whether we realize it or not, defines our life.
Existentialism insisted that every action I take is of incalculable importance; it is the all and the everything, and it defines what it means to be human, to be me in any given moment. Within this sphere of unacted potential I have both a great freedom and a terrible responsibility. For Albert Camus, a willingness to confront existence enabled one to choose consciously the acts that would define his or her fate. These acts might have no outward or measurable effect whatsoever, but they are the only measure of an individual’s intercourse with life. Every day, my life offers me crossroads large and small, where I must choose either to act with integrity and courage or to hide, deny, and run. What I choose has no meaning at all, and it means the world. So everything and nothing depends on the choices I make from moment to moment as I determine how involved I want to be in my world.
The beliefs of the thinkers we call existentialists were not always harmonious. Occasionally, the leading proponents disagreed vehemently and publicly. A few insisted they weren’t existentialists at all. But there are several points on which they did agree, tenets that brought them together and continue to serve as the building blocks of the philosophy:
- There is no preordained or “destined” path for us humans, crafted for us by God. We’re on our own. It’s up to us to determine the course of our lives.
- Because there is no omnipotent being governing our fate, we recognize that we live in a world without meaning. Anything goes. Life is absurd.
- That state of absurdity actually gives us profound freedom. Without the promise or threat of divine justice to determine our actions, without a cosmic rulebook we can consult in order to perfect our journey through life, our possibilities are limitless. And that’s exciting.
- Every choice we make, therefore, is of crucial importance. Every action we take defines us as individuals. Choice shapes us and makes us who we are.
- Defining and acting upon our convictions, we become our authentic selves. Developing this authentic self is vital to existing with purpose.
- We are part of the world we live in. We are not, as Descartes believed, a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which we scrawl a belief system, regardless of our circumstances. We are rooted in the world. The world happens to us and we happen to the world.
- Existentialism demands that each of us answer the questions, “What do I want to do?” and “How do I want to live?”
When we are cornered by crisis, we might react with fear and an urgent insistence on protecting ourselves. Maybe our inclination is to shut out other people, fearful that among them are those who could be conspiring to steal our own precious resources. Or we become helpless, incapable of acting on our own behalf and so demanding that someone, please, anyone, pick up the pieces of our lives. Or we try to ignore the gravity of the situation and tell ourselves that everything will be all right in the end. We’re convinced that no one could possibly understand our dire predicament. Powerlessness assails us. There seems no possibility of future happiness.
It doesn’t have to be that way. No matter what has knocked us down, or how long we’ve been there in this apparently unbearable place, we can not only survive but thrive. The existentialists were driven to figure out how to do so. It’s time to drag an empty chair over to one of those tables in a Paris café where they spent their days writing and talking and thinking, and listen in on the conversations of these very interesting thinkers. It turns out that much of what they have to say can help shape our thinking, our relationships, and our day-to-day behavior as we face the looming threats of pandemic, ecological upheaval, racism, and all kinds of personal challenges. Some of their ideas shed direct light on current situations. Others can be unpacked like a new tool and used for some entirely different purpose its inventors could never have conceived. Still others reveal a stunning new usefulness to contemporary life only if we completely flip them upside down.
The heroism of the twenty-first century demands a new dedication to authenticity, courage, and compassion as we face the great challenges of our lives, personal and global. No longer can we be lone rangers riding alone into our secret retreats. No longer can we define the existence of others by what they wear or the color of their skin or what we assume about their gender. No longer can we take for granted that the very meaning of “existence” refers only to homo sapiens. We need to be braver and we need to pay more attention to the allurements of the world. We need to nourish our inner lives and embolden our outer lives. And we need all the tools we can get. By taking a new look at the relevance, meaning, and beauty of existential philosophy, we can learn something important about how to live, not just through the actions we take, but in the spaces between those actions as well. We can cultivate a way of coming home to ourselves. And we can discover how to live with ourselves, others, and the world around us in ways that are not just part-time but constant, and that can inspire us, inform us, and make us bigger people, capable of actions we never thought possible—and often weren’t possible until we ourselves enacted them. We can face reality without either tearing each other apart or falling into despair. Finally, we can live, even in the most unlikely of circumstances, with integrity, while giving and receiving abundant beauty, friendship, and joy.
Excerpted from Trebbe’s most recent book, Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places, and her new book, Imagine Sisyphus Happy: 40 Existential Tips for Getting through Hard Times with Grace, Grit, and Even Joy
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Trebbe Johnson is the author of Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places; The World Is a Waiting Lover: Desire and the Quest for the Beloved; and 101 Ways to Make Guerrilla Beauty. She has written many articles that explore the relationship between people, nature, and myth. Trebbe is also the founder and director of Radical Joy for Hard Times, a global community of people dedicated to finding and making beauty in wounded places. A lifelong adventurer in inner and outer worlds, Trebbe speaks four languages; has camped alone in the Arctic; studied classical Indian dance; and worked as an artist’s model, a street sweeper in an English village, and an award-winning multimedia producer. She has led contemplative journeys in a variety of places, including clear-cut forests, Ground Zero in New York, and the Sahara Desert. She lives with her husband in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.