Everyday Existentialism

Arja Kumar (TheLorian)

One of the most interesting phenomena of life is the existential crisis. This is defined as a moment in which one questions whether their life has meaning, purpose, or value. Along with this can come a sense of helplessness, loneliness, guilt, fear, anxiety, vulnerability, or dread. These moments are notoriously known to be terrible, negative experiences that fate one to go out and buy a shiny red sports car, book a one-way exotic trip, grow a mullet, or get a weird piercing or tattoo. Yet, questioning one’s life and goals is healthy, can provide direction, and lead to fulfillment, making the existential point of crisis a positive learning experience. These moments can even be of great development for one’s life. 

There is a beautiful moment in the film American Beauty, where the protagonist, Lester Burnham, a depressed, frustrated suburban father, comes face to face with the subject of his desires — a young girl named Angela. Encountering her on a rainy night and on the verge of almost fulfilling his fantasy, Lester comes to a startling realization that this isn’t what he wanted all along. The man and the young girl instead comfort each other and bond over their shared frustrations in life. Lester smiles at a photograph of his family and comes full circle with his existential dilemma. He finally understands real beauty. Surprisingly, at this very same moment, a mysterious figure shoots Lester and he falls dead, with the narration describing all the meaningful experiences in his life. He closes with, “It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life…”

Like this meaningful film shows, the power of existentialism lies within its interconnectedness with ordinary life. There are no actual extravagant, mountain-climbing moments in which stars burst, flags wave, and dramatic music plays in life. Instead, great moments of existentialism occur every day during the mundane, within the privacy of the self, quietly but just as grandly. For example, it can occur in the grocery store aisle meeting people you once knew dearly but who have drifted away; when a young adult moves away from home and is thrust into the business of the world; when a child encounters an untrusted, scary stranger for the first time; when a person loses the one they love; or when a person loses the job for which they worked so hard. Existentialism is, therefore, a philosophy that leads one to face powerful, passionate emotions and deep, intense thoughts. This approach of thought is experiential and liberating, as the beauty of existentialism lies in its pure celebration of being human. Existentialism pits us in the boxing ring with who we are — and there is no escape. By shoving big, thought-provoking, and often shocking questions in our face, existentialism gets to the gut of existence, which everyone must encounter nudely at one point or another in their life. Most importantly, at the heart of existentialism is the idea that each person has radical freedom in which they are constantly defining themselves by constantly making their own choices. We each create our own unique meaning in this way.

Existentialism is hence a great and beneficial philosophy for each person to explore because it teaches so many valuable lessons. Although it can be a somewhat sad and sobering way of thinking too, it importantly teaches one to grasp one’s freedom, ability to change, and responsibility for actions and, moreover, life. Many might appreciate how existentialism does not have a fixed moral code but instead leaves the choice to the individual. With existentialism, it is up to us to create what we become. This can be scary but liberating. Along with this radical freedom, there is a radical responsibility that holds us fully accountable for what we choose. There can thus be no one else that we can blame but ourselves. This further guides one to radical acceptance, as one is pushed to live more fully, knowing that they are in complete charge of their life. 

Existentialism is all around us. It is in everyday situations and everyday questions that we ask ourselves. “Who am I? What is my real nature or identity? What is my purpose? What is the meaning of life?Nowadays, modern kids, teenagers, adults, middle-agers, and elderly alike are as confused as ever in their lives about what they want to do and what they want to believe. It therefore can be difficult to distinguish a belief system that speaks to one. We live in a time where we can be more well-informed than ever — perhaps even too well-informed. With too many beliefs set out on a silver platter in front of us, we often do not know which one is best for us. Since there is no prescription for this kind of existential confusion, one might feel worried about what one ought to do about it. Yet, existential moments are common and nothing to worry about. Neither are they something that one has to solve lickety-split like a wound or a bad headache. Instead, moments of existentialism are as normal a part of life as brushing one’s hair or driving to school. In fact, if you don’t question yourself once a day, are you truly living? Being confused about one’s beliefs can be a transformative process, leading one to metamorphosis. Interacting with existentialism in everyday life is thus a great gateway to starting to figure out which thought system one should adopt. 

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