Anyone who has grappled with the concepts of existential philosophy will appreciate the difficulty of applying it to their own life. The writings of Nietzsche, Sartre or Heidegger for example, whilst original and innovative, are complex and difficult to grasp. Their ideas also challenge the premise on which much of Western thinking is based. Nietzsche stated that ‘God is Dead’ leaving us to find meaning beyond some supernatural power. Sartre suggested that ‘Existence precedes Essence’ and that we are free to create ourselves in any way we wish. Heidegger, contrary to Cartesian Dualistic ideas, offered the concept of Dasein – we are an existent, ‘thrown’ into a world not of our own choosing and challenged to respond to the Call of Conscience – to authentically engage with what it is ‘to be’.
So how can existential philosophy be of relevance to us in the 21st century and more particularly to the complex juggling act most of us find ourselves in? In order to answer that question, it is useful to examine a number of existential themes, for example, freedom and choice, anxiety, responsibility, authenticity and ultimate concerns. However, these are words used in our everyday language but with different existential meanings. So how can we grasp their existential meaning when the original writings are often inaccessible?
I like to convey these concepts in a straightforward and accessible manner through the language of Myths. Through our individual personal everyday choices, we can explore our options, the implications of taking different paths and the anxiety that results from choosing.
For many of us, the concept of Myths has mystical connotations and is understood in an allegorical, legendary or fabled manner. This is not how I offer Myths but as unquestioned assumptions that impinge on every aspect of our decision making. Myths are therefore pervasive, fictitious, invented, made up, make-believe or untrue. Within our social and cultural world, we are bombarded with expectations and pressures of how to dress, what to eat, what career to pursue or how to relate to other people. We are constantly told what to expect as we enter different life-stages as if each of us were no more than members of a cloned group. We can of course, choose how to respond to those expectations. We can conform, withdraw or act as individuals or institutions to bring about social change. However, those unquestioned assumptions are so pervasive that we may never stand back from their stronghold and consider our choices beyond a narrowly defined set of options. Our culture and socialisation inhibits us exploring the vast array of available options. As Rousseau said ‘Man is born free but is everywhere in chains’.
Thus, the existential meanings of choice, freedom, anxiety, responsibility and authenticity require interpretation at a level which makes sense in our everyday lives. Let us briefly explore the follow eight Myths and the existential themes they suggest.
The Identity Myth – ‘If you want to be happy you should fit in with others’ expectations and be someone other than who you want to be’
Selfishness Myth – ‘You are selfish if you put your own needs before those of others’
Group Myth – ‘It is better to be part of a group than be an individual’
Commitment Myth – ‘You can’t change things in your life once you have committed to them’
Certainty Myth – ‘There are certain things in life that are fixed and solid and can always be relied on
Morality Myth – ‘There is an unquestionable moral code I should live my life by’
Dishonesty Myth – ‘I should be discrete and modest in all my interactions rather than honest’
The Myth that you can’t change – ‘Earlier choices in my life mean that future change is not an option’
Each of these Myths, and others, impinge on our everyday lives and limit our choices. Each of them merit further explanation and discussion in their own right, with some being contentious and possibly provoking strong reactions in you.
The two central themes underlying these Myths are Freedom and Choice. By engaging with our freedom and realising our choices, anxiety and responsibility arise. Faced with the ultimate concern of our death, our limited time on this earth means we have to make choices and we never know the rightness of those choices – especially if we accept that no moral code exists in its ultimate form.
A central theme in existential philosophy is that there is an objective reality into which we are born and which exists separate from ourselves. We therefore lull ourselves into a belief that we are not free and unable to create who we want to be – our social and cultural Myths dictate the reality of our lives. Sartre says we act in Bad Faith in an attempt to fool ourselves that we are not free. We attempt to construct numerous structures through roles, norms, cultures and beliefs to define our sense of reality – to give the illusion that a blueprint exists into which we fit and are part of. As Van-Deurzen says ‘It is the basic skill of fooling oneself, of rocking oneself to sleep, of contenting oneself with illusions; the basic human accomplishment of self-deception; bad faith or mauvaise foi’.
So how can existential philosophy be of relevance to us and our lives as professional women? What are our choices and how can we live with the anxiety of challenging the status quo or questioning the rightness of our decisions? We have to live in the social world and consider others and the rules which enable us to realise our choices. The issue is not one of rejecting all that is expecting of us – the issue is that we DO have a choice. The question is whether we challenge the unquestioned assumptions, expand our choices and live with the anxiety that meaningful living entails.
The validity of our choices is often questioned when we become disillusioned with our lives despite achieving many of the things we dreamed of. We long to have it all but find it increasingly difficult to juggle our jobs, our children, our homes and our sanity! We believe that if only balance could be struck between the different areas of our lives, we could relax. Invariably, this balance is never achieved and we become observers in our own life, wishing for the day when it would all improve.
The question is ‘What do each of us actually want from our lives?’ Society’s Myths often result in us choosing from a limited array of options available – it is assumed that ‘having it all but in balance’ is the way forward. Maybe it’s not. Maybe the parts that make up the balance have never been questioned. Perhaps this is the reason why many women lawyers are now leaving the profession. The different parts making up the whole just can’t easily be juggled! Maybe we have never taken time out of our busy lives to examine the full range of options in front of us? We choose from a narrow range of choices on offer but never stop to think out think ‘out of the box’ and create the life we want.
As an existential psychotherapist I believe that we are each the best judge of what is right for us. However, by examining the role of Myths in our lives, we can expand our options, reconnect with our choices and judge the rightness of them. This provides a yardstick against which all future decisions can be based – the question ‘Does this contribute to me realising my vision?’ will keep you on track.
However, accepting anxiety as an inevitable part of committing to our choices is an existential reality. Rollo May says ‘ Commitment is the healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt. To believe fully and at the same time to have doubts is not at all a contradiction: it presupposes a greater respect for truth, an awareness that truth always goes beyond anything that can be said or done at any given moment’.
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