Existentialism is a sort of belief system, or attitude, that revolves around the notion that the world has no meaning besides the meaning we give to it. Those who fall into the path of contemplating these ideas typically board similar trains of thought, or begin with a similar cycle of learning. These individuals, usually of from backgrounds of high intelligence, start to contemplate their existence and why they are here on Earth, and what the meaning of it all is, if there is any meaning at all. This paper will discuss my understanding of existentialism thus far by including examples from relevant text.
Robert Solomon writes that existentialism is “a spirit of the ‘present age.’” He eloquently describes ‘the realization’ that existentialists share as “a philosophical realization of a self-consciousness living in a ‘broken world’” that we are “thrown” and “condemned” into. He continues to explain that one who has this epiphany about the world will then realize that the world appears to be “indifferent,” which leads the thinker to the next notion that the world seems to have no meaning. In this way, the cycle of existentialist realizations continues, with some variation from individual to individual. Solomon writes that this stage of the existential experience “begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world that he cannot accept.” (Solomon) The cycle of existentialism is truly a cycle of self-discovery.
The recognition that the world seems to have no meaning stems from an individual’s belief that events in life appear to be contingent and random, with no real value or explanation. For example, when an event happens to an individual, such as getting cancer, or losing a cherished family member, they may begin to think the eternal question, “Why me?” One begins to wonder why they would get cancer or lose their loved ones instead of someone else, when maybe they believe they haven’t done anything to deserve this fate. This leads to the individual’s perception of the world to shift, as they begin to take on a sort of nihilist mindset. “If I didn’t do anything wrong, but this still happens to me, then nothing I do really has any effect.” This mindset eventually leads the thinker to believe that life has no meaning. The resulting sadness from the realization that nothing matters often leads to the individual suffering from great sadness. Unfortunately, as is human nature, this sadness will often lead to isolation from society, because most people do not want to be around other people when they are in a bad place. However, the idea that nothing matters is only partially existentialist, it is mainly nihilist. If individuals are able to move past this notion and discover that what matters in life is what they choose, then they can attempt to recover from their sadness, and rejoin society.
Don Manuel from the story Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr, finds himself uncovering the “truth” about the world, which is essentially this existentialist mindset of “nothing matters.” However, instead of isolating himself from society, he was able to temporarily forget his sadness by doing what he thought was the true meaning of his life, to help others. He spent his life aiding the townspeople where he lived, in Valverde de Lucerna. As a priest, he was looked up to by everyone in the town, and they all believed he was some sort of prophet sent from God. He ran the church meetings and, although it is not clear in the story whether or not he truly believed in God, he kept preaching about God and the bible, because he knew it was something the people of his town believed in. His main goal in life was to keep the townspeople happy, which included not letting them have the same realization about the “truth” of the world. He even turned down many opportunities to climb the ladder of the Church career, “because he wanted to remain exclusively a part of his Valverde de Lucerna.” (Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr) He had created his own meaning in a world without meaning. He had found his personal solution to the sadness and despair of nihilism, which kept him going in life. “The most important thing,” he would say, “is for the people to be happy; everyone must be happy just to be alive. To be satisfied with life is of first importance.” (Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr) This is another important quote from this existentialist text explaining what Don Manuel has assigned meaning to in life. He lives for the happiness of others, which brings him back to society from a place of darkness.
For many people, part of their existential journey includes the concept that once one dies, he or she will no longer exist in this world. Many existentialists have trouble confronting this viewpoint, and it can often be the reason that many existentialists are lost in a world of sadness. The concept that one has only the time from life until death on this Earth, and that there is nothing afterwards, could plunge anyone into despair, because this often leads the thinker to realize that with such a relatively short time here on Earth, nothing that happens really matters in the grand scheme of things. However, many people are able to move past this sadness, by creating new meaning for their lives. Many other existentialists instead pull themselves back to society out of the despair by basking in the knowledge of their own mortality.
The cycle of an individual’s exploration of existentialism begins with one feeling lost or confused and questioning their existence on this Earth, or their purpose. They wonder what the meaning of it all is, and move to realizing that events in life are so random and pointless at times that there seems to be no meaning at all. Individuals then often move to isolating themselves from society, because they do not want to be around other people with the sadness of their realization of meaninglessness. People will then often contemplate the vastness of the universe, and realize that is it so large that they could not even hope to learn about a fraction of it, “so what’s the point?” Nihilists will often be content with this place in life, whereas true existentialists will move past the sadness and isolation to begin to create meaning in life for themselves. Many individuals come to terms with the fact that life is so meaningless and the universe is so expansive, and they will begin to just focus on what is truly important to themselves in life. The end result is an individual who not only focuses on what is important and meaningful to them in life, but also who takes responsibility for their existence, because there is nobody there to pick up after us.