I remember before I was an existentialist. I thought that there must be a reason for everything. My father was a physicist, but he also believed in god, not as some guy sitting somewhere in the ether, but as a power of nature. I started out believing in that tradition, but it got derailed somewhere along the line. It could have been by reading about the atrocities committed during World War II. The usual question: “How could this have happened if there is a caring god?” was not really answered by my parents. Others had ready answers, “It is retribution for events of the past.” Or, “There is no way for us mortals to know god’s plan, but if we did, all would neatly fall into place.” Or simply, “It is unknowable.”
I just didn’t buy the whole thing.
It wasn’t just the Holocaust. The matter of my brother, autistic, low functioning and nonverbal, was much closer to home. It was in my home. What did we ever do wrong? If there was a god, I was really pissed of at it. It should pick on something its own size, not my family.
Toward the existential me
It was a little disconcerting to realize that there really is no rhyme or reason to anything, except for the laws of nature. If I’m under an apple tree and an apple falls, it will hit me on the head. No rhyme or reason for that to happen at any one particular time. I was also struck by the proposition (even though I had moved from under the apple tree) that there is no inherent meaning in anything. There are causes and effects, though: if lightning strikes, thunder will follow. This attitude is in stark contrast to those religious fundamentalists who blame storms, hurricanes, volcanoes, and other dangerous natural phenomenon, on the godless minority of their choice. To existentialists, weather is weather.
Am I there yet?
I bet I’m the only existentialist who takes everything personally. I must be a moron – at least an oxymoron. If I was under that apple tree, and the apple hit me on my head, I would give better than even odds that it was personal. Everything seemed personal to me.
I even had proof.
One day, I was standing on the sidewalk at a moderately busy intersection in New York City. I was ready to cross the street, and this little sports car sped up and zoomed around me. The guy driving said clear as a bell, “Watch out, Jack!” How could I not take this personally? Even though I didn’t know this guy from Adam, he called me by name! (Alison, you were there, remember?) What’s an existentialist to do?
What can an existentialist do?
Although there are not meanings inherent in our environment, one can assign, with a great deal of latitude personal meanings. I am told that those who see things in a positive light are much happier than those who assign negative connotations to the same phenomena.
I’ve got a long way to go in that department, but it seems worth a try.