Humans pride themselves on intelligence levels. Compared to other animals, our minds are certainly superior in many ways.
For example, the human mind is sophisticated enough to create and understand language. It is efficient, not only in learning and storing information, but also in applying the information to future use.
As impressive as it may sound, the most powerful, distinctive trait of the human mind is that it is capable of abstract, conceptual thought.
Humans are responsible for creating intangible concepts, like time and space, numbers and mathematics, and countless other principles that have helped us make sense of the world around us. However, with the good comes the bad, and in this case, the bad is something called existentialism.
What exactly is existentialism? Most of us probably have a vague idea of what it is, but can’t actually define it. To be fair, there’s never been an agreed upon definition for the word. Existentialism is rather tricky, as it is both philosophy and psychology, and it’s nearly impossible to coin an all-encompassing explanation.
But basically, existentialism is the human experience of existence. In virtue of our uniquely complex minds, we possess self-awareness like no other animal could have.
During certain stages of life, we commonly feel overwhelmed and experience existential crises, during which we struggle with our places in the world. By struggling, I mean the challenge to find purpose and to make sense of our beings, here on earth.
We are often preoccupied with our daily circumstances and happenings. Going to school or work, worrying about deadlines, thinking about what to eat for dinner tonight — the practical, everyday side of things can torture us.
However, once in a while, we are able to break away from our daily grind of existence and wonder, "Why am I here? What am I doing with my life? What’s the point of it all?"
These and other existential thoughts plague, but become much more influential when we go through traumatic or life-changing experiences, like graduation or reaching middle age. These questions all have something in common: They all revolve around the theme of purpose.
Nothing we do seems to matter, unless it’s for a purpose. We go to school so we can go to college, so we can hopefully get good jobs. We go to our jobs because they pay and we need to get paid to live. It’s a very straightforward process that, when you really get down to it, is really just about survival.
But most, if not all, of us don’t find the idea of surviving for survival’s sake to be very comforting. Sure, it’s nice to do well in school and having a well-paying job makes life a lot more comfortable. But, whether we end up leading financially-successful lives or not is irrelevant to our deepest existential questions.
Consider a successful businessman who, near the end of his life, feels despair because he dedicated his whole life to his job — a job that had no personal meaning for him. He regrets going through life without having actually lived it; he regrets his virtually meaningless existence.
Clearly, our inner humanities crave some purpose in our lives aside from mere survival.
Fortunately, as much as it is human nature to search for meaning, it is also our personal responsibility to find it. There are countless ways for people to find meaning in their lives, and the best part is that there is no right or wrong answer. Many find purpose in their identities.
For example, being a good parent, teacher or some other mentor figure has meaning for those who value investing their time and energy in those who will inherit the future.
By having young recipients on whom they can imprint their morals, values and life lessons, they are living their lives not just for themselves, but for the next generation, as well.
Some find meaning in being a romantic or life partner. For these individuals, being there for someone through the good and the bad and making that someone’s world even just a little brighter is enough to feel gratified by life.
Others choose to focus on their careers -- careers which have high intrinsic value to them. These people love what they do, so doing their work fills them with satisfaction.
In short, anyone can lead a meaningful life simply by living the way they want to live; however, human freedom and possibility itself is another existential problem. From the moment we are born, we possess the freedom to live however we want.
In order to do that, however, we have to first figure out what we actually want to do with our lives, and that process is anything but easy. First, we must decide whom we want to be, factoring in personal values, moral codes, lifestyle and everything else that comes with being a person.
Even at this stage, we encounter great difficulty because there are so many things we want to be, yet many of them conflict with each other.
Though most of us eventually succeed in forming our identities and remaining consistent, there are some who go through life questioning and second-guessing who they are. Having dealt with that, we must then choose what we want to accomplish in life.
Yet, there are so many options available that it's easy to become paralyzed by the possibilities. Like our identities, our lives have the potential go in any number of ways; however, we only have enough life to fulfill one of those potentials.
In the process of figuring out what we want to do and how we want to go about doing it, we are constantly making choices. At every instance, there are at least two choices, and once we make a decision, it will lead to another instance of choosing.
We can imagine that these instances are a crossroads and each potential choice is a path. Every choice we make takes us closer to one destination and further from all the rest.
Sometimes, we can retrace our steps and go down some different paths, but a lot of times, it is impossible to go back. And, all the while, we wonder whether we are making the best possible choice for each instance because we know full well that we are responsible for every consequence that follows.
All of this creates existential angst filled with stress and anxiety regarding our personal levels of human freedom.
We are given this beautiful gift of autonomy, but at every turn, there are missed opportunities, unfulfilled potential and irreversible mistakes. To make matters even worse, there is one factor that constantly works against us: time.
The fact is, we’re all going to die someday. This depressing knowledge that looms over our heads further sets us apart from other animals and intensifies our existential crises. Some species may have primitive understandings of death, but humans are the only ones who understand its inevitability.
Time itself may be unlimited, but our time in life is so very finite — and we know it. So, not only do we have to makes sense of our existences through all the chaos of choice and possibility, but we are only given such preciously limited time to do it.
Given this mess, it’s a wonder how we’re all still relatively sane and not suffering some mental breakdown.
Existentialism is an impressively broad topic, and this article has only managed to scratch the surface. It’s never been easy to be human, and the more our minds mature, the more complicated it all seems to get.
Truly, it takes great courage to get out of bed every day and face our existences head on. Our knowledge of our own mortality propels us into a race against time to live full and meaningful lives.
Though there will be times when we will feel completely overwhelmed by our predicaments, it’s important to remember that no matter how bad things may seem, we are all capable of overcoming the void of existence.
Finding meaning in life is a never-ending daily struggle, but it is all part of being human.
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