Now more than ever we are exposed to a plethora of ideas, methods, and suggestions about life. The Internet has made it so we can consume and/or share a seemingly unending amount of content on the topic of living most effectively.
However, simultaneously, this access to information has also allowed the consumer to realize just how conflicting most ideas are. In the West, over the last several decades or so, not only has the popularity of traditional religion reduced as a result, but for many, the increasing access to information has revealed that the world is basically without any discernible truth, and most ideas about how to live are inconclusive and unreliable.
It is fair to speculate that this could perhaps be a major contributing factor to the modern world’s increasing levels of anxiety, cynicism, and disillusion. It’s as if we live in a constant debate over what is true and good, and every time we’re about to come to a decision, someone says something new or different and starts the whole debate over. Dealing with and choosing between conflicting ideas of how to live has always been an issue for the individual.
But in the modern world, where conflicting ideas are constantly smacking us in the face, now more than ever we can often find ourselves failing in our attempt to find footing in this reality. For every time a new idea renders our previously withheld ideas wrong or inferior, we lose a little hope in trusting any ideas at all. No religion, philosophy, science, government, parent/teacher, or self-help advice can seemingly piece together any truth or answer to life that will rid us of our uncertainty or hardship.
Perhaps then it is not a truth or answer that we must seek to remove life’s uncertainty and hardship. Rather, it is a template of wisdom that we must experience life’s uncertainty and hardship through.
In an attempt to find this, we will look to the movement of Existentialism, a movement that started in the West during the 19th century at the onset of a decreasing popularity in traditional religions. Specifically, we will look to one of the most renowned existential thinkers: Jean-Paul Sartre.
Jean-Paul Sartre was born in 1905 in Paris, France and is considered to be one of the main popularizers of existential thinking. He wrote numerous books that define much of what existentialism is based on, most popularly “Being and Nothingness” which describes the crux of existential thought.
For Sartre and the Existentialists, life has no fundamental meaning or truth beyond what is created by our decisions and actions within it. The core of Existential thought can be summarized with the notion that as humans, our existence precedes our essence.
In other words, we have no predetermined purpose, and consequently, there is no specific way to live. Rather, both purpose and a way to live comes only from living life and making choices within it. And for Sartre and the Existentialists, we are free to choose what we do. In a way, it’s as if we are all given a slab of clay at birth and it is up to us to decide what we mold it into.
However, Sartre points out that as we grow older, we become more and more influenced by those around us, and we second-guess what we have started molding and begin to copy what others have already made an attempt to ensure that we are making something good or right.
However, for Sartre there is no right or wrong way to mold the clay. Rather there are endless ways, all equally absurd, all equally meaningless, and all equally worthy of molding to the individual molding it. This freedom to mold life any way we wish, coupled with a deep desire for wanting to mold it as best we possibly can, is what brings on such high levels of anxiety in life. “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Sartre writes.
In other words, we lack any ability to know if our choices are good or bad or right or wrong because for whatever reason, our human condition does not permit us to. We can never really know if what we choose to make of our life is what’s best for us, nor can anyone else know, yet we still must live our life and make decisions within it.
This premise is revealed very clearly under the spotlight of the internet, for the widespread access to information reveals very little beyond contradiction. We are now in an age where we find ourselves with seemingly endless information and potential solutions to dealing with life, yet increasing anxieties, depressions, and confusions.
Existentialism would suggest that this is because there are no timeless, definitive answers to human life that apply to everyone. We can’t make any choice knowing for sure if it will or won’t be what’s best for us, and so we should not look for or expect any ultimate answers that will. This doesn’t mean that we should not engage in, consume, consider, or share ideas, research, and philosophies about life, but it is to say that we should be skeptical in our considerations, and mitigate our expectations accordingly.
In many ways, ideas for how to live are just as much art and entertainment as they are prescriptions for how to live. No matter how wise a piece of advice may seem, there is nothing to suggest that anyone else can form a better idea for how to live than one’s own self.
So what do we do if there’s no accessible truth, or ultimate way to live? How do we live if no one can tell us or provide us with a clear way? Existentialism suggests one primary template of wisdom to deal with this uncertainty of life that we are left with.
For the Existentialist, there is a constantly changing state of existence that we must flow with, accepting the absurdity and meaninglessness of it all and transmuting the chaos of life into our own unique experience and personal meaning. “Man,” Sartre writes “Can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth. “It is the truth that we deem for ourselves and carry out experimentally through our actions that defines what’s true for us, for the truth of how to live is relative.
In the modern information age, a great many of us feel further and further disconnected. We seek a truth that will bring us in and resolve our confusion and alienation. When we don’t find it, many of us begin to feel as though something is wrong and that we don’t belong, and perhaps that’s because we don’t, because no one does.
Early on in life we are given the idea that there are really only a couple ways to live. On these predetermined paths we are told that there is an ultimate goal of perfection, truth, and happiness that we are striving towards. However, perhaps it is more likely that there are endless ways of living, ways that we each have to determine for ourselves, based on ourselves, and that none of what we do will equate to any sort of ultimate shared truth or meaning but rather a sense of personal meaning and self-fulfillment.
When one realizes and accepts that there are no fundamental rules or truths in the world of human existence, the individual becomes self-aware of their freedom and realizes that they don’t to do anything specific in life.
We realize that we don’t have to follow or agree with any of what we’ve been given. We can choose otherwise. We don’t have to meet the standards of anyone else’s ideas for how to live, be it our parents, friends, teachers, religions, or cultures.
The pressure and anxiousness of constantly searching for the right way to live can be alleviated, and instead we can look inwards, consider how we wish to experience life, and work to mold ourselves and choices accordingly. We can use our uniquely assembled self to fulfill a uniquely assembled life, realizing our full potential, accepting the uncertainties, and making the endurance of existence personally worth it.