Written by Aaron
He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how
Several years ago I discovered a branch of philosophy called existentialism; it had a profound influence on my life and my notions of what I should value and how I should live. Existentialism is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with, as its name suggests, existence. Its premise is that the individual is solely responsible for creating meaning in one’s life in spite of obstacles, struggles and questions about existence. It encourages subjective experience versus blind adherence to objective truths. As L. Nathan Oaklander puts it, “Existentialists encourage us to consider, in a personal way, the meaning of living authentically and inauthentically, our relation to the world and others, and the notions of freedom and responsibility.”
According to existentialism, the meaning of your life should not be determined by some kind of external system that determines how you should live and what you should value. You cannot lean on the status quo of society or other popular modes of thinking and deny your own responsibility in determining how to live and what to value either. It does not imply that you cannot act in accordance with widely held belief systems or be influenced by them. However, whatever a person champions should be investigated and determined to be in accordance with their own individual values and beliefs.
I want to be clear that existentialism is not some “new agey ” way of thinking in which all you have to do is think positive and unicorns will appear and transport you over rainbows to a perfect life. This philosophy does not deny that humans are subject to great suffering or suggest that the process of defining meaning for yourself is an easy one. In fact, it encourages us to find meaning in suffering and this difficult process. There may be no better example of this than Viktor E. Frankl and his book Man’s Search for Meaning.
Man’s Search for Meaning is Frankl’s detailed account of being imprisoned in concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Stripped of all possessions, degraded and tortured, he was forced to endure the harshest of human conditions. Yet even when all he had left was to endure tremendous suffering, he was able to survive with the realization that no matter what was taken from him, or what he was made to endure, he still had the ability to find meaning through his suffering and a reason to live. Frankl would, inspiringly, survive this horrible situation and go on to help millions. He would assert that “the will to meaning” is the basic motivation for human life.
Do people often fail to push through obstacles, whatever they may be, because they lack “the will to meaning?” Nietzsche’s quote, “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” suggests that we can overcome a great deal when we develop meaning and a reason to.
Is it possible to apply this concept to life changes such as developing eating habits?
For the sake of argument, let’s look at people who eat a particular way for ethical reasons. Does someone who is vegan have a difficult time not eating meat? Do they constantly resist the urge to eat a juicy cheeseburger? Maybe. However they do not actually eat it because their adherence to this diet is based on deeply held beliefs as to how they should live and treat other living creatures. It is an ethical decision and there is purpose behind it.
What if this type of motivation via deeply held beliefs was applied to your food choices or other areas of your life?
Now I am not advocating for or reccomending veganism (this will warrant a separate discussion), however I want to use it to illustrate how personal beliefs and deeply held meaning can have profound influences on your actions. Unfortunatelty for both good and bad outcomes.
Existentialism dictates that you are ultimately responsible for your existence and this will be evident in your actions. So what will be the meaning and purpose that drives your actions in the future? Conversely, what do your current actions say about what you value now?
In Part 2 of Searching For Meaining I will explore some practical applications of existentialism.