Existential Dread as Ethical Opportunity

Image   I always feel queasy when people ask me for advice or talk to me as if I have some remedy for their existential problems. I study philosophy, I must know the meaning to life and how to temper that gnawing angst and those crippling depressive nadirs that flummoxes one’s normal capacities. The truth is, I do not. My loved ones and a cadre of companions know too well what a blubbering, incoherent and irrational mess I can be. I suffer from an agonising and anxious battle with myself and the chimera of my depression on a daily basis. I wake up, walk to the bathroom in my underpants with a scotch glass, fill it up with water and knock back a handful of antidepressants, vitamins and Xanax. Bon appetite. (Okay, sure, sometimes a self-induced rendition of la petite mort occurs; however, that is beside the point as you can garner the gist of things, dear reader.)

The meaning of life, I feel is a language game, a doomed question ab initio. In fact, if anything, I sympathise with Heidegger that takes an interest in the project of Being characterised by Seinsfrage or the question of ‘How come Being?’ Why is there anything at all, especially this ghastly ‘I’ thing? What characterises the ontology of being a human, what Heidegger terms Dasein, is to have this recursion to question of what it means to be human and to simply be. The hirsute apes, the scaly armadillo, and the particles motioning about do not have this ontological parameter as far as we can ascertain. What also plagues us is non-being, that awful death thing where we must reconcile why this absurdity of Being suddenly ceases, and this state of anxiety, a call-to-conscience, that makes us question whether we have lived or are living with authenticity. So, in short, I cannot answer your question; I am not sure anyone can. Your authentic manner of living, the projects your bind yourself to and embody are yours and yours alone. Welcome to the absurdity of existential freedom. You may find the journey a bit nauseating, but, overall, most find it tolerable and worthwhile.

Despite this rudimentary sketching of Heidegger’s philosophical project, an incomplete and verbosely-written project at that, it does offer us insight into the normalcy of these feelings we so quickly dismiss as a radical departure from ourselves. Sure, to be constantly ruminating upon such topics, to allow these lows to impede upon the capacity to exert our freedom, is a depression beyond the everyday and to be clinically addressed; however, to recognise that the foundation of your feelings and these states as universally shared amongst humankind might act as a form of consolation—we all must face this absurdity of Being, death, and authenticity. These are themes that are immanently present within the quantum of human existence and demand attendance or engagement by each one of us.

The creative outlets for engagement of our capitalist epoch, music, art, literature, and so forth, regularly circumspect such topics. Indeed, existential freedom has become largely about the sartorial choices we make in the morning, the latte dispensaries we frequent, and the adumbrated identity portrayed on social media. It is, however, necessary our political modes of engagement are not obstructed, that bollards are not built, and forfeit the push for societies that allow us to be authentic or to attend to our anxiety for change in whatever contingent form. The systems we have now, structuralise differences in agential status – most notably between men and women – whereby some become, in the words of Sartre, being-for-itself (etre-pour-soi) and being-for-others (I’etre-pour-autrui).

Simone de Beauvoir, a prominent feminist and Sartre’s closest companion, adopted the terminology and described men as populating being-for-itself and women as populating being-for-others and the necessity for allowing women to live with authenticity, for-themselves, and stop the foreclosure of authentic existential living for women. Similarly, we can see other groups that are bracketed off and denied agency such as refugees (and, lesse known in the public dialogue, Internally Displaced Persons), ethnic minorities, and the disabled to give a few examples. These groups or categorizations of society are what we philosophers in the continental tradition call the ‘Other’ and, some of us, most notably care ethicists such as Levinas, base moral theory on attending to the concerns of such individuals.

The point of all this obscure philosophy is to prompt you, the reader, to try the meditative process that I am currently trying when I am feeling depressed or anxious about meaning: When you are next having a depressive state, anxiety over your own essence as Dasein (human), and what authentic act to take, consider the foreclosure of possibilities of choice and projects that you yourself take for granted and can conceive in your envisioned future trajectory. This is not to be an exercise in deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of others, but an engagement with the Other as like you, as the same as you, as sharing this anxious aspiration of self-actualisation you have. To be human. Hopefully, this can inspire you to bind yourself to a cause, political, philanthropic, pedagogical or otherwise, in allowing such people symbolic and material access to authenticity and treatment as agents as opposed to the instruments of the privileged, of men, of the rich and of social neglect.  


Chabel is a chocolate bear with a caffeine addiction and a large collection of black T-Shirts. He currently studies Philosophy and in his spare time he enjoys hipster-watching and drinking scotch.