Much of what I write about will eventually lead back to a few basic themes that have preoccupied me for a very long time. One such themes is for me most fundamental one of all, and while this theme underpins a good part of my thinking for about as long as I can remember; it was not until I read Franz Kafka (1883-1924) that I came across the perfect passage to give expression to it:
I am standing on the platform of the tram and I am entirely uncertain as to my place in this world, in this town, in my family. Not even approximately could I state what claims I might justifiably advance in any direction. I am quite unable to defend the fact that I am standing on this platform, holding this strap, letting myself be carried along by this tram, and that people are getting out of the tram’s way or walking along quietly or pausing in front of the shop windows. Not that anyone asks me to, but that is immaterial. (Franz Kafka – from The Passenger – 1908)
This is about being in transition, and – for Kafka – the acute realization that you are on a journey (or a participant in an event) of which you don’t where it originated or where it is going in terms of its ultimate destination. All the while everything in your immediate environment appears to be perfectly lucid – and, to all intents and purposes, you appear to be leading a full and meaningful life – so long as you don’t try to extract the larger context from your immediate reality, such as its purpose or destiny.
For most, this larger context simply does not exist – or is just taken for granted. Or taken care of by religion, if you still believe in fairy tales. But the larger context holds the justification for the present, i.e., that there should even be a present, or – for that matter – anything at all.
Everything we do, we would normally do for a reason – from this it follows that we would like to think we are here for a reason, and not as a result of the random motion of elementary particles. And so we should look for one – and if we can’t find it – we will need to create our own!
This notion isn’t all that far removed from what was expressed by existentialists philosophers such as Sartre and Camus. In particular, Camus – best known for his 1942 novel L’Etranger – claimed that our experience of the world is absurd, and that we give life meaning in the acknowledgment and acceptance of absurdity.
If the absurd experience is truly the realization that the universe is fundamentally devoid of absolutes, then we – as individuals – are truly free to create our own meaning and purpose for it
This brings me once more to consider what I believe is at the heart of existentialism, or at least one interpretation that I can identify with: about re-defining yourself in an increasingly absurd world as defined for you by the traditions of science, philosophy and religion; you cannot help but feel alien to it. Others cannot tell you who or what you are, or what your existence should mean to you. Only you can determine what you can be for yourself, as opposed to what others want you to be.
For this you must look at yourself not through the eyes of others, but from yourself, from the inside out – from within the acute reality of your own cognitive and spiritual existence. But this is no easy task – it means assuming responsibility for all your actions as you attempt to recreate yourself from the subjective contents of your stream of consciousness. It will require courage – the courage to invent oneself without being necessarily plugged into a god, a scientific assumption or the beliefs of society at large for confirmation that you are doing the right thing. It may lead to anguish and despair, for to decide for one self is to decide for the whole of human reality, for this will always be your reality also.