For some reason I can’t explain I have a keen ear for trends in vocabulary. I notice when certain words or phrases enter the ‘Narrative’ (that’s one by the way) and quickly get over-used to the point of cliche. Here are some other examples:-
Curation – a few years ago it burst on the scene and suddenly everything was curated.
Agency – in the sense of achieving control over events.
Trope – I think it means emerging themes or plot-lines
So…. – at some point, for no apparent reason, every reply to a question now started thus.
(Don’t even get me started on ‘Like’ or the Aussie inflection that turns every statement into a search for approval.)
Modern speak aside I’m just interested in words generally and words that enter our modern lexicon in particular. I’m actually quite nerdy about it, because when a word or phrase catches my attention I research them. I need to know what they really mean or more often their range of meaning which can be rich and unexpected. It’s been a rewarding hobby because every now and again I find enlightenment. It happened again this week.
I had for some time been interested in the word ‘existential’ and how every issue or threat or problem had now become existential. Not pressing or serious or concerning – existential.
I vaguely understood what existential meant – something that relates to existence. So in essence (a very important word we’ll come back to shortly) an existential threat is one so pressing, serious, concerning it risks our very existence.
On the other hand I also vaguely remembered that existentialism was a branch of philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre and all that stuff about angst rooted in the absurdity of life.
I decided to dig around and I was right. There are two meanings to existential. One meaning does indeed relate to existence. So an existential threat would be a threat that affects existence. That is mostly how it is used today but with an added twist of ‘clear and present danger’. An existential crisis is something really serious we have to deal with NOW or life as we know it is over.
Listening to the narrative (aka stories in news and social media) we face a number of existential threats around racism, gender fluidity/equality, climate, water, population, the growing gap between haves and have-nots, Artificial Intelligence, China and Chinese hegemony (great word, look it up, it’s all about domination and a power grab) to name just a few.
I’m not being flip when I say it’s all very angst-inducing. All the more so as we are in the midst of an existential Covid-19 crisis soon to be an existential economic crisis and some unknown ‘new normal’ (there’s another trendy phrase). And don’t forget on top of all this there are the ever present existential challenges we all have as individuals – we have our own problems to deal with as regards our careers, health, family & friends.
I don’t think I’m alone in my angst, I think this will ‘resonate’ with a lot of people – not just matter or be relatable or even strike a chord, resonate.
The enlightenment for me came from exploring the ideas behind existentialism. The essence of existentialism is that life is what we as individuals make it. Prior to the existentialists philosophers like Aristotle or Aquinas believed that essence comes before existence, that there was a natural order of things, a meaning to life that determines our best actions and therefore the meaning of our existence. Existentialists believe the opposite. Existence precedes essence. The natural order is absurdity and only by the actions of individuals do we bring meaning and purpose. From good old Wiki, not my only but my most used research tool (please donate to them) I share this:-
Sartre argued that a central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals—independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence”)—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individuals fit (“essence”). The actual life of the individuals is what constitutes what could be called their “true essence” instead of there being an arbitrarily attributed essence others use to define them.
Let’s pause there and think about that. This might seem a bit heavy but actually it is very simple and very powerful. As Ghandi said, we can be the change we want to see. Each of us as individuals can bring meaning and purpose to life by our actions. There is no “Well, that’s just the way it is” it can be what we choose to make it. The existential threats are over-whelming, the world does feel absurd, it can cause depression and angst. The way to fight this is to change what we do not what we think or say or tweet. We can consciously fight our prejudices, we can behave more responsibly, we can behave less decadently and more morally.
Of course we can also do this collectively and through our institutions and we are right to push for this to happen but it starts with us. As former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book on Morality we behave as if it’s never our fault. We seem to have abdicated our moral responsibility to others, the government, big business, the left, the right, Them.
I think I want to be a good existentialist. I want to mean what I do and own what I do (I will make mistakes of course but I can try). If we all do that, if we start with our own purposeful actions, it can create a better existence. We are capable of more than our labels or various identities would have others believe.
I now see the growing movement towards purpose-driven businesses, if it is authentic, for what it really is. I now see it in existentialist terms. These are businesses no longer prepared to accept life as it is. They have a purpose to make life what it could be starting with their own business.
All sounds a bit worthy does it not? Well, let me sugar the pill. After researching it long ago I converted to hedonism which favours pleasure over pain. This does not mean what most people think, which is the more Epicurean version of excess and indulgence. We all have choices in how we do things. I live in Cape Town most of the time and I have two ways I can drive to the centre of town. One is a bit quicker but the other takes me past some of the most beautiful ocean views in the world. As a hedonist I take that route most often – and yes I sometimes cycle it. Buying fewer things but items of much higher quality is the action of a true hedonist. Doing right by others, embracing diversity, making a positive difference where you’re able, these can all bring more pleasure than trouble to an ethical hedonist.
Hedonistic existentialism – do you think it might catch on? I hope so because it’s an existential opportunity to deal with the existential threats and derive some pleasure. What do I want? So, I want it to be a new trope in the narrative, we can like assume our individual agency and like curate our actions? Hedonistic Existentialism – like doing it and liking doing it?