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Living Authentically

April 19, 2013

man on mountain top

The biggest lesson I think we can learn from the existentialist movement is to strive to live authentically. Jean-Paul Sartre highlighted many instances of how we can live in bad faith. Where by this he meant we were acting not true to our selves, often by treating ourselves as an object in someone else’s gaze, or by defining ourselves based on what other people expect us to be, rather than choosing to define ourselves.

We all have this freedom to choose to define ourselves and our own life, based on our original project, as Sartre calls it. For me, I change the meaning slightly and say we all come into awareness as beings due to our uniqueness, and then this awareness is then the source of our original project. I also further change it by saying, the goal then is not just action in line with this project, but always alongside action, we are learning and coming to understand more and more about the source of our uniqueness.

It is a dual process of self-understanding and self-reflection alongside actions in line with this understanding. We can never take it for granted that our understanding of ourselves is complete, in order to abandon ourselves to action. This would be bad faith in the Sartrean sense. We must always acknowledge a need to improve our self-understanding, because it is a part of the process of life and gaining in wisdom.

Heidegger, similar to Sartre’s notion of bad faith, talked of the THEY crowd. This is when we let others define how we act and be. Going with the flow, rather than making the choice to assert the freedom we have to define ourselves. I suppose it can provide much comfort. Consider the millions who sit down to watch a popular soap. Identifying with the often caricature ways of acting and being. They are indulging in a THEY way of living. A form of laziness really, but easy for us all to succumb to at times. Particularly after a hard day at work.

However, the option remains always there for us to take a grip on our own life and direct it and define it how we see fit. We know this, but are often only brought to act this way when some challenge or something novel presents itself to our experience of the world. Without a challenge, sameness of experience often leads to a mental inertia, that can gather momentum, and so we can become ever more susceptible to THEY ways of living and acting, which is something we must ever be looking to counter act in order to live authentically.

A third figure I will mention is Nietzsche, one of the original existentialist philosophers. His conceptual way of getting across the idea of authentic living, was his notion of eternal recurrence. We must act and embrace our way of life in full knowledge that we will have to re enact our decisions eternally, as the universe expands, contracts and then expands again and repeats itself all over again. The point is that we should affirm our life in full knowledge of this eternal recurrence destiny, as it is a sure sign we are living in the moment and authentically.

It is easy to get lazy and think, yes I could do that if I wanted, I will get round to it soon enough just you wait and see. But, of course, we can only really do it here and now, and each time we reject a line of action in this way, we are rejecting it as part of our eternally recurring destiny also. And so it is an eternal rejection, not just a temporary one as we often like to think. It is a sobering thought and one that sometimes propels me into action. It is easy to just contemplate possible lines of action. To actually do it you often have to imagine yourself some way down the road, and think, will I regret it if I don’t act now. In other words, am I willing to accept this act now as part of my destiny. It is one and the same thing really, and it is a powerful insight to have, but one not always easy to put into practice.

I have gleaned similar ideas from other existentialist literature, regarding the desire to live authentically, and regarding the dangers and pitfalls of not living in this way. Albert Camus, the outsider, is a great example of the pitfalls. Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf is a good example of someone making that decision to live authentically and the consequences as a result. Colin Wilson also discusses the importance of avoiding mental inertia in order to allow us to make use of faculty X. Where we have insights and live fully in the moment. All in all, there is a lot to be learned and taken from existentialism regarding the trials, tribulations and challenges involved in trying to live an authentic life. And I thought I would share this with you all, to get you thinking about what living authentically means to you.

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