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The literal definition of existentialism states that it emphasizes the existence of individuals as completely free beings whom determine their growth through self-made choices. Multiple characteristics like absurdity, alienation, responsibility plus free will, and despair play a major role in an existential life. With the idea originating and gaining popularity in the 19th century, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche first began writing about this topic early on in the century, with multiple other philosophers following soon after. Existentialists believe that life is nothing, there is no higher power or authority; god may or may not exist but he or she means truly nothing to the individual, an individual’s life will not be affected by his or her presence. Therefore, the only way one will find happiness is if one accepts the fact that life is meaningless and only the individual matters when it comes to being satisfied with life because there is no authority for an individual to contribute to. This leads to the belief that people are truly free, their essence must be independent for them to be the most joyful they can be. Humans must define their meaning of life by making their own decisions, whatever the effect of the decision may be, people will still start to create their essence which is tailored to suit only that one individual. This is what Kierkegaard and Nietzsche argued when this view first started becoming popular; the only way to joy is to accept that personal essence one has created by themselves. When one learns how to create their happiness in the sense of their essence, nothing can stop them from flying forever high in the mind of an existentialist.
Being absurd is when one looks for answers that are not there. This can be presented in many ways; for example, a lot of people ask for the meaning of life, a question that has no answer. Individuals seek to find meaning in a huge and confusing world. A human’s inability to find meaning in a universe full of things is the reason absurdity arises and starts affecting an individual. For instance, in The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus claims that there is a conflict between what we want in the world and what we find. One will never find what one wants to find, so an individual is forced to choose between either accepting and putting hope in God or concluding that life is meaningless. Either way, one’s life is absurd because they are looking for meaning in a meaningless world to them. In the writing, “the gods condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back on its weight. They…thought…there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor”. Making one do a task over and over again is absurd because it is just like life, life is repetition, everything someone does on a day to day can be considered like pushing the rock up the hill because it is the same thing every time. This is absurd because there is no meaning in these things but people still look for it just like in real life, one must accept this absurdism to truly find meaning in their own life; Camus argued this in his work, he stated that it is hard to find meaning in a world like this, so the only way to find meaning is to realize that this is happening and being able to enjoy whatever task one chooses to do for the rest of his or her life. To conclude the essay, Camus states that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”. This is stated because Sisyphus has accepted the absurd, he is pushing the rock up and down, just like going to work every day because he knows life is nothing. The only way he will be happy is if he accepts the fact that all he is doing is pushing rock and enjoys what he is doing. The rock is just meant to be a metaphor for all the tasks one does in his or her daily life, Camus tries to argue that the rock can be anything as long as one enjoys it. It can become a routine that will keep the mind in check when realizing that life is nothing, this routine is something that keeps despair in check which then, in turn, allows for happiness to bloom out of an individual because he or she is doing something they love so they do not even notice that they are in an utterly meaningless situation.
Alienation is when a person feels singled out and disconnected from the world. Any belief one may have, everyone feels disconnected from certain things because they sense a lack of belongingness. People are molded by materialistic things that bring short-term joy but offer no help in the long run. This leads to people thinking that they are strangers in their own lives and the world, at this point the disconnectedness just tends to grow. Without anywhere to go, people begin to question a lot of things when in an existentialist state because they are trying to find meaning in life. In the poem, “The Unknown Citizen” by W.H Auden, there is a man that is so utterly unremarkable that the state honored him with a poetic monument about how much of a perfect citizen he was. The man had every aspect of his life cataloged. The Bureau of Statistics and all other reports show that he complied with his duties, he held a job, he paid union dues, he did not hold radical views, he reacted normally to advertisements, he had insurance, he possessed the right material goods, he had proper opinions about current events, and he was married with the “right” amount of children. Although the man had everything going for him, the man could not do one thing, escape the shadows of everyday life. “He was a saint” from the state’s perspective, he “served the Greater Community.” Some of the words used to describe him were “normal,” “right,” “sensible,” “proper,” and “popular,” the words used to describe an ideal citizen. Being an ideal citizen may make one think that he is free or happy, but the evidence of his life shows that he is just another needle in the haystack, an unknown bureaucratic machine with no sense of self, and no authenticity. The man can do everything right and obey society’s beliefs but the man will never truly gain that authenticity to become connected with himself if he does not begin to live life differently. The man is constantly trying to fit in but the more he fits in, the further he gets from becoming connected with himself and others. At the end of the poem, it states, “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd. Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” With these last lines comes the deeper meaning of the poem, despite all of the data gathering, some parts of the man’s life might not have been captured. It becomes clear that the man is “unknown” because in this gathering of data, the man’s individuality and identity are lost. This is why things on a group level contain truth but on the individual level it is the opposite, every individual has an opportunity to become something better, and the only way of doing that is becoming themselves. Feeling left out and lost is completely natural because society is focused on its official view of the common good without taking the individual into account which is what truly matters. Society assesses a person using easily-cataloged characteristics like the man was rather than respecting one’s uniqueness in their thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, and goals. Being alienated can lead to despair but the only way to stop that is to create a personal authenticity by accepting the absurd. Living a life that one truly wants to live can be scary, but that scary is what will make one happy, live, laugh, and love, but only do it authentically.
Everyone is free to do whatever, whether it be good or bad, people on an individual level always have the choice at the end of the day. Whatever choice one may make, the consequences and following events will depend on that one choice. This is when responsibility is taken because some of those life-changing decisions can impact one’s life tremendously. The choice aspect of free will and responsibility is something that plays a major role in existentialism because almost everything one will experience in the future may be affected by that single choice. This theme is consistent throughout The Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway; the story talks about how a woman is faced with a crossroads, literally and figuratively. The story takes place at a train station in Spain surrounded by hills, fields, and trees in the middle of nowhere. A man is known as the American and his girlfriend decides to have a couple of beers and talk while they wait for their train to Madrid. As they drink, they bicker about little things; for example, the girl says “the mountains looked like white elephants,” but the American becomes very agitated. The girl replies that she is just having fun and then retracts her earlier comment by saying the hills do not look like white elephants to her anymore. Saying this on purpose and wanting to keep her baby, she hints that she wants to keep the baby by changing her mind which annoyed the man a lot. Leading to the point of her literal crossroads, she then asks what will happen after she has had the operation, saying “and if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” The man answers that things will be fine afterward and they will go back to the way they were. In a huge amount of confusion, the girl then walks over to the end of the station, looks at the scenery, and wonders whether they really could be happy if she has the operation. At this point, the whole story was built up to this point of tension. Here, Ernest Hemingway created an atmosphere where there were only two choices for the girl; while literally left in a crossroads between the two opposite train paths, the girl is forced to decide on getting on one train to keep her baby or getting on the other train to keep her boyfriend and current life. Either way, the impact on her life will be massive which shows the idea of having a choice and then dealing with the consequences of that choice. Having free will and responsibility is a crucial part of existentialism because it allows one to navigate their own lives and create their essence by doing and perceiving things around them on an individually authentic level. Having this freedom allows for one to be satisfied, this happens because people feel like they matter and whatever they choose to do also falls on them so it is not like someone else is living their life. This allows for one to be happy with their own life because of that authentic essence that they created through their personal decisions and wants.
Despair is felt by everyone, and when in an existentialist state, despair plays a major role in one’s ability to be happy with life. A loss of absence and hope, known as despair, can affect a lot of people because it takes away the desire to get up every day. If the desire is taken away it can lead to loneliness and an inability to be happy with one’s own life. This is shown in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway, the story takes place in a cafe where two waiters are talking and one says that the old man was “in despair about nothing” and that “he has plenty of money.” This is meant to show how the old man is in despair and due to that, he is very lonely. Even though the man had a lot of money and a wife, he even tried to commit suicide, which also did not help. The man knows he is in despair because he has seen the absurd, he realizes everything is meaningless. Once realized, it is very hard to get out of despair because there is no way to get out. The only way to deal with it is to treat it, and the man did that by sitting in the cafe. The cafe provided a place where the man’s despair could be kept in check, it was a clean and organized place which was meant to represent everything, everything other than nothing because nothing is not even supposed to be anything, it is useless. Deaf, the man can feel the quietness of the nighttime and the café, and although he is essentially in his private world, sitting by himself in the café is not the same as being alone for him. Everyone has a way to deal with a loose sense of hope, when one finds a way to deal with it, they accept the absurd by doing something they love which translates into happiness and one’s way out of despair. By accepting the absurd one realizes that life is nothing and useless but if one uses that time doing what they want on an individual level then that is the key to success. This is further proven when in the older waiter’s prayers when he repeats the word “nada,” this is meant to represent how religion is useless when trying to deal with despair because once one has lost all hope, the only way to get it back is by accepting the absurd and making authentic choices. This is why the man is always in the cafe, it creates a routine like Sisyphus, the man likes doing this regularly because it allows him to deal with his despair. Despair is inevitable, and creating this personalized routine allows for it to be treated and eventually thrown out.
By questioning the meaning of existence and the willingness it takes to be truly happy, existentialism hits on a lot of different ideas. It contains certain features that allow it to have a set goal of valuing an individual. The importance of the individual is heavily applied when in an existential state because of the multiple characteristics contributing to it like absurdity, alienation, responsibility plus free will, and despair. Looking for the meaning of life but not being able to find it is being absurd and the feeling of being singled out and outcasted by society because of one’s inability to find their meaning is alienation. When one realizes these things happening, they lose all hope, which is known as despair. Although this may seem very grim, despair can be the beginning of enlightenment because now one has free will and responsibility by accepting this existential view. Having free will and responsibility is when someone has the power to make their own choices as an individual and not for a greater value or order. In turn, this creates an essence of joy that is unique to that one person, this is the true path to happiness according to existentialists. Together, these elements all contrast to form an idea of existentialism in which so many people live.
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