After some time away I have returned to Existentialism. I guess when working life is getting the better part of you, it pays to focus on the things under your own control – your mind, how you spend your free time and where you focus your attention.
And this is a key aspect of Existentialism, as Gary Cox sets out in ‘How to be an Existentialist’, because although it takes a body to have one, the mind is what defines us. Indeed understanding the nature and peculiarity of consciousness plays a key part in Existentialism.
Cutting to the chase, a key feature of consciousness – I discover – is it is always noticing what’s lacking: what isn’t happening, what is wanted and what the future is keeping from us…
Consciousness is always predisposed to find something lacking because lack is intrinsic to the very meaning of every situation for any particular consciousness. This is why, according to existentialist philosophers, a consciousness, a person, can never be completely satisfied. A person will always interpret a situation in terms of what it lacks for him.
If he is cooking, his meal lacks being cooked. If he is eating, his meal lacks being eaten. If he is half way through a movie the movie lacks an ending so far. If the movie is poor and he does not care about the ending then his situation lacks interest. If he is tired he lacks sleep (tiredness is lack of sleep). If he has just awoken and is ready for the day he lacks the things he hopes to achieve that day and so on and so on.
And if these seem like small things, it gets worse…
In general, a person always lacks the future towards which he is constantly heading, the future which gives meaning to his present actions and beyond which he hopes in vain to be fulfilled and at one with himself.
Ever onward, the endless march of time, towards a future that is presently lacking, an absent future that will fall into the past as soon as it is reached, a past with its own absent future.
It seems that the endless march of time constantly cheats us of what we are, prevents us from becoming one with ourselves, but really, what we are is this endless march forward in time, creatures that can never become one with themselves.
So this is why my jockey is constantly lost… I’m dashing through life seeking myself; doomed never to find me. As indeed are we all.
As Cox puts it:
Existentialism recommends bravely accepting that this is how life is and making the most of it. It recommends building your life on the firm basis of hard, uncomfortable truths rather than the shifting sands of soft, comfortable delusions.
Ironically perhaps, there is also the suggestion that people will actually be happier and relatively more satisfied if they accept what the endless temporal flight of consciousness towards the future implies, namely, that it is alien to the human condition for a person to be completely satisfied and contented for any length of time.
Existentialism offers satisfaction of a stoical kind through the acceptance of the inevitability of a certain amount of dissatisfaction.
And I’m all for stoicism. But returning to the starting point; if it is the restlessness of consciousness that defines, us then Cox points out:
We constantly encounter a world characterized and defined by the motives, intentions and attitudes we choose to have and the evaluations we choose to make.
This is not to say that the world is anything we wish it to be, far from it, but it is to say that there is a very real sense in which the world for each person is a product of the attitude with which he or she approaches it. This realization is, or should be, enormously empowering.
The person who chooses to be positive and confident or, at least, genuinely tries to be positive and confident, will encounter a very different world from the person who chooses to be negative.
So that’s where I’m focusing my consciousness; if you can’t change some of what’s happening around you, focus your mind on what you can.