life is meaningless so…i’m just not going to do anything

Vincent van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising, 1890 
The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

All human beings exist in a duality. We exist as a facticity and a transcendence, as a mind and as a body, as subject and as object and the list goes on. “The continuous work of our life” says Montaigne “is to build death”.

Man knows and thinks this tragic ambivalence which the animal and the plant merely undergo. A new paradox is thereby introduced into his destiny. ‘Rational animal,’ ‘thinking reed,’ he escapes from his natural condition without, however, freeing himself from it. He is still a part of this world of which he is a consciousness. He asserts himself as a pure internality against which no external power can take hold, and he also experiences himself as a thing crushed by the dark weight of other things. At every moment he can grasp the non-temporal truth of his existence. But between the past which no longer is and the future which is not yet, this moment when he exists is nothing. This privilege, which he alone possesses, of being a sovereign and unique subject amidst a universe of objects, is what he shares with all his fellow-men. In turn an object for others, he is nothing more than an individual in the collectivity on which he depends.

– Simone de Beauvoir. Page 1 of the Ethics of Ambiguity.

Do yourself a beautiful favor and re-read the above passage again. I encourage you to do it as many times as you feel necessary to really grasp the essence of Simone de Beauvoir’s thought. I have read it many times and each time I read it it deepens my understanding of my existence and puts me face to face with my “self”. It hits me with this cold hard truth that who I am cannot be reduced to one single element like I deceive myself into thinking in an effort to oversimplify my life and my self understanding.

Simone de Beauvoir hits the nail on the head. Human beings cannot be easily defined like we think we can. Jean Paul Sartre said that we are at any given moment both facticity (“facts” about ourselves that we cannot change such as our body, skin colour, place of birth, our past…) and transcendence (our freedom, this ability to go beyond ourselves and take a stance). We exist in this duality of what we are (facticity) and what we are not yet (transcendence). In essence, I am what I am but I also am what I am not.

So we arrive at the ultimate question, who am I?

Am I all the facts about my past? Or am I my future, that is not yet?

Let me preface this with a famous line by Jean Paul Sartre. Existence precedes essence. There is no such thing as a human nature. A person is not born with a “built in” essence or purpose or set of values. According to Sartre, “man is condemned to be free” and therefore chooses her own values. The values that shape a person are the result of a person’s own behavior and their personality is a result from the choices that they make.

We are our choices – Jean Paul Sartre

Simone de Beauvoir takes it a step further and builds upon Sartre’s ideas. She argues that while Sartre is correct: that we are a facticity and we are transcendence, we cannot however be reduced to either facticity or transcendence because we are both! We are our facticity and our transcendence simultaneously and it is in this moment, it is in this tug of war that reality creates a tension for us.

What is this tug of war that Beauvoir speaks of? It is this state of existence in which we are existing as both sides of the same coin at the same time.

we are existing as both sides of the same coin
at the same time.

You know how when you flip a coin and call either heads or tails? You only find out in the moment of landing whether you are heads or tails. Well imagine the coin flipping in the air for a finite period of time (say 86 years), existing in the moment as both heads and tails! That is what we are. We are that coin that’s spinning in the air as both heads and tails that has not fallen down to reveal the side. It is in the moment of landing that is our finality, our death and our choices are building up towards it. Until then, we are that coin suspended in the air for x amount of years of our existence and we cannot be reduced to either side.

I am a subject in this world amongst other subjects who are also navigating freely with their own subjective view of the world for whom I am an object. I am both subject and object. I am a self and I am an other. I am a mind and I am a body! I am in individual and I am a member of a community. I am free and I am not free. I am many things at the same time and therefore exist in this state of constant tension in this duality. Things are not black and white as they appear, there is an area that is a shade of grey. Things are actually black and white and varying shades of grey at the same time!

As long as men have lived they have felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition – Simone de Beauvoir

A photo of Simone de Beauvoir

Just thinking about everything that I am, thinking about all the “facts” about me at this given moment of my time when I am writing this blog post, knowing there is a future I am heading into which will add to my historical makeup (as I transcend myself) is causing my head to tense up and putting me a state of angst.

Why? Because I can be and do so many things! But there are so many years behind me and I am heading into a future that feels unlimited but in fact it is finite. The possibilities are limitless but my existence is limited. I am overwhelmed by my freedom and equally as overwhelmed by everything around me that crushes my transcendence. I am free but I am limited.

When we feel the effects of this ambiguity in our existence our immediate intuitive feeling/reaction is that something is “missing”. Our reason tells us that there is “lack” inside of us that needs mending so we start to think of a strategy to try to understand the world perfectly and try to erase our duality by reducing ourselves to one side of the coin. In doing so Beauvoir says we aim to eliminate this ambiguity by doing one of two things. 1) Either making ourselves pure inwardness or 2) a pure externality. Beauvoir says that try to erase this ambiguity of our existence “by escaping from the sensible world or by being engulfed in it, by yielding to eternity or enclosing oneself in the pure moment”.

Man is a useless passion – Jean Paul Sartre

A photograph of Jean Paul Sartre

It is natural to feel that I can master the world through the utilization of my freedom while simultaneously feeling that I am being crushed by the these uncontrollable forces around me. I am sure you can relate to this feeling of your own existence. If you cannot then you must be God and since Beauvoir said that one cannot give a book of ethics to a God, you can stop reading my blog now.

They have denied death, either by integrating it with life or by promising to man immortality. Or, again they have denied life, considering it as a veil of illusion beneath which is hidden the truth of Nirvana -Simone de Beauvoir.

Here is the kicker. We are born into and exist in a universe that has been established for us, one which has been fashioned before we existed. This feels more true to us as children when we have a clear sense of what is right and wrong and our parents appear to us as the ultimate moral beings shielding us from this ambiguity of our existence that we have not yet become conscious of. In our formative years we know that the values that are “out there” are absolute and we must conform to them. As we enter adolescence the ambiguity surfaces and by the time we are adults we are confronted with the truth that we are free to choose our own meaning in a world that is constantly trying to take away out freedom.

So what happens to us as adults when confronted with the truth of human existence?

I don’t know about you but I slip into Nihilism.

Despair‘ by Wegmann Bertha (1847-1926)

Nihilism is a belief that life is meaningless. The values that I was born into are human made but I operate within them, if I choose to go against them then life becomes difficult for me. I know that I can go against the grain/system because I am the creator of my own values. I want to do and experience so many things because I have all this freedom. Hmmm but I know that if I choose to do x then I cannot do a,b,c,d,e,f,g,h,i,j,k,l,n,m,o,p,q,r,s,t,u,v,w and y. If I choose to do y then I cannot do a,b,c,d,e,f,g,h,i,j,k,l,n,m,o,p,q,r,s,t,u,v,w and x!

What do I do? Well….I choose to do absolutely nothing because every action is ultimately meaningless because it is subjective and since I am the creator of values it doesn’t matter what I do.

Conscious of being unable to be anything, man decides to be nothing….The Nihilist is close to the spirit of seriousness, for instead of realizing his negativity as a living moment, he conceives his annihilation in a substantial way. He wants to be nothing and this nothing that he dreams of is still another sort of being. -Simone de Beauvoir

Enter Logic Based Therapy

Problem: I exist. I didn’t choose to exist. I am free but I am also not free. I have to create meaning in a world where values are already in existence. I’m existing in a state of tension and I want to break it! This is difficult because I can choose to do so many things. I am overwhelmed and scared of utilizing my freedom.

Rule: I have freedom to do anything but since life has no meaning I am going to do nothing.

Outcome: depression, feeling of little to purpose, no activity, life rarely changes, little self/personal/professional growth, overall feeling of apathy. 0 zest for life that I see everyone else has. Feelings of wanting to participate in life but feeling paralyzed by choice so I choose to do nothing.

Well obviously if you choose to operate with the above rule you will do absolutely nothing and feel lethargic and hopeless and act in self defeating ways.

Antidote: Moral creativity. Sartre would snap out of Nihilism! Get off the couch and take responsibility for your life through your freedom. Define yourself through your commitments and projects. Work towards your goals despite the resistance that you will encounter from others. The very idea of morality relies on the fact that people are free to choose between two alternatives.

When we morally praise someone, we praise them for acting in a way that affirms themselves and the freedom of others. We praise them because they chose in a manner (despite how difficult it was in that moment) that reflects the responsibility and commitment they have towards the freedom of their own life and in turn the lives of others.

Simone de Beauvoir would say that sure choosing Nihilism is a choice. So congratulations, you are still using your freedom and you are right in thinking that the world possesses no justification and that you are nothing.

However! Beauvoir would say, you are forgetting that is it up to you to justify the world and to make yourself exist with validity. There is life Beauvoir says and the Nihilists knows that he is alive and that is where the failure lies she says because the Nihilist “rejects existence without managing to eliminate it”.

The choice of being a Nihilist means that you are reducing yourself to pure object and thereby playing this “part” and as a result you are living in bad faith (a kind of project of self deception) according to Sartre. The reason that you are choosing to slip into bad faith is because you are taking values that exist “out there” too seriously and are forgetting that values are contingent, chosen by you (and others) and assigned subjectively. You are shifting responsibility off of yourself by deciding not to act at all because you can literally choose to do anything!

You feel that nothing matters because you know that things matter to you but since you are the one who decides ultimately what matters you prevent yourself from making a choice you choose to make no choice at all.

Beauvoir would say that in whatever you decide to do, just keep in mind that you are setting up a world for tomorrow, that is, through your action you are promoting that very action that you chose to do to be taken by others!

Nelson Mandela is praised because of his actions and words that helped end apartheid in South Africa and opened up the freedom other people enjoy today. Had Mandela done nothing and resorted to Nihilism making himself complicit in the racist divide, he wouldn’t be praised like he is today. You are the Nelson Mandela of your own life so use your freedom to open up freedom for yourself and others.

You recognize your ambiguity! The fact that you have recognized that you are the coin suspended in the air for a finite period of time, the fact that you see the contradictions playing out in front of you, the fact that you are aware that you have freedom but you also that you don’t have freedom, the fact that you know you are a subject for yourself an an object for others, the fact that you know that you are an individual and a member of a group is actually amaaazing news!

You understand the ambiguity of your existence and now you can launch. Except there is a catch you may never feel “completed”. There may not be a way you can fulfill the “lack”, this feeling that something is lacking may never do away. If you declare there is no meaning to your life then you are justifying not taking an action on anything. By simply being alive, you cannot help but create meaning in your life because meaning is created and recreating in each passing moment. You have a moral duty to yourself not to deceive yourself and live in bad faith. You have a moral duty to choose, to create meaning and will your freedom and the freedom of others.

She was not to look beyond herself for the meaning of her life – Simone de Beauvoir

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