Confessions of a Lapsed Existentialist: The Dilemma of Being a Stranger in your own Life
As an existentialist I have a little problem in my life right now. The search for and experience of authentic self-identity and self-actualization are core existential values; those of us who embrace this tradition care deeply about becoming and being the individual human beings who we truly are and are meant to be. “Looking within,” as corny and clichéd as it may sound, is a process to which we should be passionately committed and that we believe or hope will at least provide a substantial and meaningful reflection of our true selves from the inner mirror.
The trouble is that when I look within what I find is a profound absence of the most essential reality that ought to be there, namely, me.
Instead of myself I see a stranger, someone whom I don’t recognize and who has hijacked my inner life. Rather than becoming more fully alive a void of nothingness has been swallowing me whole; there is growth inside me but it is a growing deadness that I accept and tolerate out of helplessness and weariness. I am extremely fortunate in terms of material needs, general quality of life, employment, relational support, etc., and I’m not complaining or ungrateful for these tremendous blessings. Yet, I have learned that external conditions cannot replace internal emptiness, an experience to which I suspect many others can relate in their own unique ways.
I desperately need to re-establish contact with the depths of my being, but given the current structural and situational dynamics of my life I find this existential process to be very difficult. I feel like I work all the time. I have two adjunct teaching positions; my wife works full-time; I stay at home with our 6 and 3 year-old boys several days a week; laundry; house cleaning; meal prep and clean-up; school, activities and classes for the boys; always more laundry (what is it with the damn laundry?!)…enough, I’m sure you get the point. Whether it’s work at “work” or work at home it seems like its all work. I often feel that I have forgotten how to have fun, how to really enjoy life, and that I have been wholly absorbed into the all-surrounding busyness and daily stressors of life. During the rare moments of personal “me time” that I do get, I am initially at a loss regarding what to do; I actually have to stop and consider what I enjoy doing, I don’t know what to do with myself. When I look at my life I too often cannot find myself in it; in too many ways I am not really present in my own life…and this is tragic. I am living within a range of social roles, as we all do, and they are significant, necessary, and truly wonderful roles: I love being and am proud to be a husband, father, and college professor, and it’s not as if these are inauthentic roles; indeed, they are deeply authentic for me, especially those of spouse and parent. Yet, they still seem to compete with and ultimately overcome the priority of my own authentic identity and self-actualization, particularly regarding my parental role. I realize that this is likely unavoidable to a certain extent and that this is an inherently challenging season of life, but the fact remains that I must navigate this territory and presently I am lost in it.
So, what am I to do, and what are you to do? Whatever your current life situation and circumstances I assume that most of us can relate to these dynamics. For is this dilemma not central to the human condition? An innate challenge of being human in this world is the process of establishing an authentic individual identity and actualizing one’s potential within the context of social roles and the external, practical demands of daily life. I would also humbly suggest that this issue represents a serious crisis in our present cultural consciousness. Does our nation exhibit a strong and meaningful communal identity; are we fully (or even minimally) actualizing the constructive potential of our American culture and what it can offer to the world? I know that we are good at caring about money, chronic busyness and illusory “productivity,” image and appearances, comfort and false security, superficial and shallow distractions, and numbing entertainment. But it seems that we are profoundly challenged when it comes to understanding and living for what truly matters, for depth, the real and authentic, sacrifice and the willingness to change and grow. A healthy and unifying cultural identity seems to be absent from our cultural consciousness. The disturbing truth is that our cultural authenticity and actualization are based on the extent to which we as individuals are striving toward these goals in our own lives. My self-actualization is rooted in my ability to pursue it within the stress of my daily life caring for my kids, and I will be a “good father” to the extent that I am truly myself. Your self-actualization is grounded in your ability to make it a reality within the context of your concrete, daily life circumstances. We need to figure it out because the quality of our individual lives and shared cultural life depends on it, and yet all I have is a relentless and crushing question…without an answer.
Perhaps it is most important to acknowledge that the point is not to produce “quick-fix” or “band-aid” answers and that the greatest power lies in asking the vital questions regarding our inner growth and self-discovery. As Rilke indicates, maybe we are not ready for the answers but rather need to “love and live the questions now” which will enable us to “live our way into the answer.” May we find the courage and strength to love and live these most vital questions, so that we can then love and live the answers when they come to us.
-- Scott Kiser