Young people bear the brunt of many blanketed accusations related to behavior. An especially common one is that they spend all their time mindlessly absorbed in their phones.
The trend of staring into cell phones is, of course, not strictly reserved to kids; I see plenty of adults of all ages staring into that magical little piece of electronic wonderment, myself included. But what is it about this staring into phones, video games or endless hours of streaming content that gets us so worked up?
There is this notion that by involving yourself deeply in the activity going on in your phone for many hours a day, a person is somehow missing out on other, more authentic experiences. It is, in a way, a type of self imposed exile from a life that is more real. But how does one have authentic experiences or rather live authentically?
One of the gateways through which authenticity is reached is that of passion. To live with passion is to live with attentiveness; attentiveness to yourself (inwardness) and to the world in which you inhabit (outwardness). To live with passion is then to engage with these two aspects of existence. Passion plays a central role in the philosophies of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, two of the great existentialist thinkers of the 19th century.
Kierkegaard on Living with Passion
One of Kierkegaard’s main preoccupations was criticism of the state-run Lutheran church and its parishioners. He was disgusted by the Christians of his Copenhagen, believing they had become mechanical in their devotion to God, accusing them of blatant hypocrisy, empty belief, and banal societal membership; that they displayed no passion for their faith, that it was all just one big social club where all acted with a herd-mentality. In other words, they were inauthentic, because they did not approach their Christianity with attentiveness or engagement.
But Christianity was not the only time Kierkegaard mentions passion. It is a steady thread which weaves through all his philosophy. In his book Works of Love, he implies that passion is for us, as existential beings, the most cherished thing of all because it is, to put it in today’s parlance, what gets us out of bed in the morning.
It is not abstract thought that gets us through life, it is action, and the thing that prompts action is passion. It is what gets us through hard times, through suffering, and through pain. Lying on the couch thinking about what has you depressed only makes you more depressed. It is the getting up off of the couch that begins to pull you out of the depths, even if the action is to make yourself a sandwich or go to the grocery. Action is also the thing that ignites us to do great things, to explore and know ourselves and the world around us better and ultimately result in a life better lived.
Nietzsche on Living with Passion
Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was just as disgusted with his contemporaries, feeling that they led empty lives filled with frivolities supported by flimsy philosophies. This is expressed in multiple categories across various books: aesthetics and beauty in The Birth of Tragedy, morality in The Genealogy of Morals, but perhaps his most comprehensive statement regarding passion was in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
“Behold, I teach you the Ubermensch. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”
The theory of the Ubermensch (superman) is a difficult one, but essentially it is the idea that there is a next possible phase in human development, a possible evolution; that humans might overcome their current selves and be better. The Ubermensch is someone who acknowledges he is free and wholly independent of the herd and by doing so acknowledges his responsibility in the crafting of society and his personal life. But the concept of the Ubermensch becomes more significant once the reader is introduced to the other possibility in humanity’s development, the “Last Man”.
One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.
The Last Man is another evolutionary possibility and Nietzsche’s shot at the disconnected, self-contented modern man. Think of a couch potato with all the luxuries of life, self-secluded in his delusion, streaming empty content all day long, consuming whatever potions that make life more bearable, not really wanting to work for much, hoping the job will get done for him. The Last Man is so consumed by frivolity that he takes no time to better himself because the distracted world is a more preferred world even if it is a fiction.
Nietzsche says we have a choice, and he emphasizes that it is a choice freely made, to either devolve into being the Last Man or become something more, the Ubermensch, and tap the chaos within each of us that we might give birth to a dancing star.
What is the Right Kind of Passion?
The right kind of passion is that action which leads to a more authentic you. Does that mean the existentialist notion of passion is relativistic? I do not believe so. There are limits to the right kind of attentiveness and engagements to life. A balance must be struck.
To have the right kind of attentiveness means to avoid extremes. Too much attentiveness and a person becomes unhealthy absorbed into whatever it is they are being attentive to. Say you are being attentive to introspection. One can become entirely too absorbed in their own inner-self, even to the point where they might become lost in themselves. This is unhealthy because the person has become too unengaged or unattached with the world outside them self. Yet too much attentiveness to the world outside one’s self, the sense of self that develops from introspection becomes neglected and begins to dissolve. So, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
All great philosophies should allow for a degree of interpretation; it can never be so prescriptive that one simply has to pick up the book of how to live a good life and find answers to all questions for all scenarios.
To perhaps ground this example a little further, let us replace introspection with that somewhat annoying example of being on our phones too much. Surely phones play an important and practical role in our lives? So when is too much, too much? Does it have to do with what we are engaging with on our phones? Is scrolling Twitter or watching mindless YouTube videos less valuable an activity than messaging friends or emailing family members? Or do our phones broadly become too much when we realize they, by some measure, are controlling our behaviors, thus keeping us from living passionately and in authenticity?
Or ask the question this way, does the amount of your activity on your phone (or anything else) bring you closer or further away from becoming Nietzsche’s Last Man? In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the Last Men prophetically say, “We have invented happiness.” Is that not what we have done in so many ways?
To live with passion is not a license to simply become an irresponsible, hedonistic, pleasure seeking creature. Again, to live with passion is to live in attentiveness and engagement with life. It is essentially to wake-up from the induced slumber the many distractions society provides us. In this way, living passionately is not so much an activity per se as much as it is a mindset.
So my friends, it is time to wake up! To live with passion is to live now! Throw yourself into that life of yours! Discover and nurture that which gets you out of the bed in the morning, make your life one of action by being attentive and engaged, and give birth to that dancing star!