Just the other day I received in the mail a book titled The Tragic Sense of Life, a 1921 treatise on existentialist themes by Miguel de Unamuno, which got me thinking about those standard issues of life, death, and the responsibility of living authentically. Of course, I began thinking about these things just before bed, and while situating my nightstand and verifying the alarm clock, I remember thinking this phrase, “The weight of existence presses down upon us all.”
A bit dramatic, I admit, but let me explain what I mean by the weight of existence, because I believe it has something to do not with just me but all of us who find ourselves in what are, I assume, similar quarantine experiences.
Provided Structures and Personal Identity
Society provides to us a great deal of structure. When one removes these structures we are left with very little personal identity because our identities are, if not in part, wholly based on and supported by these structures. In other words, without these structures, our identity begins to dissolve into an abstract, formless existence.
Think of the things which give you identity, and then one by one remove those elements. Whether that be your career, school work, your family and friends, nationality or ethnicity, your pets, favorite sports teams, ideologies and beliefs, the things you do for recreation, and even physical possessions such as your car, bed, house, or keepsake mementos. Remove all of these and what is left?
Very little, because it is these structures to which the self attaches in order to maintain identity, and without them the self begins to vanish. So in our current situation, for most people, the house they live in and their network of family and friends remain the same, even if experienced virtually. This is enough to maintain their identity, but other structures, such as jobs and routines, may be slowly eroding, thus causing distress. The issue of losing one’s identity is not so dire just yet that extreme concern is called for, but this is why people who have been in quarantine for many weeks might be feeling a bit unsettled.
All of this is why I think the dramatic phrase appeared in my head last night. I was struck by the immense personal responsibility that comes with maintaining and creating myself.
Responsibility and the Self
This notion of responsibility in the creation of an authentic self is a core tenet of Existentialism. Of course, this usually takes place in the context of society under normal circumstances, but certainly has not always been the case. In fact, many of the well known 20th century Existentialists such as de Beauvoir, Sartre, and Camus wrestled with what it meant to be an authentic person in the midst of World War Two and its lead up. Thankfully we are not in such a horrific event as World War Two, but we do find ourselves in a unusual situation.
Because of either the absence or altering of commonly provided structures, what I think many people are facing right now is the need to create oneself in this new context. Rather like the many fiction stories where a person wakes up and suddenly finds them self in a new reality, they have two choices; succumb to despair or create oneself in said new reality.
Take myself for example. I have been in my home for four weeks now. Everything here in my home is comfortingly familiar, the same as it was four weeks ago, but other aspects of my experience, such as contact with my city outside of my immediate neighborhood, has become very limited. I’ve gone to the grocery a handful of times, the garden nursery twice, a few restaurants for a take-out meal, and to work twice, but I could have normally fit these activities into one week rather than stretched out over four.
Obviously the biggest structure to shift has been that of going to work; the routine of the daily drive, the school building, my office and classroom, and most important, my students, friends, and colleagues. Each week, work would occupy 50 – 60 hours of my time.
Not that I am not working at home. In some ways, it feels like I’m working more, but that is because of the way in which I am now working has changed. It all takes place in a computer. In video conferencing, I look at my students, friends, and colleagues in individual little boxes on my computer screen rather than together in a single context. All my communication is by phone, email, or video conference. All instruction is online. I don’t even see my students except for the few who show up for our virtual video conference class that meets one hour a week.
So What to Do About It?
So, when I say the weight of existence, the weight is the responsibility of creating or at least re-imagining myself authentically in this new context; to not allow myself to slide into the abstract while existing inside my house and become a thing without structure.
But what will that structure be? That is the responsibility that I and others who find themselves in the same situation must answer. So how to do that?
Simply being aware of why something is happening, like the possible slow erosion of the self, is the first step. It is from here that analysis and adjustment begins. But aside from that, there are a few practical, if not vague, suggestions.
Keep in mind and take encouragement that when something erodes, what is left can be formed into something new. This requires creation on the part of the individual, and creation takes a great deal of energy, time and passion, but all is by no means lost.
Living with passion, which I define as living in attention to the interior and external world and then meaningful engagement with those aspects of attention, is a place to start. But an introspective person cannot be a lazy person. It takes work and sometimes even courage to face that which is inside yourself, and then finding how the interior self fits into the external world, which is the creation and maintenance of the authentic self, can be difficult. It is, however, a very good place to start and work worth doing.
Compliment this essay with anything from the Being and Existence category.