Book: How to Be an Existentialist

 

howtobeanexistentialist

I got How to Be an Existientialist: or How to Get Real, Get a Grop and Stop Making Excuses as a present from my cat this Christmas. She has a good taste in books. It is an easy and entertaining read, and poses some good questions to help us live with a little more honesty and integrity.

I also find that the book stimulates a lot of questions for me, often several on each page, which is a sign of a very good book.

For instance, on page 68, the author describes Sartre’s example of a homosexual. Or rather, a man acting in homosexual ways, yet refusing to apply the label “homosexual” to himself.

Arguably, the very deep problem that Sartre’s homosexual has is that he doesn’t want to be the homosexual he nontheless chooses to be through his actions.

To me, it seems simple. He can take responsibility for his choices and actions. Yet, why limit himself by such a label? Life, and our lives, is not limited by any labels. On the contrary, it seems to take delight in constantly showing up outside of any imagined boundaries we can come up with.

For me, the most honest seems to be to take responsibility for ones choices and actions, to “own” them as we say today. And also to admit that labels are largely meaningless. I may act in mainly heterosexual or homosexual ways, but I am not limited by it. I may find Buddhism insightful and providing good pointers for own practice, but I cannot say I “am Buddhist”. I may find a great deal of value in the New Testament and do several Christian practices, but I wouldn’t know what it means to “be Christian”. I may eat mainly vegetarian food, but I certainly cannot say I “am vegetarian”. I may do bodywork on occasion, even frequently, but I cannot say “I am a bodyworker”.

Actions are real and it is healthy to take responsibility for them. (Sometimes, in extreme cases, it may be a good thing to disown them for a while until we have digested the situation.) But to define ourselves as an object is not really possible. We are far too fluid for that. The landscape is far too wide, already including both ends of any polarity we can come up with.

And if I am to be more honest, I see that both views are valid. Sometimes, insisting on avoiding labels can be dishonest. It can be a way to avoid an identity we would rather not have. Labels can also point to patterns over time in our behavior. And yet, insisting on labels can also be dishonest, since we are already far too fluid for that.

One simple and practical solution is to (a) find how the label fits, feel into it, find specific examples of how my actions fit the label and own it as thoroughly as possible, and (b) also recognize how my life is more fluid than the label, here too with specific examples.

In reading a little further, I see that existentialists do focus on verbs and actions. Our choices and actions can be more or less authentic, in any particular situation. Yet the author – and Sartre – sometimes talks about “being authentic” as if it is a state or something we can arrive at, rather than an action and a direction. Confusing.

There are also a few things that seem important, but are not emphasized or directly addressed by the book. To be fair, most of them are to be found between the lines, and I am sure the source texts go more into each of these and much more.

Advice | The book, especially in reading about Sartre, also reminds me of another simple pointer: When we apply our advice to others, we inevitably experience frustration. But when we take it for ourselves, there is a sense of coming home and of relief. The advice is applied where it is meant to be applied. As a side-effect, our actions may become an example for others, which is more powerful anyway. (I wonder if Sartre was caught up in mainly trying to apply it to others? If so, no wonder if he experienced frustration.)

Authenticity as a direction | Is authenticity a goal or a direction? To me, it seems more useful as a direction. We can move in the direction of honesty and integrity in any choice and action we make, but there is always further to go. Honesty and integrity is a landscape that continues to open up for us. Inquiry in any form, for instance through The Work, is a practical and simple way to notice that, and to allow it to continue to open up.

Clarity or willpower | How do we chose or act in a more authentic way? If we rely on willpower or “character” we won’t be very successful. But if it comes from clarity, it is a more natural and effortless process. And this is especially true if we also have inquired into how we stop ourselves from acting in that way. First, find what is more honest for me in the situation. Then, find clarity around the beliefs I have that prevents me from acting that way. And stress is my guidepost for finding these beliefs.

Depends on the situation | The author doesn’t mention circumstances much, but it seems essential to include. Our choices and actions can be more or less honest, made from more or less integrity, and may appear more or less appropriate, depending on the situation. They are not honest, done with integrity, or appropriate, in themselves, only more or less so in a particular situation.

Language | If we use overly complex, jargon-laden or technical language, we limit our audience. It makes it tempting to continue playing with stories rather than applying them to our own life. And it is easy to hide confused thinking behind a smokescreen of complexity. A simple, ordinary, everyday language makes it more available to all of us, including ourselves. Simple pointers are easier to apply to our own life. And the most profound and helpful insights are often very simple.

Free | On page 3, the books says that existentialism aims to reveal to you that you are a fundamentally free being so you can start living accordingly. This may be a sound and practical strategy: Act as if you have free choice. But, of course, we can act as if we have free choice, even if we don’t. For any thought, choice and action, I can find infinite causes and little room for “free choice”. Yet, it is very important that I chose and act as if I have free choice, because it helps me live with more integrity, and in a way that is a little more mature. (Acting as if I have free choice then becomes one of many causes of my thoughts, choices and actions, and it itself has infinite causes.)

Groups | The author says that a true existentialist wouldn’t join a club that has members (page 2). That may be their conscious view, but it seems dishonest and somewhat silly. We may move in the direction of honesty and integrity, but the way we go about it and the way it comes out is necessarily filtered by culture and subcultures, so we will necessarily belong to many specific clubs no matter what we do. Sartre and the french existentialists, to take one example, obviously created their own subculture with its own rules and expectations. It is good to notice and be honest about this too. And I personally find it beautiful how we are all in the same boat in many different ways, at many levels and areas.

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– when apply advice to others, frustration (b/c is meant for ourselves)
– our lives are verbs/activity, not nouns (do, not be)
– or, our lives are verbs/activity, and patterns of activity which can be labeled as a noun

……………..

In reading a little further, I see that existentialists do focus on verbs and actions. Our choices and actions can be more or less authentic, in any particular situation. Yet the author – and Sartre – sometimes talks about “being authentic” as if it is a state or something we can arrive at, rather than an action and a direction. Confusing.

………..

Language | If we use overly complex, jargon-laden or technical language, we often do all of us a disservice. We limit our audience. A complex language makes it more tempting to just play with stories rather than applying them as pointers to our own life. And we may get caught up in confusion where it could be much simpler. It is easy to hide simple and ordinary truths, or confused thinking, behind a smokescreen of complexity. A simple, ordinary, everyday language is more accessible to more people, in many ways more honest, and certainly more practical. The most profound insights are often the simplest ones. And simple pointers are easier to apply to our own life.

……

Clarity or willpower | How do we chose or act in a more authentic way? If we rely on willpower or “character” we won’t be very successful. But if it comes from clarity, it is a more natural and effortless process. And this is especially true if we also have inquired into how we stop ourselves from acting in that way. First, find what is more honest for me in the situation. Then, find clarity around the beliefs I have that prevents me from acting that way.

…………………

initial draft….

I also find that the book stimulates a lot of questions for me, often several on each page, which is a sign of a very good book.

For instance, on page 68, the author describes Sartre’s example of a homosexual. Or rather, a man acting in homosexual ways, yet refusing to apply the label “homosexual” to himself.

Arguably, the very deep problem that Sartre’s homosexual has is that he doesn’t want to be the homosexual he nontheless chooses to be through his actions.

To me, it seems simple. He can take responsibility for his choices and actions. Yet, why limit himself by such a label? Life, and our lives, is not limited by any labels. On the contrary, it seems to take delight in constantly showing up outside of any imagined boundaries we can come up with.

For me, the most honest seems to be to take responsibility for ones choices and actions, to “own” them as we say today. And also to admit that labels are largely meaningless. I may act in mainly heterosexual or homosexual ways, but I am not limited by it. I may find Buddhism insightful and providing good pointers for own practice, but I cannot say I “am Buddhist”. I may find a great deal of value in the New Testament and do several Christian practices, but I wouldn’t know what it means to “be Christian”. I may eat mainly vegetarian food, but I certainly cannot say I “am vegetarian”. I may do bodywork on occasion, even frequently, but I cannot say I “am a bodyworker”.

Actions are real and it is healthy to take responsibility for them. (Sometimes, in extreme cases, it may be healthy to disown them for a while until we have digested the situation.) But to define ourselves as an object is not really possible. We are far too fluid for that. The landscape is far too wide, already including both ends of any polarity we can come up with.

And if I am to be more honest, I see that both views are valid. Sometimes, insisting on avoiding labels can be dishonest. It can be a way to avoid an identity we would rather not have. And yet, insisting on labels can also be dishonest, since we are already far too fluid for that.

One simple and practical solution is to (a) find how the label fits, feel into it, find specific examples of how my actions fit the label and own it as thoroughly as possible, and (b) also recognize how my life is more fluid than the label, here too with specific examples.

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