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Are You an Existentialist?

Many thinkers and influencers today refer to these covid times as the existential crisis of our era. The variety of explanations of what is meant by this term leaves me considering: how might I define existential crisis?

My first introduction to the field of philosophy was as a sophomore at the University of Michigan. I was eighteen and radically alive with an insatiable desire to wonder and learn about pretty much everything. I was searching for meaning and purpose, to understand what the point of life was, and — more specifically — what was the point of my life.

So it made sense to take a philosophy class.

Not knowing much about the different schools of philosophy, I chose a course on existentialism — exploring the nature of existence itself.

I remember meeting with my professor during office hours after earning a C on my first term paper — a grade much lower than those I was accustomed to receiving.

Professor James was young, in his mid thirties, handsome in an academic sort of way with dark thick hair and tortoise shell glasses. He often wore a sweater with leather patches on the elbows.

I don’t remember the exact assignment or even the topic of the essay, but I remember sitting across from his desk during office hours and asking him about my grade — what could I have done differently?

“You didn’t present a coherent thesis,” he said as he took a sip of black coffee. “Your writing is all over the place — more of a personal expression than a philosophically sound exposition.”

I recall defending myself in some lame fashion, secretly hoping this intelligent and attractive man might actually be interested in me, willing to help me organize my ideas, make meaning of them, and articulate them.

Isn’t that what college professors are supposed to do?

Professor James hosted late night philosophy meetings by invitation only in the downstairs of a local bar — an Ann Arbor institution. He suggested I attend one and maybe then I would understand what he was pointing me towards. He did not change my grade nor suggest any edits. I agreed to attend a meeting.

The following week I arrived at the bar close to midnight. The downstairs was dark and smoky. I located the corner table where a crowd of eight people was gathered around the professor.

I pulled up a chair, ordered a gin and tonic, and settled in.

A little context …

Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher. He proposed that each individual — not society or religion — is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely, or “authentically.”

Thus existential philosophy became the form of philosophical inquiry that explores the problem of human existence and centers on the lived experience of the thinking, feeling, and acting individual.

What I witnessed that night with Professor James and his aspiring disciples was nothing of the sort.

What little I did know about more traditional philosophers was enough to see that these folks were more like them, pontificating theoretically about existence and meaning while being wholly disconnected from their personal emotional and physical existence. They were like disembodied heads that drank and chatted about theories and ideas, never speaking to their lived experience.

They weren’t existential at all.

But I actually was.

My term paper revolved around my lived experience — as a young college student in the early eighties, grappling with political issues like nuclear proliferation, the conflict in the Middle East, and the lingering trauma of the Vietnam war. Woven into my exposition was the trail of more personal issues — around sex, love, money, and death.

My subjective little life was embedded into that first philosophy paper — **as a way of maturing myself into adulthood and tackling head-on the angst of the human condition.** I chose to speak with authority from the lived experience of a singular thinking, feeling, and acting individual: me. Only to be told it was not philosophy at all.

But maybe it was.

Philosophy = love of wisdom. Was my deep dive into hard questions not reflective of my growing love for goodness, truth, and beauty?

It was.

Was I not being an existential philosopher rather than talking about being one?

I was.

Now, forty years later, this word existential is catapulted into the mainstream. **More than a descriptor, it feels to me like an invitation — maybe more like a directive. **

Get existential, people!

Rather than going into our heads to find a theoretical solution to issues such as climate change, social injustice, and economic disparity, I suggest we consider getting authentically existential about all of life.

I’m curious what might emerge if we were to enter more deeply into our lived experiences in order to find our way forward. I know it may feel counterintuitive — to self-reflect rather than seek solutions. But, what if looking inward is how we will find our way to those sorely needed solutions?

I ended up with a C in Professor James’ philosophy class. I could never find my way to writing the sort of philosophical exposés he wanted from me. I resigned myself to this and allowed myself to trust my gut and fully be in the questions, to make my writing personal and not theoretical, and to use the opportunity to actually wonder instead of trying to posit myself as a philosopher. It was worth getting a lousy grade.

The following semester I dropped out. I opted to head to California and simply live for a while — let life be my classroom.

Two years later I was back in school at UC Santa Cruz studying alternative education. I found my calling in creating conditions for embodied learning to happen. Rather than education being a place to stuff young minds with answers to questions that they should be figuring out for themselves, I was excited to offer a genuinely existential classroom experience. Philosophers such as Rudolph Steiner, William James, and AS Neill would influence the course of my career.

To this day, I remain passionate about learning and how we do it, with the underlying question always landing on who am I, why am I here, what constitutes a meaningful life?

There’s a tendency in all of us to think we already know. To collapse into certainty. About this and many other topics.

But the real existentialist in us would never do that. We would stay in the wondering — with our feet firmly planted on the ground, applying our lived experience to our authenticity, and making certain that, even as we embody what we have learned and know, we never collapse into feeling like we “got it.”

So yes, I would agree with those thinkers and influencers who claim this moment in human history is the existential crisis of our era.

And I am left wondering …

Will we take the opportunity individually to become “solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it authentically”? Or will we ignore the call and collapse into false certainties that are likely to lead us over a precipice into extinction?

Time will tell.

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