Seeing the choice: the New Existentialism (Part 2)

man on pier

Existentialists tell us we’re alone in an absurd world. But we know better. Photo: adib.wahab.

When you and I speak of saving the world, we mean saving the world roughly as we know it now — a world populated by elephants, gorillas, kangaroos, bison, elk, eagles, seals, whales, and so on…There are only two ways to save the world in this sense. One of them is to destroy you immediately — not to wait for you to render the world uninhabitable for yourselves…The only other way to save the world is to save you. Is to show you how to get the things you so desperately need — instead of destroying the world…The people of your culture are destroying the world not because they’re vicious or stupid, as Mother Culture teaches, but because they’re terribly, terribly deprived- of things that humans absolutely must have, simply cannot go on living without year after year and generation after generation…Given a choice between destroying the world and having the things they really, deeply want, they’ll choose the latter. But before they can make that choice, they must see that choice.

— Ishmael, from My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

The existentialists of the past were only able to see human existence as defined by the culture of civilization that they found themselves in. They sought to define existence through a worldview that saw a universe with no purpose, meaning, or connection.

Civilization up to that point had taught the human mind that humans only had a purpose if they were the center of existence itself.

A cosmos without meaning in itself allowed for the human psyche to morally justify conquering, exploiting, consuming, subjugating, and controlling it. A world without any inherent coherence allowed for us to morally justify the spread of civilization itself across the globe, killing everything and anyone who stood in its way. A world without purpose allowed for the human mind to accept the misery, suffering, and the violent world the culture created in pursuit of a higher goal.

With the individual as the supreme entity and the subjective facets of human life being the most important, it is quite easy to forget the impact of human activity upon the Earth.

Likewise, it was quite easy for the eventual development of a reaction, a rebellion in epistemology that would see life as absurd and pointless, a view that Sartre, Camus and other existentialists explored.

However, although a geocentric universe gave way to a heliocentric model, an anthropocentric arrogance remained.

Humans at the center

The existentialists upheld the long cherished ideology that humans were at the center of existence. They could not let go of this belief as they had let go of a geocentric universe.

They had rebelled against the Church. They had rebelled against God. They had even rebelled against the philosophy of human progress developed out of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. But, they still saw humanity as masters of the world. And, they tried to define the misery and suffering of the human condition from this perspective, looking out from “underground,” from the center of existence as they saw it — their obsession with the individual in a world devoid of meaning.

Only through this view could one see humanity as perpetually doomed and life as absurd, concluding that we will always be the problem. Existentialists still centered on individual needs and desires in a world that was merely an object, something to be used as raw material to make the individual happy. In such an absurd world, humans became our own enemy and this became our “natural state,” that which we could not escape.

The world was cruel and harsh, full of despair and angst. Science and philosophy had not demonstrated anything more profound than the conclusion that life was a struggle, because our culture predicated and fed upon the need to continually strive. Existentialists believed that only by appeasing the desires of the individual human mind could one address the “problem” of meaning.

Yet society only provided artificial meaning by coercing the mind into wanting it, in order to direct human consciousness in the direction that only benefited its sense of “progress.”

Thus, existentialism still upheld a faith — the same type of superstition Sartre, Camus and their colleagues claimed to have escaped. Science and philosophy remained stripped of connection and symbiosis.

A superstition remained, that persists to this day, that society’s systems operate independently of nature. This completely contradicts what ecologists have taught us about how the world really works.

Human systems, then and now, step in to quell all desires, fears, and angst, guiding the individual’s choices through temptation and coercion. Our needs are pacified by self-image and that which artificially comforts the human mind. In this we become selfish individuals, separate from nature and disconnected from each other.

Without satisfying our natural human needs, the world remains just as absurd and unsatisfying as the old existentialists thought it was.

In all this the connection to true existence is lost in a fantasy world focused only on individual needs. The loss of hope, and increased despair, is seen in everything, felt in every person. We still suffer, because the human mind is constantly unsatisfied in this culture, by its contrived self-image intended to pacify the inherent human need for meaning.

Not existentialism but connection-ism

Our disconnect is measured by how we interact with our world, how we live, and how we define our existence.

For example, our food comes from thousands of miles away, so we don’t see what it took to get to our tables, or who or what was exploited, pushed aside, or had suffered for it. We don’t see the ravaging effects of our lifestyles on climate change when its wrath punishes a land far away.

As long as there’s no effect on us, we see no reason to think about it. When our fuel is at the ready each time we go to fill up the gas tank, we don’t care to know what it took to get it to our vehicles, or the connection to the global strife and conflict that allowed for it to happen. Our neighbors become strangers. The lives of human brethren across the globe become expendable. The millions of species of life are but shadows we pass over.

But as we pass willfully through the Transition, connection means eternal, and with eternal connection comes eternal existence, as eternal as the natural world. What the old existentialists saw as eternal angst or loss of hope becomes the delusion that it is. With connection to this world, the human mind infinitely develops. Its wisdom is passed on eternally through the development of humanity, as long as its connection, its symbiosis, with Nature continues.

We are beginning to see ourselves as part of the world again. When we see each other as part of the world, living in symbiosis with the rest of nature, we realize that we contribute to its well-being, as it contributes to ours. We are connected to our world and sense the connection from what the world gives to us.

The enemy, the absurdity, is merely how we live. It has been our systems, our institutions, our means to acquire only what we are made to believe we need that has deluded us.

Through the Transition, the “center,” the focus becomes all the life on Earth, our true place, our true existence. Life has purpose when we have begun to contribute to the bettering of our world, rather than the destruction of it. Through this we better ourselves. The world has meaning when we have begun to lift the veil and reject civilized delusions of grandeur of the culture of civilization.

The Transition is teaching us that the faster we choose to end the delusion, the faster we will heal our world and ourselves.

– Chris Weller, Transition Voice

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