Authenticity in Existence

Angst wakes us up to what death means for us personally= the precariousness of our situation in existence. From this, meaning-making becomes [1] very personal — what matters to each of us — and it also becomes [2] very existential — what proves itself as valid in the living of it, and especially what proves itself worthwhile in the face of death.

In short, existence raises the question of whether meaning itself means anything ultimately; maybe it doesn’t [atheism] or maybe it does [faith]; either way, I lose the secure ground beneath my feet and uncover the Abyss that is beneath not only me but also everything else. The Abyss, though an absence, becomes the most powerful presence at the base, the foundation, of existence. Existence is ‘non-founded.’

Given this, meaning-making becomes, inevitably, a questioning and a testing of the ground= what upholds life, what is real, what is valid, in a lived way? Angst is an experience, and the meaning-making it arouses is rooted in an awe-ful [in both senses] experience, not in thought. Post-Angst meaning-making can no longer just abstract itself away from reality by thought, or just be a construction of thought; it must address and try to make sense of an experience that threatens all sense per se; it is beyond thought, and cannot be explained away by thought that just skates over it. Henceforth our meaning-making must address real existence, and the concerns that arise for us ‘on the ground.’ For being on the ground is to always see, feel, and experience viscerally in the guts, the groundlessness at the bottom of things. It is therefore when we are fully situated, fully immersed, fully embodied, in time, in the concrete here and now, that we most directly and searingly are undermined by the profound. The tangible and safe is haunted by the intangible and insecure.

Facing this and making something of it is our existential fate. This is a struggle for what existentialism calls ‘authenticity’= do I truthfully face and wrestle with the dilemma I find myself in [authentic] or do I flee this dilemma, shed responsibility for MY STAND [personal] relative to WHAT IT IS [the situation= other to me], and cling on to some pseudo answer that avoids the question that Angst puts to me [inauthentic]? I can flee into answers that evade the question, whether religious, political, economic, etc.; I can seek for mastery, power, control, over my situation, under the illusion this makes me invulnerable to existential fate; I can merge with the herd, give ‘the They’ [Heidegger] all responsibility for my existence; I can break down and become neurotic, fearfully avoiding existential dreadfulness and affliction– but therefore always pursued by their shadow, which paralyses and narrows me, making me shut in. In all these cases of inauthenticity, I neither face, nor wrestle with, the fate, the fearful reality, itself. The paradox is, if I run away from it, I lie to myself, I diminish myself, I confine myself. Conversely, if I face it, wrestle with it, accept its mystery, its uncertainty, its danger, then do I grow stronger= something creative as well as personal is ‘drawn forth’ from inside me in order to engage what is outside me. Thus, what wounds me frees me, and throws me into the world with commitment. Martin Buber= the world into which we are thrown forces us to become ‘more real’ as persons. This world’s very unsecured condition is what requires us to search out its meaning– and to care for it, care not only what happens to me in it, but care what happens to it. When concern shifts more outward, then my action in the world, toward the world, takes on a self-forgetting care, concern, love. Here we can speak of “existential heroism.” Certain values seem particularly existential; courage, honesty, persistence, long-suffering, generosity, fighting spirit, truthfulness to self and to the situation where the self is placed [existential conscience], seem always invoked in this struggle..

In short, the world’s depth poses us a question= we reply with our whole life, with what we ‘do’ with our life [with what we actually do rather than what we talk about], with the risk we take, or the cost we pay, to engage the risk of existence, to engage the cost of existence. The outer world’s ‘objective’ depth calls forth the inward human being’s most intense ‘subjective’ passion; and passion is an ex-stasis, a passing beyond itself towards the world, the fiercest inter-subjective presence of which we are capable. There is no commitment or engagement, no investment in the world, deeper than passion.

The implication is, a lot of our beliefs and values and purposes [‘meanings’] do not prove sturdy enough to support our real existence in this world, due to what we face here, and hence these are lost, given up, let go, along the way.. They burn up in a furnace, because they cannot sustain the heat. Only a golden core of the ‘scorched metal’ is tested and proved, and remains.

Thus inevitable struggle, unforeseen reversals, painful losses and occasional exultant breakthroughs, happen every step of the way, and disillusionment is a major part of this ‘progress’ through difficult existential terrain. What emerges the other side of the sifting/loss is to be called ‘wisdom.’ Wisdom in this case does not refer to what we think, but to what we ‘do’ in our living= what we undergo, what we choose, what we strive with, on the ground, concretely, through time.

Moreover, this process is also very personal to us, for it is only each of us uniquely who can submit to the test and prove what comes through it in their personal existence [‘you gotta go through that lonesome valley by yourself’]. Common features of this journey and battle involved in authenticating, or validating, lived truth, or existential truth, might emerge from many people undergoing this, so we might discern some common struggles and common disillusionments on this road. But perhaps the existential isolation/aloneness that Irvin Yalom speaks of as one of the ‘existential givens’ applies to this wrestling with life to find what is true. No one else can suffer your pain nor carry your burden as you go through this. Truth here means ‘what stands up’, ‘what comes through’, in a human life.

This is the real issue, the cutting edge, of Authenticity.

Kierkegaard= sin is the untruth of a person’s life.

Kierkegaard voices existentialism’s paradox by saying that through passion we know exaltation and perdition, because we lose by passion; but we lose more if we throw away all passion.

So, the final paradox of existentialism is= only the meaning that includes nihilism, only the purpose that includes futility, only the worthwhileness that includes worthlessness, only the light that plunges into a vast dark, can existentially be ‘secured.’ The negative that underlies every positive could totally undermine it, or could test and prove it such that it emerges in a different way. This is what we cannot know in advance, or know merely abstractly. We have to hazard it, search out its secret deeps and continue to its unpredictable end, to discover what it will become ‘in the end.’

But there can be no guarantee. We might get to some other far shore, by sailing over the raging seas, or we might go down on the way, ending in shipwreck. Everyone must navigate the same ‘lonesome valley’; this is why some existentialists see the valley as saying there is no ultimate meaning, and each of us must create meaning personally as we will in the short span we have, while other existentialists see the valley as a way of faith. Either way, faith cannot exclude doubt, even as doubt cannot close off faith= each possibility haunts the other, and in reality, to live existentially is to live with both. We don’t know for certainty.

Passion starts where knowledge ends.