The Diary of an Existentialist

 

I am not a fatalist like Diderot’s eponymous character, Jacques the Fatalist.  Jacques believed that everything that has happened and will happen in our life is “written up there.”  Such a life is a very pathetic one; it denies us the freedom to choose our actions as well as the responsibility for our actions. 

Yet Jacques is not entirely wrong.  There are many things written in our genes.  In the words of psychologist Elizabeth Hurlock, “heredity places limits beyond which individuals cannot go.”  There are quite many traits handed down to us by our parents genetically.  In my days of youth (and the concomitant foolishness), I defined life as “a conspiracy of chromosomes.”  There were many things about me which I didn’t like, which I wished to change, but which apparently remained beyond my control.   Of course, quite many things were indeed beyond my control.  For example, if I wished to be a singer when I actually could not distinguish sa from pa (musical notes), my genes would militate against my wish.   To the extent certain things remained beyond my genes, the boundaries of my life and my dreams were indeed predestined. Not only the genes, but the environment and circumstances too circumscribe our life and our dreams.

It took me years to realise that there were quite many things which were indeed within my control and that it was my right and my duty to utilise that power which I have over myself.  As the philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, would say, “Becoming human is a project, and our task is not so much to discover who we are as to create ourselves” (as paraphrased by Gerald Corey to whom belong the emphases too).

We have to create ourselves every day, every moment.  Life is a series of contingencies, with no guarantees beyond the certainty of death.  We may transmute each contingency into the actuality that we want it to be by making the appropriate choices.  That’s just what the Existentialists said.  “We are condemned to be free,” as Jean-Paul Sartre and others of the school said.  To choose is to become committed.  This choice and the responsibility that it entails are the other side of freedom.  Sartre argued that at every moment, by our actions, we are choosing who we are being.  Seen this way, our life is never fixed or predetermined.  We choose our life, we create it every moment. 

We go on creating ourselves till the last breath provided we exercise our right to choose our actions rather than accept the teachings of others (religion, traditions, etc) blindly. 

One day I chose to choose.  I have never turned back from then.  And I have never ceased to be happy from then, in spite of my genes.

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About matheikal

My more regular blog can be accessed at www.matheikal.blogspot.com
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15 Responses to The Diary of an Existentialist

  1. keerthana says:

    I definitely agree with you when you say that we exercise our right to choose our actions rather than accept others teachings..that’s the biggest ill in our society!..Also,i guess I can blame my genes for not being able to play the guitar properly even after laboriously attending classes for 4 yrs :D..

    • matheikal says:

      Keerthana, I was in a similar position. I struggled with the pedal harmonium for 4 years. Yet I couldn’t go beyond the second page of the practice book! Then I took typing as my hobby and I did type a lot after that 🙂

  2. Shajan says:

    Dear Matheikal, we do seem to have the ability to choose but I could never find convincing answers to these questions: What is this ‘I’ that has the power to choose? Where is it located and what is its structure? Is it my genes or is it a divine spark?

    I don’t think it is the same as my genes or anything supernatural. Is it only an illusion? How can an unreal ‘I’ make real choices?

    -shajan

    • matheikal says:

      Shajan, As I’ve implied in the post the ‘I’ is what each individual creates constantly. Of course, there is a core self, the personality. I can’t and don’t associate any divinity or divine origin to it. It is not located in any particular place. Nor is it an illusion. It’s as immaterial as consciousness.

      Personally, I’m certainly not inclined to take a Cartesian journey into radical doubting. I take certain things as facts based on practical experience. Not much of a philosopher, I’m, in short.

  3. loved that “a conspiracy of chromosomes” :)) it seems to be thus for the longest periods of our life and then we “wake up”

  4. benny says:

    I liked “I chose to choose”. Certainly the ills that plague people is that they are not able to choose, although the almighty has given that power to the mortals.

    • matheikal says:

      Benny, you know me and you know my “choice” made all the difference even as Robert Frost’s choice of the unbeaten path made the difference. So, I think, you made this comment. But I can’t agree with the ‘almighty’ word in your comment. It’s not the almighty that gave the power. In my case despair gave that power. You were not desperate enough!

  5. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    @shajan

    If you are choosing every moment, there really is no “YOU” of any permanence, even infinitesimal permanence! It is a question better not asked, and still better, not answered, only because it is definitely known (by whom? – you are not to ask!) that there CANNOT BE ANY SATISFACTORY ANSWER. IF ONE INSISTS ON AN ANSWER, ONE INEXORABLY DESCENDS INTO MUMBO JUMBO, TO HELL!

    Matheikal, you quoted “heredity places limits beyond which individuals cannot go” – this could very well be true. I cannot stand on the ground and pluck out fruits from a tree that a giraffe can! But, as life grows in complexity, it is endowed with skills (including thought processes) that tend to give a negative premium for the genetically determinant component of the less complex organisms. This process is also genetic, you understand (mental abilities are dictated to a large extent by genetics), but not obviously so. This is most probably because a cilutural replicator has come on to the scene.

    RE

    • matheikal says:

      Raghuram, you always throw a challenge and I enjoy it because it makes me think. Very few people can make one think the way you do. But I’m increasingly beginning to feel that you are restricting yourself to a Darwinian straitjacket. There are other modes of thinking about and experiencing life. A finite framework, straitjacket, can satisfy us intellectually. Not beyond that. And when you say that even in the Darwinian framework (straitjacket) mutation takes place, anyone can ask the question why such a mutation should take place, and how? Again, pure Darwinian science will have an answer which won’t satisfy the dissenters in that domain!

      I think there’s no final answer. Religions claim the final answer because God is postulated as the final answer. Otherwise we have to keep searching.

      I don’t know whether I would agree with your response to Shajan entirely. There’s no fixed self. But does it mean the question should not be asked? I think the question should be asked inexorably and answered too every time the question comes up. That’s the only intellectual way of dealing with that problem. That’s what the Existentialist writer Albert Camus meant by “intellectual honesty”.

  6. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    Matheikal,

    I am NOT wearing a Darwinian strait jacket. NOT AT ALL. I am resorting to Darwinian explanation because and only because whatever else, theories, paradigms etc.,that are available do not give one the choice of going further. It is only because Darwinian evolution is flexible, it allowed speculations about a cultural replicator; the meme. We do not know why mutations occur, but they do and at times they help the organism survive. This has been tested in real life experiments – Trinidadian guppies changed their size and also how they spawn depending on the predator in the environment. This is research done in the 1980s.

    We do not know why and how mutations occur, just as we do not know why there is gravity at all. Let us try to find answers to these questions as a precursor to being posed further questions. But questions of metaphysics, whenever answered leads one to cul de sacs. When Aristotle said that feathers float in air, he said it is because feathers had the nature of air. That was metaphysics, not quite science. And, it put a full stop to further queries, avenues of finding out, unless one questioned the basic premise.

    The theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most fertile theories and the only thing we can be sure of is the theory would never completely explain the processes. By the way, Darwin’s book was titled Origin of Life but the book does not even speculate about how life originated!

    I will not say NO to a God if God is ever proved at the level Darwinian evolution is “proved”.

    About “Self”, the way I understand what the Buddha seems to have said that there is no permanence, is exactly reflected in existentialism. What is existentialism? One is essence and the other is existence. If, as a carpenter, you conceive of a chair and its use before making it, you have infused the object-to-be with its essence before it came into existence. In existentialism, one’s essence is fixed by the very acts, each instant, of existence. The parents may have ideas of what their child should be, but it is the child’s existence that defines that life, ever changing. This is how I understand it. Buddha maintained a silence whenever any query tended towards metaphysics, at least as per the legends. This is the basis of my response to Shajan.

    By the way, my own understanding of existence: Raghuram starts existing only when the nominal Raghuram ceases to exist bodily. Why? Because, everything that goes into defining Raghuram is then complete. Then, Raghuram cannot change. It is permanent. Permanence comes only at death.

    RE

    • matheikal says:

      I must flatter myself for getting a reader like you. I’m not able to respond to you at the same level of your thinking simply because of my own intellectual limitations. Yet I would say this: The nominal Raghuram is the real Rahuram as far as Existentialism is concerned. What is there beyond? Only death.

      Aren’t you, in fact, admitting indirectly that only existence counts? Like the Buddha!

      • Raghuram Ekambaram says:

        True Matheikal, the nominal Raghuram IS the real Raghuram, but only instantaneously. That instant freezes for eternity when Raghuram ceases and that is when Raghuram comes int exitence. If that is not mumbo jumbo, I don’t know what is 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

        By the way, in all my interactions with you, it is I who feels more challenged because you throw things at me that I haven’t a clue for. You have a galaxy of philsophers (even if they offer their philosopies through inscrutable, for me, fictional narratives, behind you and I am pretty much a meat and potatoes man. That is a major handicap that I am unable to overcome.

        RE

  7. Sid says:

    No offence sir, but RE sir to took it altogether to a diff level.:P

    Well sir, one chooses to choose only when he/she is aware of his/her commitment to choose. Keeping that commitment to the forefront all the time is a virtual impossibility. Even in the best case scenario of being aware of that commitment at all times, sometimes you can’t help but be driven by your ‘instincts’ which get drawn from your chromosomes(to at-least some extent). Fight all you want but in some way or the other your choice has roots in your instincts.

    The thing is that when you are driven by your instincts you are not being rational. And when you are irrational, in my view at-least there’s no point in being existential.

    And when your chromosomes get transferred to the next generation, the new generation will fight between being an existentialist and being a non-existentialist because you gave him both the genes. And hence, he’ll be ‘choosing to choose’ between being an existentialist and being a non-existentialist.

    Bottom line sir, in my opinion you can only be an existentialist when you force yourself to be one.

    • matheikal says:

      No, Sid, all our actions and thoughts are not based on our instincts. In fact, we can base most of our actions on rational thoughts. Thoughts necessarily go beyond instincts, don’t they? Instinct means thoughtless action. Like when you swap a mosquito that sits on your arm…. But even that swapping can come from a rational thought!

      The way you think, I feel anything will be a forced option. Existentialism is just one way of looking at life, it’s a philosophy basically. Just like stoicism or epicureanism or hedonism… It’s your choice unless others force it on you.

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