- The Existential Academy
- Monday 11th May 2020
Contributing to an existential blog in the midst of this very existential crisis is an ambitious task. What can be said that is not obvious when existential givens are stripped bare and the carefully constructed, reassuring packaging has dissolved? We are left facing our existence both at times with courage and other times with disbelief, anxiety and grief.
Some concepts such as existential anxiety and existential crisis resonate strongly in light of the situation. Others such as death, anxiety and living seem to have a new dimension of immediacy added to them. While Isolation, aloneness, connectivity and togetherness are finding whole new meanings.
New words have become part of our daily jargon and we are all self-isolating (as if we could be isolated without ourselves), staying at home - how does that really feel? Experiences differ from one person to another and demand adjusting and adapting from our previous way of being whilst we are trying to make sense of this. We may be home alone but we share our reality and our humanity across the planet. Alternatively, being at home with others can be tremendously difficult as the rise in domestic violence indicates.
Togetherness and aloneness are both integral part of the human existence (Yalom, 1980). According to the existential perspective, being together assumes we are sharing communality, a world which is not just the totality of everything that is. But it is also an awareness of standing together. 'We are' is only possible through a shared sense of the experience of being that encompasses all of us (Heidegger, 1996). As we are gathered up together albeit solitarily confined in our homes, we are paradoxically together on our own desert island.
Coming together goes so far that those who deceive and even hate each other are connected nonetheless, and as such inseparable from their shared reality. Heidegger (1996) proposed that Daisen (being-in-the-world) means inevitably Mitsein (“Being-with”). Being with others is a state that precedes any material and specific situation. This has been interpreted in different ways by various existential philosophers but has been seen by all as an integral part of the human existence and cannot be separated from it. Whether it was seen as a difficult or positive experience, the unseen flow that connects us with each other is built into our life experience. For Buber, (2013) meaningful encounters with fellow humans are the most significant human experience. In contrast, Sartre argued that “hell is the other” (Sartre, 1989) as we try to escape the gaze of those who objectify us, we find this contact inescapable; one must accommodate oneself with others who are also fighting to exist. We are constantly living in the tension between self and others.
We are continuously navigating from a personal experience to a global one, from the ontic dimension to an ontological one. However, this situation is new in so far as it cannot carry the dehumanisation of the ‘other’ as held in any conflict at a political or social or national level. As ‘we are all in it together’; we may become more attentive to the human dimension of any of our fellow humans, whether they are here or in any given country, and we have the opportunity to meet each other on the back of a shared experience on a scale never experienced before.
This awareness is informing a sense of connectivity that is paradoxically experienced while being physically isolated and maybe alone at home. For some of us, it creates a challenging situation of facing ourselves away from daily distractions. In contrast, those of us who are struggling with life at the best of times, feeling similarly isolated and left out of the active stream of life, are finding themselves in a new experience in which the exterior reality is mirroring the internal one. Either way being alone with the knowledge that we are all in it together creates a sense of being part of something bigger which in turn gives meaning to this experience. Being informed by this togetherness may allow the aloneness to separate from loneliness and to create a physical isolation with emotional connectivity.
Can we come out if this crisis wiser? What will it take for us to learn from this experience of isolation and connectivity?
The paradox of separation and connectivity may create a spirit of cooperation and solidarity which expands rather than contracts, teaching us to watch each other’s back and see the human behind each face rather than the ‘other’. Aloneness is part of our existential given, isolation need not be one.
As the reality worldwide has shifted and for the first time the inhabitants of the planet are facing the same exterior problem, it is an opportunity to examine the axioms, priorities and values to which we ascribe; sharing rather dividing. It is by examining these now that we can make sure that personally and globally, we make the right choices regarding our future lives and the lives of future generations.
Buber, M. (2013) I and Thou. London: Bloomsbury
Heidegger, M. (1996) Being and Time. Albany: Sunny.
Sartre, J.P. (1989) No Exit and Three Other Plays. New York: Vintage International
Yalom, I.D.(1980) Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books
Dr Nancy Hakim Dowek (DProf)
Course Leader: Foundation course, Short courses and CPD at the Existential Academy