Existentialism for everyday life

University is a time of great self-discovery and a way to learn about things that may directly influence the way you see and experience the world. Most importantly, university is a chance to explore ourselves and what it means to be “me.”

Many people take philosophy classes in university. Whether as a search for meaning or a way to get credits without having to do “real” work is situation dependent, you will change because of every experience. Speaking of change and philosophy, what a better time than to segue into existentialism, the main topic of this article. 

Existentialism is, first and foremost, a school of thought which allows one to “focus on existence, life on Earth,” said UBC Professor Steven Taubeneck, who currently teaches a course on existentialism. “The word ‘existence’ in English derives from the Latin ‘existere,’ which means ‘to appear,’ ‘to be,’ or ‘to become,’ but also ‘to stand out.’ Following this etymology, I would say that existentialism deals with anything that stands out … what appears most strongly at any given moment.” 

This may sound obvious — “Well, of course I’m paying attention to whatever is standing out right now!” — but, in the light of philosophy, let’s take a better look.

Whatever is appearing most strongly in any moment changes. Consistently. Whether it’s a lecture that you have to keep up with or your sudden desire for food, the experience in each moment changes. Professor Taubeneck said that this change is also obvious in ourselves, not just our environments.

“The human being … is always becoming something or someone else. Thus humans do not have a fixed identity, but constantly have to choose, or create, themselves,” he said.

You may have had an experience similar to this, where something happens that changes your world and you have to decide how to react. Or maybe you have a huge decision to make. Whether it’s a big life choice or something as simple as who to spend Friday night with, we are constantly defining and redefining ourselves.

“To live as an existentialist involves, in my view, the recognition and acceptance of change, contingency, continuities as well as discontinuities,” said Taubeneck. “Since humans are always changing, it becomes important to accept our mortality. Death is a part of life in existentialism. If we accept our mortality and not just in a rational way but also in a way that our own contingency is deeply felt, then we would live differently, treat each [other] differently because we would recognize the importance of time.” 

All students can relate to feeling the importance of time. We’ve all had pressing deadlines that we have to meet “or else!” But, what Professor Taubeneck is getting at is something deeper — something that allows us to value our choices and the time we have with others more deeply. He extends this appreciation beyond humans to “other entities, from plants to animals to the environment more generally.” 

What would it look like to live a life as an existentialist?

Something many students crave is freedom. The late-teens and early-twenties are times for breaking away from old prescribed beliefs and habits. For someone who is experiencing this drive, they may appreciate that “existentialism does not prescribe a fixed moral code, but leaves the choice to the individual. It is up to each of us to create the people we … want to become. Of course situations make a difference, but we always have the choice of how to respond.” 

Responding is something which all of us — student or otherwise — are trying to figure out. Whether politically, socially, or personally, we are all struggling with how to respond to the world as it is, what is happening and how we are going to help.

Professor Taubeneck reminds us that “since we are always in situations in time, we always respond to those situations whether we like it or not.” Because of this necessity for action, he believes that “existentialism is an activist philosophy that encourages people to be more active in creating themselves.” 

We all have a duty, according to existentialism, to recognize “one’s own freedom, ability to change, malleability and vulnerability.” By default, then, we must also acknowledge the same in others. Any freedom brings responsibility. How will you decide to be in this moment? What will you choose to do with your future? Professor Taubeneck stressed that “one of the first outcomes of living life in a more existentialist way would be to become more active in developing oneself, both for oneself and for others.” 

What can you do, then, as your first step to living as an existentialist?

Choose classes that make a difference to your life. Don’t “take a major just because others told you it was a good idea.” Don’t “attend university just because others told you it was good. Rather … pursue a course of study which [matters] most to you and your world.”

Now, if that isn’t responsibility, what is?