“If you accustom yourself to this view of life you will regulate your expectations accordingly, and cease to look upon all its disagreeable incidents, great and small, its sufferings, its worries, its misery, as anything unusual or irregular; nay, you will find that everything is as it should be, in a world where each of us pays the penalty of existence in his own peculiar way.”
The view of life Schopenhauer was referring to has come to be known as Existentialism. I recently read a very interesting piece called, “Dreadful Dads” (https://aeon.co/essays/what-the-childless-fathers-of-existentialism-teach-real-dads) that, while centered on parenting, actually had a lot to say about how one does, or doesn’t, live life.
I must admit that when I was younger, the most effort I ever put into studying and understanding philosophy was when it was required reading in high school and college. The primary reason I can name major philosophers is that I know the lyrics to the “Philosophers Song” from Monty Python (if you want a link I will send you one). However, I now find myself to be very interested in the processes various generations have gone through to understand—and create some sensible way to interact with—the often-ridiculous world we experience.
Existentialism is difficult to define. Looking it up may yield something like this: “a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.” That is true, but doesn’t do the movement justice. I will not try to educate you on this historical movement, you can do that on your own if you choose, but there are things that make sense to me within this philosophy.
In the linked article, Kaag says, “There is something paradoxical in accepting Schopenhauer’s dark suggestion. One might think that it makes life harder but, in our experience, when a father takes Schopenhauer’s assertion – to view life as a ‘uselessly disturbing episode’ – the experience of fatherhood somehow becomes more manageable. The shame, disappointment and guilt that so many parents face are often a function of unrealistic expectations. When an existentialist father is at his wit’s end, he has already prepared himself for the experience. It might be painful, but it doesn’t come as a huge shock.”
Expand this to life in general. So many times, when I am disturbed, I find that the disturbance is in me. It is the result of expectations I hold regarding how people will treat me, respond to me, and accept me and how or what I think the “world” owes me. When I manage (for even a moment) to accept that the world owes me nothing and I have no claim to any particular treatment from anyone, I find a peace that I have come to rather enjoy. This is not the same as pessimism. I do not live with a sense that all will be bad and there is no hope for better. Rather I live with the realism that life is often hard and unpredictable, and all I have control over is my own actions and responses (not my wife, my kids, the traffic, the economy, other people, the weather, most circumstances….).
The existentialists reminded us of freedom’s infinite possibility. Coexistence is difficult because it entails the variability, vulnerability and tragedy of living with other human beings who are wholly free to explore their own freedom exactly as they choose. We can love them, and we surely do, but this doesn’t mean that they will act in accordance with our will or, even if they do, that this will turn out for the best.
The other result of an existentialist frame is that realism creates a capacity for meaningful empathy. “This may perhaps sound strange,” Schopenhauer admits, “but it is in keeping with the facts; it puts others in a right light; and it reminds us of that which is after all the most necessary thing in life – the tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbor, of which everyone stands in need, and which, therefore, every man owes to his fellow.”
The existentialists were concerned with authenticity and disavowed that the sum of natural sciences could tell us enough to understand what it is to be “human.” I agree. They went on to dismiss supplanting the scientific view with a moral one. Neither moral thinking (governed by the norms of the good and the right) nor scientific thinking (governed by the norm of truth) suffices they would say. I agree. Human understanding of the scientifically observable world does not sufficiently explain much. History has shown again and again (how nature points out the folly of man) that man-made social, religious and/or moral “codes” are equally prone to failure. If the story ended there I would be an existentialist.
The story doesn’t end there. My story began on a cross 3000 or so years ago with the decision Jesus made to save me, and it will never end. Here in the middle of my story I am unable to make sense of everything around me, but I do not despair because I believe it makes sense to God (which is not the same as Him being happy about it.) To the best of my ability, each moment of each day, I choose to accept the reality of a fallen world full of broken people that will not meet my expectations and whom God has called me to love anyway.
In the song, “Why Worry” written and sung by Mark Knopfler, the frontman for Dire Straits, opens with the lines:
Baby I see this world has made you sad
Some people can be bad
The things they do, the things they say
But baby I’ll wipe away those bitter tears
I’ll chase away those restless fears
That turn your blue skies into grey
And ends with the line:
These things have always been the same
So why worry now
You are some of those broken people God has placed in my life and I love you (imperfectly) and hope as we experience this temporal life together that we have the opportunity wipe away each other’s tears and chase away our restless fears. The “right light” I want to put you in is the light of a Savior who loves us perfectly. Because of that love (for me and for you) I do owe you, my neighbor (and everyone) “tolerance, patience, regard, and love.”
Besides, these things have always been the same, so why worry now?
That is God’s Way (and He’s okay with it being the Kimray Way too)