An existentially compromised person, who is unaccustomed to acting authentically and with absolutely pure intentions, may not realize that their stance toward reality leads to intellectual insecurity and instability, and tends toward absurdity. As a result, their mind undergoes constant changes, which become psycho-physical stresses and complexes, unwholesomely leaning and leading toward the dark, shadowy side of “being-in-the-world,” and even to viewing life as desultory, hopeless, and meaningless.
Such mental afflictions can easily lead to drug and alcohol addiction, physical and self-abuse, and, tragically, even to suicide—as portrayed in the existential posture of French author Albert Camus, who famously asserted that suicide is the one and only serious philosophical question.
The Czech novelist Franz Kafka turned his compromised protagonist into a cockroach-like creepy crawly creature, and although this might seem to be a somewhat better solution, it remains fraught with long-enduring, non-ceasing, psychic suffering.
The ideas of “self” and “existence” certainly take a beating.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s protagonists, likewise, express self-hatred. And the problem is not just with individual, solitary self, but additionally evident in Sartre’s axiom, “Hell is other people.” A common-place, ordinary man adhering to conventional reality and normal rules of deportment is portrayed as a cipher with no meaningful or noble role to play. This is because he, in a cowardly, inauthentic manner, invariably assents to obediently carry out common, customary, conventional, colorless modes of behavior, while acting out a seemingly insignificant, pointless, meaningless existence.
A typical example would be assuming that “a waiter is just a waiter,” lacking authentic choice and incapable of any daring, individual, authentic action. And so “all the world becomes a stage,” full of fake, inauthentic stock character actors, and life becomes a charade, which is true for any type of traditional, fixed, social role-play.
Sadly, society often does dictate “the way things ought to be,” and so behavioral role-play amounts to acting in accordance with the norm—with few or no exceptions and little or no choice.
This is also problem in contemporary society. Children with strict, unimaginative social upbringings are forced to follow the norm and behave like “good kids.” Seldom or even never are they allowed to make their own individual, choices, which verges on becoming emotionally scary—no wonder some intelligent kids hate school.
Such strict social constraints “to do the good,” does not leave one much if any individual “freedom of choice,” based on intention to commit authentic moral action, so that the causes, effects, and consequences of such actions would be morally praiseworthy.
So-called “good” with no authentic choice unfortunately becomes mere rote behavior; whereas choosing good for the sake of goodness, compassion, love, and human welfare is the kind of “authentic action” that gives life meaning.
The way people judge one another may be based on either social norms or on the way one intentionally chooses to act for the good, for goodness’ sake, while concomitantly shunning any sense of “badness,” considering the harm it might do.
The maxim becomes: “One may choose happily to do the wholesome action for the good it may do, or one may heedfully eschew the unwholesome action for the sake of any harm it may do.”
Because it is unfair to judge anyone unjustly, this is another reason why one ought to choose one’s thoughts, words, and actions authentically, rather than merely doing what is socially expected and imposed involuntarily by external authority figures such as parents, teachers, and social leaders.
How one behaves authentically is important for liking and accepting oneself, resulting in happiness, irrespective of sanitary society’s so-called judgmental “gaze.” Especially as just doing what others demand and expect of one is much less, or not at all, spiritually satisfying. Should children love their parents, or women love their men, or employees respect their bosses solely because it is expected of them? This sounds like a sensitive question, but the answer should be obvious.
It is better and more rewarding to live with a compassionate, open, giving heart full of love, rather than behaving “correctly” like an automaton. Being allowed no freedom in one’s choice of words and actions is obviously going to become a problem in mental development. Indeed, one needs freedom of choice for the sake of cultivating mental health.
If, conversely, one allows oneself unbridled freedom of choice in which “anything goes,” one may end up like Jack London’s Captain Wolf Larsen, with little or no emotional self-control and little if any respect or compassion for anybody else; he becomes an “Ubermensch,” a psychopath-like dictator in a survival-of-the-fittest world, where such a one easily becomes a danger to self and society.
Alternatively, if one becomes a nihilistic, existential hedonist, believing in nothing and seeking pleasure and sensuality to blot out the so-called emptiness and meaninglessness of life, one can become a danger to oneself and/or those who depend upon one.
If one becomes a psychopath, with power and no self-control, there is no evil that one might not do, and one will probably become a danger not only to oneself, but to all of society.
If one becomes a nihilistic hedonist living a life of selfish, careless indulgence, this easily leads to dependence on sex, drugs, alcohol, likely ending in self-destruction, slowly or quickly, one way or another.
There are actually as many possibilities for the way one’s life may go as there are people. What is needed for mental balance, when surfing the big, dangerous breakers on the open oceans of life, is the skill to be able to see and choose the middle way between too much and too little; what is needed is the discernment to make moral choices devoted to the good and the welfare of not only oneself, but of those close to one, and of all sentient beings.
It is difficult to strive to live like a bodhisattva, a Noble One, but there is no better way to go—which certainly is reassuring to know. It is more rewarding to live and give with an open heart, full of love, than to merely act impersonally and mechanically according to externally imposed norms, like some inhuman, impassive, automaton.
Related features from BDG
Living with Meaning, Part One: Authentic Existence