The existentialist’s reluctant guide to life

Within the prison of existence, even the reluctant among us can find liberation.
Within the prison of existence, even the reluctant among us can find liberation.
Image: Reuters/Marcelo del Pozo
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Some people are apparently totally cool with living in an absurd world. Presumably, these folks don’t experience existence as futile or see enthusiasm as foolish.

However, not all of us are so lucky or plucky, and so we’re left mustering up reasons to be and do even as we sense it’s all pointless. We can’t go on. We must go on. We’re already here.

The reluctant have to make meaning up. We do things even when most of what humans do seems pretty pointless and stupid given how many of us there are, how briefly we live, and how hard it is to make a difference on this crowded planet.

Still, we are not doomed to perpetual gloom. We can still get a lot done. We can even have fun, despite our underlying sense of dread, boredom, and anxiety—perhaps because of it.

Forged in the fires of futility

Existential philosophers have already worked out some answers for you, so don’t despair. Or despair, that’s fine, too.

But don’t let your fundamental gloominess be a reason to do nothing. For the great victory of the reluctant is that we do despite knowing better—knowing our contributions will not change the course of humanity. That’s how Friedrich Nietzsche’s übermensch would approach the world: without the reliance on anyone else to confirm their existence. It turns meaninglessness into a sort of freedom that allows one to affirm life despite its absurdity.

Think about it. Really, it’s no big deal to try to be a decent human who does no harm and maybe even helps, is generous of spirit and labors diligently, if you think there’s a god, country, or boss who will reward you now or in the afterlife.

But if you manage to live life based on certain values because you’ve examined them and found them preferable under the circumstances to other less laudable or more destructive approaches, that’s no joke. Then you have forged meaning in the fires of futility and you have overcome, which is something. Or at least it’s more than nothing.

In the 20th century, Jean Paul Sartre argued that “existence precedes essence” and that finding out who we really are is a purpose even if there is no ultimate reason for us to be here. That we exist may be meaningless in and of itself, but there is meaning in the process of uncovering our essence under all the social and cultural detritus that clutters life.

We are each born into a set of facts, accidents of circumstance, that describe and shape our reality—class, race, gender, religion, et cetera. But beyond the boundaries and definitions set by our families and societies lies possibility.


So, how do you do that, find some truth, especially if you don’t really believe in much of anything? Well, not believing is your freedom. Because you’re not hung up on the rightness of any one way of acting, you can find meaning in just being, in doing whatever it is that you choose to do despite the inevitability that you will die and life will go on and every other living thing will die too, including, someday the universe.

The trick to living a full life despite fundamental reluctance is to just pick something, anything, and do it. You don’t have to think it’s the most awesome thing. You don’t have to want to do it forever. You don’t even really have to want to do it at all.

In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t imagine your actions are particularly special or important in the grand scheme because then you’ll be as egotistical, delusional, and weird as all those other people who are driven by big missions, leading a “purpose-filled life.” And also, you’re likely to revert to your fundamental sense of meaninglessness at times and get depressed by your previous glee.

Focus on tasks at hand, and take each day and the chores and duties before you as opportunities to forget the big picture. Throw yourself into work, whether it’s a dull office job, a customer-service gig that constantly reminds you people are annoying, tiring manual labor, teaching, or whatever.

In doing, there is liberation. During moments of focus on even very mundane endeavors, you are free and have purpose. This purpose may be small. But it’s also huge. You are a hero of the mundane, like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder up a hill every day over and over again. It’s boring, glorious, and rebellious. By endeavoring to keep on keeping on, you become a giant, a survivor.

“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor,” Albert Camus began in his famous 1942 essay on the Greek myth. Yet he concludes: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Continuing in the face of futility is a revolt, and that’s meaningful. Consciousness of life’s smallness and persistence transforms Sisyphus from apparent doomed fool to the philosophical hero of Camus.

Build for yourself a principle that’s the opposite of “ignorance is bliss.” Consciousness is a hell that holds the potential for joy because everything resembles its opposite. Within the struggle, we gain a purpose, and feel sometimes something like happiness. It’s not natural. It’s hard-won. And therein lies the beauty.


Most people like to pretend there is a reason to life: “Before encountering the absurd, the everyday man lives with aims, a concern for the future or for justification,” writes Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus.” “He weighs his chances, he counts on ‘someday,’ his retirement or the labor of his sons. He still thinks that something in his life can be directed.”

But pah, that is all quite ridiculous: The world does not act in accordance to our goals, and, Camus argues, there’s no higher power that establishes meaning in our actions. “[M]an stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world,” writes Camus.

There is no more human need than to feel loved. Yet the silence of the world is most deafening when it comes to love. We pursue partnerships and companionships with people who are indifferent to us and ignore those who want us most. We roll the rock up the hill, meet, anguish, fight, break up, and are smashed by the rolling boulder on the way down. Like Sisyphus, those who seek love must return to the beginning and continue on again, perpetually engaging in a struggle and knowing that all their best intentions and calculations are futile against the whims and unpredictability of romance.

What is more Sisyphean than downloading a dating app, uploading a photo, and then perpetually swiping through face after face, engaging in an utterly mundane task over and over, in the hope of one day, perhaps, finding a connection and meaning.

Then there are the dates themselves: A charade of bad-faith inauthenticity, where you ask the same questions and hear the same boring answers, on seemingly never-ending repeat. And even if it does end, if you meet someone and delete all the apps, the repetitive searching of online dating only emphasizes the futility of all romantic quests. Without the constant stream of matches and meetings, it’s easier to pretend that there’s a reason and clear purpose to dating. But engaging in the dating rituals at a quicker pace, and on repeat, highlights the absurdity of relationships: You meet someone, date, break up, or stay together, and at the end, of course, you die.

If you are lucky enough to fall in love, of course, the intense moments of authenticity that accompany the experience are worthy of celebrating, even to the cynical existentialist. And if not, then for Camus at least, the absurd journey itself is worthwhile, as long as you are conscious of its absurdity. Like Sisyphus, we must acknowledge the meaningless of our quests even while embarking on them.


For existentialists, there’s nothing worse than inauthenticity. And there’s no greater example of inauthenticity than playing host. Now, you might think you want to play host. But what if that desire reflects an unquestioning need to fit in with the rest of society, rather than a true individual want? As a host, you have no choice but to grapple with the customs and requirements, the charade thrust upon the role—“may I take your coat?”, “would you like a drink?”—and so, if you want to be authentic, you must be truly, deeply sure that you are not merely enacting a shallow performance.

The disastrous state of superficial hosting is detailed in Sartre’s classic existentialist text, Being and Nothingness. Sartre describes a waiter as a prime example of acting in bad faith in order to be a “good” host: The waiter has perfect manners, he compliments diners’ menu choices, and he takes on the slightly haughty air that’s customary of so many French waiters. But! This waiter does not truly desire to act so waiter-ly, proclaims Sartre. Instead, he is merely acting out the role he believes is expected of him. (This comic is also a neat depiction of Sartre’s view, and ups the existential absurdity by pointing out just how weird it is for Sartre to pick on a waiter.)

Maybe you want to have some friends over… But must you really serve them food and wine? If you get tired or bored of the chatter, would it not be more authentic to take a little nap in the middle of the party? Or kick them out? Existentialism demands that we ask ourselves repeatedly: Why am I acting this way? What do I truly want to do? It’s only in the perpetual asking of these questions that you can arrive at a glimmer of authenticity and, perhaps, meaning.

Anyway, if all your questions lead you to the conclusion that you really do want to invite people over, take their coats, and serve them delicious food and wine, then by all means do so. Just be aware that, behind this charade of domesticity, lurks the forever-potential horror of bad-faith inauthenticity.


You need not question whether it’s good to exercise. That it’s better for your health to be active than to sit around and do nothing has been scientifically proven by now. All you have to do is muster the will to get off the couch and take a walk or run or go to the gym.

In fact, when you feel like you are facing a long string of meaningless days in an ultimately useless life, making up some absurd fitness goal is a perfect way to generate strength. First, you actually get physically stronger. And second, you focus on the short term, just breathing, or getting through your jog, all the while understanding it as a philosophical endeavor. As “the existential bodybuilder” and writer Michael Brouder explains in an essay on Medium:

[I]f you can allow yourself to be led by [Samuel] Beckett, or coached by Camus, in full acceptance of the futility of any mission that tries to slow time’s roll (and if you can stop worrying about what you look like in your shorts), you can learn to let the revolt become the reward. That’s not meant to be a pretty way of saying channel your existential rage into blasted quads. It’s a way of rejecting the self-defeating, goal-focused, failure-phobic, before-and-after, obsessive-compulsive demands that “fitness” forces us to address in favor of an approach centered on starting at the bottom of a hill and finding failure, every day.

The key to being a fit existentialist is accepting that you cannot win. There is no winning. There is only decay and deterioration and loss. Still, you don’t give in because you’re stubborn. And if you’re lucky, you may find some other people who share your gloomy worldview to have a drink with after the gym.

Go on

An existentialist approach to life may not fill you with unceasing joy. But if you already have the vague sense that falsity abounds, it can provide comfort in knowing that all those absurd, ridiculous moments, all the charades and playacting that permeate life have been acknowledged.

2018 has been a year of doom and despair for much of the world, with Brexit battles in Europe, an authoritarian president in Brazil, and an unpredictable president with dictatorial tendencies in the United States. Existentialism doesn’t solve these myriad problems, or pretend that they aren’t so bad. They are terrible, and the world is filled with gloom and the search for potential meaning can seem hopeless. But keep on questioning, doubting, and wrestling with angst and despair. It’s not a soothing response to the horrors of the world, but it is real.