#ThisIsExistential – The paradox of existential isolation (wanting to be different while wanting to belong)
I’ve been wondering “about this life thing”, as has Leann Harris, so we discussed it in my podcast. We’re both wondering about what this life thing is and why it matters to actually think deeply about it and reflect on it. We’re both interested in philosophy and psychology and coaching and making sense of the world and our existence in it. We’re trying to take all of this complex stuff that we come across in books, by fancy authors who write in language that sometimes is very difficult to comprehend; and work through and try to make it more tangible, more applicable and see how it shows up “in this life thing”, why this or that seemingly mundane thing is in fact quite existential and very much what the philosophers were talking about. The following has been edited more or less directly from the transcript so that those of you out there who like to read can get a glimpse of what we’ve been talking about. If you’d like to skip the reading bit, click here to listen to the conversation or click below.
When Leann and I had this conversation, Donald Trump had just been elected president of the United States and in the UK just over half of the people who voted in the referendum chose to leave the European Union. These two decisions came as quite of a shock to many people because nobody really believed that this could actually happen.
These are the times that really make you wonder about this life thing. What the fuck just happened? How was that possible?
So people like us start reflecting….
A lot of people feel like these systems and big cogs in the wheel are too big for them. So you might be sitting at home wondering, “What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?” How do we take each moment, by moment, dealing with the fears and the thoughts that we’re having and know what to do next?
As a coach who has been trained existentially, I look at life with a positive framework. One concept that always shows is that people are different. Every person is completely unique in their set of values, their beliefs, their look, their facial features. We also have a lot of commonalities – we actually have a lot more in common than we have differences. However, every human being is completely unique. So in that sense, it’s not a question of is somebody else different but how different are they?
We have a natural tendency to put people into groups. This is us and those are them. It can get to a point where we resent other people because we identify so much with our group of people that we create a separation between us and others.
We have always done this throughout history, throughout humanity. It seems to be something we do naturally. It’s always us and them because we like having an ‘us’. We’re social animals. We like to connect. We like to have our little groups, whether that’s family or blood, or friends, or a village or a city, or a nation or a continent or a color or a gender or hobbies.
We like to group ourselves and because we do that, we feel stronger. We feel a sense of identity. We feel a certain sense of belonging. But at the same time, when we see something different or somebody different, that sense of belonging is somewhat threatened because there are other people who remind us that we are different.
This is one of the existential paradoxes, that we always want to be ourselves, individuals. But we also want to belong to a group because we have this natural urge to connect.
This can really get out of hand and show up in elections like recently in the US or referendums like the one in the UK or in so many decisions that people make. It’s us or it’s them.
Thinking about us or them makes life simple. But life just isn’t simple.
It is fascinating to watch how people self-identify themselves. There is almost a sense of how people see themselves – a term that Leann really likes is ‘selfing’. It’s how you describe yourself, the concepts that you have with yourself – white, female, American etc – your characteristics that you would normally use to describe yourself, that become part of your self-identity. You see it a lot with chronic illness. Leann was diagnosed with type one Diabetes and while there’s a lot to take in medically, she had a hard time with the emotional side and the self-concept of having to do things differently. You get a chronic illness. You lose your job. You get divorced. Part of that is the actual pain of the event that happens. Part of it is, “What does that say about me? I lose my job. Am I an idiot? Am I a loser now?” or “I get divorced. Am I just a horrible person?”
A lot of the time it’s called ‘dirty’ pain or ‘secondary’ pain. There’s the pain of the event. Then there’s the pain we have from thinking about the event. There’s always the question “What are we doing and how are we being?” There’s something that happens but then there’s a way of how we identify with it and what kind of label we put on ourselves for it.
A Thought Experiment
I love to do this little exercise with my students. When people write down “I am …” 10-15 times they might write I am a woman; I am a man; white, black, yellow, Indian, blue; I am intelligent or funny; I am a music lover. Once they exhaust their list, just as a thought experiment, I ask them to try to strip each of those characteristics away. What if you weren’t smart? What if you weren’t funny? What if there wasn’t music? What if there was no colour or you were colour blind? What if you were genderless? What if all of these things were stripped away? Sometimes it’s harder. Sometimes it’s easier to imagine.
Once all of that is gone, you start to arrive at something that’s just like the bare bones of existence. The thing that’s left is just being alive in the world with others and it’s the only thing we can really know about life. We use philosophy, which is a method of enquiry, a method of thinking, to find out something, to create some knowledge, to understand something. Science observes, science measures. Philosophy thinks abstract.
That’s really the only place we can arrive at. We’re alive in the world as compared to dead and not existing. We exist and there are other people. Once we look at it from that perspective, without all of these characteristics and these labels we attach to ourselves, then we arrive at what it really means to be in this world.
You can listen to the full podcast here.