Issue 75 / May - June 2010
Existential Questions: Can We Avoid Them?
I recall a conversation that I had with my best friend in high school. I was deeply troubled by the death of my sister, who passed away a few years ago at the age of 19, and was asking my friend what she thought was the meaning of life if we are to die at the end. The answer she gave astonished me so much that I could not find any words to reply to her or a way to convey the kind of a storm that was blowing in my soul at the time. She simply said, â€śI am too young to think about it,â€ť which to me is an attestation that people are very skillful in self-deception and shunning the reality of their own death.
Yet, regardless of our age, gender, culture, religion, or socioeconomic status, we all have existential questions that beg answers. Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going to? We canâ€™t help but ask these questions, and it is literally impossible to shut them off. Yet, it is mind-boggling to observe how much we try to avoid these questions by numerous distractions while at the same time, we need clear answers. Because otherwise life simply does not make sense, and we cannot truly enjoy anything. Yet, the urge and need to find answers to these fundamental questions runs so deep in us that we do not want to and cannot accept any dogmas. Ultimately, this search for existential meaning is a search for true happiness. Or I like to call it inner peace.
Because of the way we are (the way we are created), we seek meaning. We seek meaning in our relationships. We seek meaning in life. We seek meaning in material things. And it is impossible to have inner peace and to be in harmony with life and the universe without satisfying this need for meaning. We can describe this as â€śbeing in congruence with our creation (the way we are created).â€ť We are given various faculties, such as the heart, spirit, mind, reason, etc., and they are all an integral part of us. Without heart (that is, shutting off our conscience, for instance), we become like beasts and commit atrocities. Without reason (that is, giving undue attention to reason), we fall into the darkness of ignorance. If we were to make a functionalist allegory, a table is a table with four legs (for the sake of the example, letâ€™s assume all tables have or must have 4 legs). In other words, a table missing a leg would not serve its purpose. It would not fulfill the purpose of its creation. Just like this, a human being who shuts off one or more of his or her faculties (heart, mind, spirit) cannot be a perfect human being and cannot fulfill the purpose of creation. Hence, being in congruence with our nature (our creation) requires us to satisfy the needs of all of our faculties. Answering our existential questions, finding meaning in our lives, satisfies both our heart and our mind.
The strategies our egos develop to try to shut off or to ignore our existential questions are many. Some of the most obvious means for trying to silence our inner voice are alcohol consumption, workaholism, and dedicating oneâ€™s life to family or social causes to the extent that one becomes consumed with them. Some people just choose to deceive themselves into thinking that we can never find the answers to these questions, hence it is pointless to even try. We are who we are and thatâ€™s the end of the story. Yet, all these strategies are doomed to fail and end up in increasing portions of the population tormented with depression.
All of us want to find that happiness that would last forever. In a way, most of what we do in life is to attain that inner peace. Yoga classes, friendships, religious activities, ambition in our careersâ€¦ And indeed we do find moments of bliss here and there. But seldom does this happiness last. We strive to buy this very nice car, and once we buy it and use it for sometime, it ceases to make us happy. Then we look for another reason to be happy and life goes on like this. But in the meanwhile, we get tired and depressed of this unending quest and endless disappointments. We waste our lives in search for something that we never quite find.
But what is happiness really? Have we ever thought about it thoroughly? What are we looking for? Fulfilling our dreams, passions, needs? Is this the aim of our life, and can this pursuit in itself bring us happiness? Happiness is rather instantaneous. We have randomly dispersed moments of joy, followed by moments of sorrow. Once we have a momentary pleasure or happiness, many times we withdraw and have very sad times. This is why it is said that life is all about ups and downs. Think of your many shopping sprees, and the subsequent plummeting of your emotions for instance!
In fact, the real happiness we are looking for is unceasing and ever-lasting. We want to be happy all the time at a maximum. Even though we have never experienced this feeling of utmost and continuous happiness, we want it with all of our being. This desire is a sign attesting to the existence of such everlasting happiness. Is it therefore possible to attain such happiness?
To be able to answer this crucial question, we need to face our existential questions and first ask who we are and accordingly try to figure out what kind of happiness can make us really happy. What makes us happy can only be something that is in line with who we are, in congruence with our creation. Although we can never change who we are, we sometimes do pretend to be something other than our true selves, with temporary needs, looking for transient joys. But we cannot change our nature or the way we are created.
Therefore, the solution lies in being frank with ourselves, being sincere about our feelings and thoughts, and not deceiving ourselves that temporary sources of happiness can actually satisfy our heart, intellect, and spirit. We need to reach out and listen to our feelings and thoughts that we have been trying to repress. Happiness lies in being peaceful with our reality, with who we are, and acting according to this reality.
Who are we and why are we here?
It seems like many of us spend our entire lives reading hundreds of books, maybe studying for years and years to obtain a PhD degree, or working for days and nights to get somewhere in our careers. Yet, without pausing and pondering upon these existential questions, who we are and why we are here, it all seems so very pointless with death awaiting us at the end. Deep inside, we all wonder who we really are, where we came from, and where we are going. We find ourselves in this mysterious world. We feel strongly connected to endless things in it. Many things in this world attract our attention. A sunny day is something we enjoy, and when we see a beautiful rose, we smile, we feel happyâ€¦Yet, we have not really decided on these responses and emotions. It seems that everything is somehow related to us, and we seem to have a close relation with everything in this universe. But surprisingly, all these things that we like fade away, die, and do not lastâ€¦the rose we admire, the sun that sets, the friends that dieâ€¦and at the end we know that we will die too. Death is so real, but seldom do we think about it. Every instant, something we attach ourselves to dies or fades away, yet we still refrain from thinking about it. Since death is so real, we cannot help but ask, â€śWhere am I going and what is really going on?â€ť
The truth of the matter is that these questions are vital for understanding who we really are. Interestingly enough, for all of us these existential questions are rather innate. Whether we like it or not, they come to us naturally. But many times, we choose to suppress them, thinking that these questions are too serious and ruin our happy moments! We mistakenly worry that thinking too much about these existential questions would shatter the dream world that we have built, but which is at the same time unable to fulfill our desire for happiness. Only sometimes, when our beloved ones die, or when we have tragic accidents or events, we are reminded againâ€¦ and sometimes we decide to pursue the answers.
We are literally like guests in a mysterious house full of things that we admire yet we cannot quite hold onto. We are brought here for an indefinite amount of time, and we are taken away suddenly without us having much say in the matter. It is therefore only reasonable and natural to wonder and to want to know what is going on here. What does this all mean? Why am I here, who brought me here, and where am I being taken to? Unless we pursue these questions for ourselves, instead of shutting them off or relying on clichĂ© answers â€śinheritedâ€ť from our parents or culture, we can never be truly satisfied and happy.
Eren Tatari is a PhD student at the Political Science Department, Indiana University, Bloomington.