Existentialism isn’t (only) about Dying

Patrick Whitehead
Jan 19, 2019 · 8 min read

How finitude reminds us what is important.

Martin Heidegger: Photo from cover of his book Parmenides

In an earlier essay, I explained how existentialism isn’t (only) about meaninglessness.Here I explain how it is also more than death and dying. Like meaninglessness, death and dying occupy an important role in the recognition of the depth of meaning, importance, and singularity of your existence. Martin Heidegger has called it the moment that reveals the unequivocal qualities that belong entirely to you — those that are your ownmost. This obviously has important consequences that concern self-discovery, potential, and motivation.

Being Hollow

Much of our lives are lived in a state of habit and routine. We get up, get ready, go to work or school, do what we are told, hang out with friends with whom we have the same scripted conversations (or talk about whichever meme is circulating that particular 48-hour social media cycle), work at some hobby which is less for pleasure and more about getting ahead in life, pay bills, go to sleep, and do it all again tomorrow. The precise combination of events differs person to person, but not as much as you might expect. What they all share in common is that they are routine. They are done without thought or reflection. These routines are hollow, vacuous. They don’t belong to anyone in particular.

To demonstrate this, I often ask my college students “when was the last time you shared more than information in a conversation?” Sharing information amounts to providing another person with no more than a Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook feed: “NPR ran a segment on antelope farmers!” or “Bordeaux Wines are experimenting with Viognier!” or “Can you believe Catherine Smeitz wore a fedora the wrong way?!”

Sharing more than information would require getting into how something feels or what something means. Meaning is not something you find in a dictionary, encyclopedia, or on Reddit. “I woke up late because I was hungover — hangovers make people have dissatisfying sleep; I know it cuz I reddit.” A meaningful statement would come from you: “I woke up late… because (gasp) I am irresponsible!” If such an observation included honest self-expression, then it would be accompanied by a feeling. The feeling is substantive. The feeling is real. You don’t pretend the feeling. Unfortunately, the feelings are troubling because the psychiatrists on television (they’re actually just actors) are telling us that we shouldn’t have unexpected feelings, and we get worried that maybe we’re going crazy (that is, we are psychophobic; a topic for another day). It is much easier to just say rote things like “LOL I overslept because alcohol!” and not reflect on it for too long.

Maybe you try to solve the problem of your hollow routine by asking open-ended questions about the meaning of such routines — something like “Why am I going to work/school?” As soon as you have come up with a satisfying, tweet-worthy answer, you rest assured that you are on the right track. You give yourself a gold star for “self-knowledge” or “introspection” and get on with your routine.

However, the question “why am I going to work/school?” is not an existential one. The question asks for the cause: what has caused my working/schooling behavior? It assumes that your decision is the result of some preceding cause or condition. There are dozens of pet-answers that give the illusion of self-reflection: to make money, because that is what people do, to make a living, to pay for fun stuff, to grow and develop as a person, to be all that I can be, and so on.

An existential turn on this question might be something like this: “what is it like to go to work/school?” Work and school represent shifts in environment, social expectation, personal responsibility, and so forth. We respond to these shifts in different ways. If while you are at school it feels like all of the energy is being drained from your body, then it is a good indication that school does not provide a very nourishing atmosphere for you.

If you have ever looked at schooling this way, then you would of course understand that the course subject, the presiding professor, and the students who are attending each contribute to the overall experience. It might not be the case that biology is a dead end for your academic growth, but that you simply are unresponsive to this particular field, the students in attendance, or the personality of the professor. Try out a different course, professor, or, if moving to a different school is out of the question, a different time of day when you are likely to have a different make-up of students.

Unfortunately, we do not often reflect on our routines. In many cases, we decide what our routines oughtto be before we have any idea of what they might mean for us. Much of this is a failure of the industry of academic advertising, school counselors, and so forth that embed this idea that a college degree is absolutely essential in order to do anything in life. Instead of discovering their ownmost potential for being, young adults are forced into exploring no-longer-affordable potentials for being educated, as if this is a necessary ingredient for discovering selfhood.

We go through our lives deciding in advance what it is we will become and what this will mean to us once we do. We placate ourselves by saying things like “I will understand the importance of college once I have gone through it” and “real life will begin once I start my full-time job.” It is little surprise that we feel like we have been sold a bill of false goods around midlife (sometimes gently called the mid-career blues or, in a more extreme case, mid-life crisis), but by then the investment will have been too great to back out.

How Death and Dying Helps Fill the Emptiness

After years (even decades) of waiting for importance to unfold in the future, we eventually realize that we are running out of future. There is always the promise that the meaning will be waiting for us around the next corner — but how many corners do we have to turn before we realize that we have been played? This is where dying comes in. Something happens and we are confronted with our finitude (that is, the fact that there is an end that awaits us). It could be a brush with our own death, or, what is more likely, a confrontation with the death of another. It could be a thought that crosses your mind at a funeral, or something that happens when a person your own age has surprisingly passed away. This something changes your perspective.

Once you realize that tomorrow could be your last day, which means you will be all out of opportunities to become something new, your perspective of the present moment is amplified. For so long, you have been operating under the assumption that there will be an infinite number of possible moments, so the present one is nothing special. But what if there are only ten such moments left? This realization is less fleeting at funerals or when reading obituaries. “Does what I am doing right now really matter?” Tomorrow could be it for the discovery of your potential. Tomorrow could be the final day for you to actualize who or what it is for you to become in your life. What will you do with your rather limited time?

The background of the possibility of your own depth reminds you that the present moment, and your existence more generally, is extremely valuable. The desire that emerges out of this belongs entirely to you.If you suddenly realize that you are not as close with your parents or children as you had wished, or if you are upset that you have never gotten to visit Savannah, GA or view your favorite band live in concert, then these are indications of what is important to you. The reason why such realizations are so valuable is that habits and routines tend to camouflage what is unique and meaningful to you specifically. Are you studying biology at school because it is what really excites you, or because you know it will make your parents proud? There is nothing wrong with wanting your parents to be proud of you, but you must not mistake decisions made on their behalf as decisions made on your own behalf. Attending college so that mom and dad will be delighted is an instance of existing for the sake of mom and dad, but you are more than this: your existence is for yourself. After many years of such decisions, it can begin to be difficult to differentiate which parts of your life belong to you and which belong to someone else.

Do you volunteer at the homeless shelter because you find such work valuable and meaningful? Or is it because you think that it is something you ought to do in order to be a good person (oh, and you also think you ought to be a good person). Instances of being-for-others pile up until you forget what it even feels like to be intrinsically motivated or by personal desire.

Every other week I have students wander into my office and fall into a defeated heap on my Freud-couch. “How will I know what to do with my life?” they ask. Sometimes it is about relationships, other times it is about college majors, and still other times it is about when to move on from something in their lives such as the sport they play. Such questions are symptoms of being out of touch with personal desire — desire that is exclusively and unequivocally their own (that is, their ownmost desire). They are out of touch with living as a meaningful, deeply personal, and energizing process.

However, once they are confronted with death — their own death or that of someone else — the uncertainty vanishes, and they are confronted with that which is their ownmost. The aspects of their life that are foreign are immediately recognized as such: “whatam I doing studying biology? I don’t even likebiology!” or “why am I even dating this person?? I’m miserable when I am with them!”

Paradoxically, the possibility of your own death and the finitude this indicates gives you your life. You have probably experienced this at a funeral, in a moment when everything that is important became totally clear. Of course, you need not have a near-death experience or attend a funeral in order to have this kind of existential clarity. All you have to do is focus on what it is you are doing right now — what it is like to be alive right now. Moments like these are all that you get. The best times of your life, the most formative learning experiences, or memorable relationships only ever unravel in moments like this one. This is your life.

As you can see, the recognition of the living quality of your existence is hardly “only about death and dying.” It just so happens that the reminder that death awaits us all is helpful in directing us back to our own lives — the lives that are our ownmost.

If you’ve read this far, do you have any lingering questions concerning human existence that we can think about together?

Patrick Whitehead

doing psychology outside the lines

Patrick Whitehead

Written by

Psychology Professor | Author

Patrick Whitehead

doing psychology outside the lines

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