Why am I here? What’s my purpose?
Existentialism is a broad philosophy primarily concerned with how one exists in the world. Existentialism has often been accused of being pessimistic or depressing. This is not surprising, considering that it deals with our struggling with these four areas: Freedom, Meaninglessness, Isolation, and Death.
Common wisdom suggests avoiding these topics if one is to find happiness. This might be considered the “ignorance is bliss” approach, or rather “ignore-ance is bliss.” Is this a reasonable way to achieve happiness? It certainly has the advantage of being quick and easy to implement, especially with all the distractions available to us.
Existential thinkers criticize this approach in a couple of areas. First, they claim that it is difficult to completely ignore existential concerns. Instead, there are subtle fears lurking in the back of the mind. Though we may not always be aware of it, this makes for a slight dis-ease that runs as an undercurrent through consciousness. Occasionally, these come to the forefront of the mind, often sparked by tragedies or major life events, like graduating college or the death of a loved one. Sometimes, such an event spurs one into existential crisis that can lead to personal growth.
Another point is that just because a person ignores existential concerns, it does not mean that those concerns have no effect on that person’s life. Ignoring typically is achieved by distracting, and distracting activities tend not to be healthy for the person. Often, people try to distract themselves with food, TV, drugs, abusive relationships, workaholism, and other self-injurious behaviors. Lives can be destroyed when these avoidant behaviors become a lifestyle.
This avoidance of existential facts leads to an unexamined adoption of the thoughts and behaviors of mainstream culture. According to existentialists, to the extent that one does this, one leads an inauthentic life, a life that springs not from a critical examination of the self but from the uncritical adoption of the status quo.
So how does one lead an authentic life? According to existentialists, this involves taking a sincere and courageous look into what it means to be a human being. No answers are given. You come to your own conclusions, your own values, your own purpose. Then, you can live intentionally and authentically.