What even is the purpose of life? Specifically, what is the purpose of your life? What gives your life meaning? Is the aim of each individual life, something that was borrowed from others? Are we merely copies of other copies; have you bought into the supposedly glorious purpose that other people insist should be yours?
I often sit quietly, pondering why in the world I am on this Earth. If I was to boil everything down, I’m simply a constructed mass of bones, held together by muscles and skin, sitting on a huge rock that’s swirling around a ball of fire. If I think for long enough the futility of life hits me. I could quickly take the negative points of my miserable existence and come to the conclusion that nihilists are right. I could adopt their mindset and believe life has no meaning, purpose, or value. If I was to look at everything through the lens of nihilism, you and I have no inherent purpose. We may as well go hide away in a dark, dark cave and die a lonely death. But I believe there’s more to life than that.
Recently, a friend introduced me to the podcast Philosophize This! I had heard of existentialism before, but I had never been introduced to the concept in the way Stephen West (the host) described it.
Kierkegaard, who many consider to be the father of existentialism, proposed that each individual, instead of society or religion, is responsible for not only attributing meaning to life but also living out his life passionately and authentically. In Kierkegaard’s book, The Sickness Unto Death, he states:
“Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.”
Kierkegaard is saying that humans are a combination of these opposites, and only the ability to balance the opposites in life will allow one to know who they are, to find their purpose. Human compulsion, though, is to lose oneself in one or the other of the extremes, for in doing so, we can abandon the responsibility of being an individual. It is much easier to simply lose oneself, to let yourself float to one or other side, instead of embarking on the search for the elusive self.
“The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing. Even the loss of an arm, a leg, 5 dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.”
The opposites that Kierkegaard touches the most on are ones that I believe are at the very crux of discovering yourself as an individual. The infinite and the finite. Becoming lost in either one of these causes a person to, in turn, lose pieces of themselves.
Lost in the finite
When someone is lost in the finite, they view change as impossible. Dependency and depression becomes part of their life as a result of this. They’re forever treading water in a stagnant pool, there’s no growth and no potential. You’ve adopted the herd mentality because it’s much easier to become a faceless drone, following everyone else’s beliefs, instead of blazing your trail. When you’re lost in the finite, you don’t even consider the possible beauty of change; you go along with the flow. You just blindly follow everyone else. It seems like you’re making your own choices, but in reality, you’re allowing those around you to define and change you. In the finite mentality, you do or don’t do things based on society’s definition of what is normal. You just become a copy in the world. No individuality. No uniqueness.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is becoming lost in the infinite. There are endless possibilities preceded by limitless choices. What happens if I mess up? Fear suddenly paralyzes us in this mindset. If I make a decision that I will regret for the rest of my life, then what? We use this mindset to permit ourselves not to make a decision. We sit on our couches reviewing our list of pros and cons, weighing the options, but never take action.
For some of us lost in the infinite, different ideas and paths are sampled, but no enduring choice or commitment is ever made.
When one is lost in the infinite, there is a deep obsession with who you could potentially become, so you don’t ever become anything because there’s always something better out there. I mean come on, there’s an INFINITE number of possibilities. The self becomes an abstract possibility because there are so many possibilities for distracting us from our individuality. It’s scary to take the chance on that one because…what if? What if there’s something better out there?
To be a self requires a balance of both the finite and the infinite in a way that is unique to each person’s individuality. This isn’t easy. The task placed upon us to balance required constant effort, introspection, and courage.
“to be a self is the greatest concession made to man, but at the same time, it is eternity’s demand upon him.”
This demand places such a dizziness of despair that causes us to frantically search for something, anything, to escape from the draw to discover our individuality. We have this great and pressing freedom to explore ourselves, and that scares us. We fear that in one future day, we’ll wake up and find we did it all wrong. So people go one of two ways: lose themselves in the finite, to just plod along like our family and friends, to follow along with the numerous others who find the societal norm the easiest way to live. Or lose themselves in the infinite, to discover the infinite number of possibilities, but never take action and never commit to one path, because our individuality is too scary to search out.
So despair and anxiety hit us. The true me, myself, and I is a scary thought, so I try everything to rid myself of myself. Why? Because that would make me responsible. Why would I want to be accountable for anything much less my entire life?
Even Kierkegaard describes in his book how hard it was for him to become an individual even after he understood the process of becoming one. It’s not easy. But in order to be a genuine human being, an individual, a ‘self,’ this process is necessary. In order to truly develop the worth inside of you, you have to find your unique balance between the finite and the infinite. Following along in others’ footsteps, mindlessly isn’t going to get you any further than your average Joe-schmo. Pondering and contemplating life without taking action isn’t going to get you any further than your front door. Take responsibility. Take action. Determine what life is your own. You are an individual, and it is your freedom and your responsibility to find yourself.
Live passionately. Live authentically.