As happens occasionally in my relationships with patients, what I thought was merely a “throw-away” comment turned out to be a detour into something unexpectedly larger. Musing over a young woman’s ambivalence about divorcing her verbally abusive and controlling husband, I offhandedly said to her, “Well, if you leave him, you’d be faced with the need to know yourself as an individual rather than as a part of his world.” In saying this, my thought was that a divorce would allow her an opportunity to understand and develop her own identity. And the fact that they had no children would make leaving the relationship that much easier. She paused and then asked me a question, the complexity of which he could not have possibly understood beforehand: “That frightens me. I’ve never lived alone. I’m not sure who I am apart from him. Why shouldn’t I just stay married? It’s less stressful. Can you tell me why I shouldn’t just stick it out?”.
Despite the question’s complexity, I didn’t feel particularly put on the proverbial spot, given that I have a natural, untutored affinity for questions that are implicitly philosophical. And this one definitely was, never mind that, like most people, my patient does not view herself as philosophically inclined. I asked her to hold the question in mind and mull it over privately until our next session, and promised to share my own thoughts about it at that time, too.
Next time we met we did just that. She often faltered as she described the inner dialogue in which she had engaged since the last visit, though this didn’t concern me at all: the important thing was that she was starting to explore the issue as an inner phenomenon, and not simply as something foisted on her by the unfortunate circumstance of being married to a difficult man, I thought. Then she wanted to hear what I had to say.
For reasons that I’m still not sure of, over the preceding week my thoughts about her dilemma had turned to the perspectives of European existentialism. If you are one of those made to study Heidegger and Marcuse in your undergraduate philosophy class, you understand that this group of thinkers can be…well, I think the diplomatic term is “challenging”. Hence, it probably doesn’t need to be said that what follows is not anything like a verbatim account of what I actually said to her during that visit. Normally empathic therapists put their thoughts into words pithy and clear enough for the patient to assimilate, or at least try to do so. (Though sometimes one cannot put things in any form that is helpful. I once had a patient to whom I would say, “What are you thinking about?”, only to have him respond to me, with a touching look of real bewilderment, “Whaddya mean?”.)
Rather, what is to come is a mentally much-worked-over and synthesized recounting of the elements of thought composing my response to her. I offer this up, not to impress you with my grasp of these concepts (I do “get it”, though it quite literally took me about thirty years) but as a venue through which to explore the practical usefulness of thinking philosophically about treatments.
When you distill existentialism down to its essential ingredients, what you have is the rather straightforward idea that all thinking about reality and our place in it starts from the fact that we exist. This is a rather unremarkable statement to most modern people. Of course we exist.
But, prior to the rise of existential thought in the 1830’s, which was formally initiated, more or less, by the self-published writings of the depressive and eccentric Danish religious philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, Western philosophers usually began their deliberations about the nature of life by referring to an abstract, usually immaterial cause or causal principle that set it all into motion. This primal, “unmoved mover” or “efficent cause” was then generally described as infusing human nature and our material world with its particular qualities, like a baker filling up a canoli.
More often than not, this abstract creative principle was identified as the Christian God. Others appeared across the centuries, such as the “World Soul”, in Hegel, or Kant’s “Categorical Imperative”. In each case, the nature of humanity and the world was discerned by first referring to a pet theory about the nature of the energic source presumed to have originated all subsequent events. Hence, for example, in making moral choices, Christian thinkers looked to the wisdom of scripture for guidance (“What would Jesus do?”); Hegelians immediately explored the way in which a given choice may propel or hinder the cosmic, goal-oriented evolution of the universe toward greater consciousness of itself (also a Hindu notion); and Kantians looked to what abstract and immaterial moral laws (or “categories”) demand our compliance, at least, if we wish to act morally (hence, the use of the second term, “imperative”). Kierkegaard demolished this entire Western intellectual and moral edifice in one sentence: “Subjectivity is truth”. Well, perhaps that’s overstating it. More accurate to say that, due to the fateful intersection of multiple personal and sociocultural factors, he was destined – or perhaps “fated” is the right word – to be the right man at the right time to give voice to a rapidly evolving change in our collective Western notion of religious life, and, more broadly, the idea of a life well-lived.
To assert the primacy of one’s private or “subjective” take on life is to leave behind any meaningful sense of reliance on the overarching, absolutist doctrines and principles that were formerly taken for granted. All that remains is the bare, unadorned sense of one as existing, as being alive and conscious, though without the possibility of clinging to any external, “objective” authority to bestow one with purpose, meaning, and a direction in life. Kierkegaard meant this idea as a provocation to nominal Danish Christians, an attempt to goad them into taking their faith more seriously. He challenged them to courageously fulfill the Christian doctrine of taking full moral responsibility for their lives, minus the usual exit ramps of blaming existence, society, mental states, and so on; and, most startling of all, without the self-protective maneuver of resorting to one’s status as a “believer”. In fact, Kierkegaard insisted that the only genuinely Christian life must begin in a form of thoroughgoing atheism, completely bereft of any experience of a transcendent, much less loving deity. He put this rather starkly, writing that one must experience oneself as suspended over a yawning abyss, as he put it, “by a thread”. There is an irony to such an experience: one may well emerge from its unmatched terror and hopelessness, the conviction of existence as an empty shell, with a genuine sensation of being held in the arms of something beyond and above oneself . Though, that said, the risk is real, as such an outcome is far from guaranteed. You can be lost to sorrow and resentment, and forever; the “dark night of the soul” may never see a sunrise.
Which brings us to Friedrich Nietzsche, working in Germany and, later in his life, Switzerland, in the latter part of the nineteenth century . Nietzsche, one of my very favorite thinkers, followed Kierkegaard’s lead, but did not emerge with anything like a resurrected sense of hope in a deity. It would perhaps be correct to call him an “atheist”: after all, he did write that “God is dead”, the most famous passage in his work Thus Spake Zarathustra. But let’s not overlook the oft neglected second half of that famous sentence: “…because we killed Him”. By this Nietzsche meant to assert that humanity arrived at a certain point in its development – about the time of the Enlightenment – in which the need for a metaphysical object began a serious and precipitous decline. The gods began to fade in the twilight at an alarming rate, such that, by the time Nietzsche was composing his most important writings in the 1880s, it was quite apparent that there was no going back to an earlier era in which God was firmly ensconced in his Heavenly throne. Not that many millions didn’t try. But, while they rushed to prop up and restore life to the ancient mythos, a growing number of others arrived and figuratively bludgeoned the ancient deity to death.
So the central point here is not so much whether Nietzsche was an atheist. That question is quite irrelevant, practically speaking. The central issue is that, whatever Nietzsche’s religious beliefs, the fact remains that for the first time in its history vast numbers of humans face the world with the conviction that they are completely alone in the cosmos. (By last reports, only three percent of Europeans identify themselves as church-goers.) As with Kierkegaard, all that remains is the bare fact of being alive, of existing. No more. The meaning and purpose of this state of existence is no longer to be found in some objective source, be it in the Heavens, “family values”, or career, but solely within the individual, if it is to be located at all.
This is a circumstance fraught with both unprecedented possibility and serious danger, wrote Nietzsche. Possibility inheres in the anticipation that humankind may seize this opportunity to wrest the role of creator away from an abstract deity, and itself become the measure of all things and maker of meaning. Such an outcome establishes the inherent dignity of the individual, who enters into a demanding, frightening, yet potentially joyous phase of existence in which he or she is charged with defining and building the shape of things to come.
On the other hand, danger lurks in the threat that individuals will become overwhelmed with dread at the prospect of a godless universe, stymied by the thought of such profound aloneness, and so flee from the existential demand to step into the role of self-responsible, self-defining masters of their own fates. Minus the comforts of religion, these individuals are very likely to seek refuge in the certainty provided by secularized versions of religion, most ominously the state and its social apparatus, warned Nietzsche. Modernist states are perpetually in danger of attempting to create the equivalent of “heaven on Earth”, that is, to fill in the void left by the departed deity with the promise of a brave new world of social engineering. This is a world greeted with excited expectations of becoming the incubus of a superior new social order. But Nietzsche saw peril in this development. He was characteristically prescient in predicting that these new societies would be vulnerable to becoming cauldrons of fanaticism just as bad as anything fomented by religions, as passions formerly directed toward Heaven would now simply be diverted toward them as the new, redemptive objects. And indeed, the twentieth century fulfilled Nietzsche’s prophecy to the tees, churning out one murderous atheistic regime after another, from Stalin to Mao to Pol Pot.
Nietzsche’s life work was fundamentally dedicated to preparing humanity for the agonizing choices resulting from the death of God: to become who we are by courageously affirming our role as craftsmen of our own identities and destinies is the only sane option left to us, he insisted. All other choices, however diverse they may appear to be, boil down to a tacit and cowardly intent to avoid the suffering inherent in stepping into a genuinely individual existence, by aligning oneself with what he called “the herd”. To Nietzsche, the herd is simply any human community whose members have chosen, consciously or not, to trade, as Pink Floyd put it, “a walk-on part in the war for the lead role in a cage”. Such human groups are composed of those who have chosen the security provided by conformity to the taken-for-granted view of reality shared by other members, above all else. Failing to become individuals, they are easily manipulated in the service of mass movements, from those as plainly diabolical as the Third Reich, to the quietly mind-numbing, soul-deadening allure of consumer capitalism.
In his writings Nietzsche most often addressed the nature of mass social movements and associated phenomena, and only secondarily examined the innumerable critical personal choices that individuals must make throughout the courses of their lives. However, it is easy to see how his views apply to this latter, humbler existential dimension. Genuine individuality, and its function as a property of character that resists incorporation into the herd, is not something that we switch on when faced with grand social crises, and switch off when confronted with the dilemmas of our personal relationships and commitments. Someone who will knuckle under to an employer ‘s pressure to, say, “cook the books”, will act no differently when faced with a larger social crisis demanding that they respond authentically, that is, in accord with a set of personal, deeply-held values.
Obviously – at least I hope it’s obvious – when considering my patient’s question I did not engage in a detailed inner dialogue about the history of European existentialism like the above. But the foregoing does accurately convey the general direction of my deliberations, specifically, my concern that she understand the gravity of the question posed to her, not by me, but – and I mean this quite literally – by Being itself: could she find the courage to live authentically, minus the shelter from becoming a genuinely self-defined individual afforded her by her husband? I sensed my patient’s dread, much of which I presumed was flowing from her growing awareness that there is no one, including the Judeo-Christian God of her childhood, to relieve her of the responsibility of making this difficult decision and living with the consequences. There is no check list, no objective guidepost in the world to take the place of her subjective contemplations about what is, and is not of ultimate value in the current crisis, hence, what she will choose to do. Further frightening was the inescapability of her situation: while never articulated, she and I knew intuitively that the only freedom that she lacked in the moment was the freedom to avoid choosing. One may refuse to choose, but that is simply a choice to let life take the reins and carry you wherever it wishes. She was dangling by a thread, suspended over the abyss that, for Kierkegaard, is life.
So, looking absent-mindedly at a sandstone statuette of the standing Buddha atop my bookshelf, I said to her, “I don’t know if you should stay with your husband or not. There is no ground under our feet here. Not that there ever is. Nothing solid or dependable that we can be sure to count on as a source of truth”. She looked at me sadly, but with a look of resignation implying that she had been aware of this all along. “I suppose there are two questions here. What does it mean if you stay? And what would it mean if you left?”.
The words hung in the air. The sandstone Buddha gazed down upon us, as if silently blessing the dread and promise of the moment.