Philosophy 101: Is This Really Existentialism?

While talking with my partner about the stress related to going back to school in the time of COVID-19 and the monotony of what feels like recycled days, I had a jarring thought. It hit me in the way you would expect a semi-truck to hit an unsuspecting animal crossing the road — quickly and rather violently.

I began writing this segment of articles with the intent of bridging the gap of my everyday academia with the wonderous hobby of writing. From the get-go, I wanted to write about existentialism and perhaps educate others that the meaning was deeper than life problems becoming an existential crisis. I thought I would write this article in conjunction with midterms or finals week, where we would all be drowning in studying and where the term was applicable to us students, at least.

But with the developments of this year, never did I imagine that we would experience events to such a magnitude that everyone, everywhere, would face the same daunting tsunami wave of shared existentialism. And while I would argue that it’s ironic that I cite shared experiences in the face of existentialism — a field of thought so driven by the experience of individual human existence — the events of 2020 are shared, to some extent.

sunset Photo by Jordan Wozniak from Unsplash

Contrary to popular belief, existentialism is not the idea that everything is meaningless. (It’s a common misconception that existentialism and nihilism are synonymous, so if you’re gasping quietly to yourself right now, I’m sure you’re not alone.) The existentialist idea of dread or angst is where many people pull the concept of an existential crisis. Existential dread (or angst!) is confusion or disorientation in the face of a seemingly meaningless world. And while I read that for myself, that an existential crisis is the contemplation that the world could very well be meaningless, the dots connected to form a perfect picture of 2020.

I’ll let you in on a little secret, though I am by no means an expert. (Seriously, I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, much less a doctorate, so don’t take my words as gospel.) Existentialism has many conflicting definitions — that I don’t have nearly enough time to get into here — but it has one unarguable central principle: existence precedes essence.

Which, simply put, means that an individual gives meaning to their life and existence. And by committing meaningful acts, your existence becomes more meaningful.

I understand if this isn’t your cup of coffee (there’s a whole section of existentialism that says God is dead, so trust me, it’s more than a little controversial), but I can’t deny the necessity of these reminders, especially right now. I can’t sum this all up in a cheery quote of, “hold on tight we’ll make it through this,” because it’s seemingly the 13657th day of March and some people are being affected worse than others. We can’t put on smiles and post cheery Instagram posts about our quarantine vibe every day, because we’re human beings — not mannequins with plastered plastic smiles stretching wide for the length of our lives. Our perception of the world around us wanes and waxes with each passing day.

Journal in front of laptop Photo by Nick Morrison from Unsplash

But with all that being said — with all the crisis’ and our middle-of-the-night (sometimes middle-of-the-afternoon) breakdowns, and with our current reality being what it is — I’ll dare to say it:

If that really cute Harry Styles pullover you purchased brings a semblance of meaning or positivity to your days; if that (socially distanced) walk you take every day brings meaning and happiness to an otherwise vitamin-D deficient and dull day; if shit-posting about the cute landscaper who clips the bushes outside your bedroom window every Wednesday to your three Tumblr followers makes you smile, then you should do it. 

If it’s meaningful to you, then it’s meaningful. Full stop. Not pause — period, not comma. So, grab those moments where you can. You deserve it.