Existentialism: Themes and Defenses

July 10, 2008 at 9:07 am 12 comments

Author’s Note: This is the second in a five-part series examining fundamentalism from a existentialist perspective.

We will begin by looking at some of the themes that emerge in existentialist thought, and see how they can help make some sense of many of the features of fundamentalist Christianity. My thesis is this: fundamentalism is a response to these basic human (which is to say, existential) “givens” in life. It is a way to assuage some of the most difficult and vexing anxiety that comes part-and-parcel with being human. But in doing so, it separates the believer from full participation in life. It is, in the end, life-denying, not life-enhancing.

My guiding text will be Dr. Irvin Yalom’s wonderful 1980 Existential Psychotherapy. Yalom is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and writer working at Stanford who has written extensively on the intersection of existentialist thought and psychotherapy – a topic that could comprise a book in itself. Yalom’s book has become a classic in the field. His clarity and lucidity in representing existentialist concepts and placing them in a psychological context (for, really, where else could they be placed?) has no equal. It is relatively non-technical and I highly recommend it to the interested reader.

Yalom divides his work along four “themes” that were predominant within existentialist writing: death, isolation, responsibility, and meaning. These “themes” became the focus of study among the existentialists because they believed them to be universal emotional experiences, intrinsic to being a human subject. These are, in other words, the basic building blocks of human experience: we are all aware, on some level, that our life and all our projects will one day cease (death), we are aware that we are ultimately alone (isolation), we are aware that we are free to choose our lives and create ourselves (responsibility), and we know that the meaning of our lives will not be given to us, and thus we must create it (meaning).

Existentialism has sometimes been accused of being morbid, but there is a reason for all this focus on death and anxiety and loneliness, and this is critical to understand. The existentialists thought these experiences were so important and so worth struggling with because, though they are always painful, they are nonetheless (to borrow from religious language) our salvation. Facing all these things directly is precisely that which has the power to make us feel alive, to make life worth living. Why? Because once you strip away the illusions of life (all the fanciful stories we tell ourselves to shield ourselves from these painful realities), once you accept what life is not and cannot be, then and only then are you free to appreciate what truly is and can be.

So, here, then, is one motif to watch for as we look at these “themes”: when you let go of illusions about what you wish life was, but isn’t, you can re-focus your energy on appreciating what it is, and thereby live life more fully.

One other thing to pay attention to as we go through Yalom’s themes: there are two ways that fundamentalist belief typically responds to and “solves” each of these “problems”. One, there is a belief in personal Specialness – “These rules will not apply to me. These are universal aspects of other people’s lives, but I will escape this fate”. The other, belief in a Rescuer – someone who will shield the believer from the pain and anxiety he would otherwise have to face.

These defenses, I should add, are not unique to Christianity or Christians. Indeed, Yalom himself gives many examples of them, drawn from his experience as a psychotherapist treating people from all walks of life. His contention is that these defenses are quite widespread (albeit often unconscious) and represent common human ways to stave off existential anxiety. They are not the exclusive purview of religion, and I should further point out that my use of Yalom’s model, in applying it to fundamentalism, is my own idea, not his; his target is broader.

But I contend that in fundamentalism these two defenses, especially, have received deep and powerful elaboration and institutionalization. And thus, in a sense, can be seen to both effectively bind anxiety – yet also keep the believer in a state of suspended animation, separated from the only thing that can really bring him awake to the real world, and to his true “salvation”.

So, keep these themes and defenses in mind as we look at Yalom’s treatment of existential psychology in more detail. Next time, we begin at the end, with death.

- Richard

Entry filed under: Richard. Tags: , , , , , , .

Existentialism: An Introduction Yet Another Review of The God Delusion

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Doris Tracey  |  July 10, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    These teachings sound like Buddism and are quite profound. People have been living wishful thinking because of their past and the otrocities that they have had to endure. If evil were never allowed on this planet, people would be in their original minds and the energy in them would not be tied up in negativity. Negative energy can only be transformed and freed up to it’s original state. I have been living a life of isolation in the past few yrs and I know it’s like being privately tutored in life. There is something I need to learn from this intense cycle in my life. I hope I am learning it and I really don’t mind being alone, it’s like living in the woumb again. I must be going through a re-birth.

  • 2. LeoPardus  |  July 10, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Good Richard. I like this investigation. Many thoughts that I’ve had through the years are reflected in what you are saying here.

    I suppose that shouldn’t be too surprising. I recall that when I first read existentialist writings, I found that they reflected my own thought processes very closely. Maybe I’m a congenital existentialist.

    BTW, I especially liked this:
    “when you let go of illusions about what you wish life was, but isn’t, you can re-focus your energy on appreciating what it is, and thereby live life more fully”

  • 3. John T.  |  July 10, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Im not sure where this came from but its probably the best piece Ive ever heard in regards to living life.

    “In life pain is inevitable, Suffering is optional.”

  • 4. the chaplain  |  July 11, 2008 at 8:05 pm

    Thanks, Richard.

    I’ve found that, since my de-conversion, I have a greater appreciation of life. I understand that this life is the only one I’ll live, so I’d better make the best of it. That means embracing and enjoying the good things, as well as confronting and either overcoming or minimizing the deleterious effects of the bad things.

    No more waiting for God to reveal his will; no more wondering what God is trying to teach me. Existentialism provides some intelligent insights into how one can make the most one’s life.

  • 5. John Morales  |  July 11, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    Richard,

    Facing all these things directly is precisely that which has the power to make us feel alive, to make life worth living.

    I guess I do face them, but they’re not in the forefront of my consciousness all the time :)

    I’d say this adds poignancy to our appreciation of life, rather than making life worth living per se.

    I’d like to add that I find your thesis uncontroversial.
    I look forward to reading future installments.

  • 6. Grant Dexter  |  July 12, 2008 at 2:59 am

    These defenses, I should add, are not unique to Christianity or Christians. Indeed, Yalom himself gives many examples of them, drawn from his experience as a psychotherapist treating people from all walks of life. His contention is that these defenses are quite widespread (albeit often unconscious) and represent common human ways to stave off existential anxiety.

    Sounds like the need for salvation might be one of those painful truths we have to face.

    Can you point out what the difference might be going through life believing a lie about the afterlife, then dying, and going through life believing there is no afterlife, then dying? How does believing there is no afterlife make one a better person?

  • 7. RIchard  |  July 12, 2008 at 3:06 am

    Grant-

    Thanks for your thoughts. I think the next post, which I just put up, will answer your question.

    And to clarify before you do: it doesnt make you a better person. It has the potential to help you live more fully and more richly, on the existential view.

  • 8. Grant Dexter  |  July 12, 2008 at 3:13 am

    It didn’t :)

    And a richer and fuller life is a better person, in my opinion :)

  • 9. RIchard  |  July 12, 2008 at 3:18 am

    1. The fact that you didnt agree with the answer didnt mean there wasnt one. If you would like to produce an argument in that regard, please do.

    2. Maybe. Perhaps you can explain why that is so?

  • 10. Grant Dexter  |  July 12, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Was that last post in response to my comments elsewhere? I’m off to read :)

  • 11. Grant Dexter  |  July 12, 2008 at 10:12 am

    Oh. Wait. I get it … Sorry. The All Blacks losing has shaken my ability to read and comprehend.

    1. The fact that you didnt agree with the answer didnt mean there wasnt one. If you would like to produce an argument in that regard, please do.

    I feel uncompelled to offer reasoning as to why I disagree. I’ll explain in the other thread.

    2. Maybe. Perhaps you can explain why that is so?

    I simply think that a person is the sum of his words and actions. A richer and fuller life is the result of wiser words and better actions .. hence a richer and fuller life comes from being a better person.

  • 12. John Smart  |  January 4, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    As Grant Dexter is a known kiddy fiddler I wouldn’t listen to his opinions. He’s trying to cover over his crimes

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