In its purest form, Existentialism has been defined as the belief in “existence before essence”. Meaning thereby that a person, either man or woman, is known and defined by solely their actions. Existentialism claims that all humans are independent to take these actions, whether good or bad, and that they are wholly responsible for the nature of these actions which then define who they are. Good actions, good humans, bad actions bad humans. Does it get simpler than that?
I have never been much into Philosophy as a genre but its more recently that I have started reading up on it. I have always been fascinated by authors like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Rilke etc. And when I read they were the initial existentialists, I was just completely won over. More than that, I really fell in love with the concept of “the refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with the traditional philosophy as superficial, academic and remote from life”. The point to be noted here is that Existentialism is also a school of thought so feel free to laugh out loud at the irony because I do too.
I found myself really believing in the fact that essence, as in the way we choose to act, definitely does come after existence. If I hurt someone, I am making a conscious decision to do so. If I am loving someone and making them feel good, I am intentionally doing so, because I like them so much right? I would never want to hurt their feelings! All this and so much more is a decision of my conscience.
With all this said, I am still struggling with the difference between essentialism and existentialism. To say that I am not an essentialist would be wrong and to say that the concept of existentialism does not intrigue me would be a lie. So for the moment, I lie right in between. I do believe that life has a purpose and I also believe that having faith in this statement that “life has a purpose” is a decision that I have made for myself and that not everyone feels the need to make that decision or to even think about it. To provoke thought, let me quote the following lines, “Essentialists also believe that life has an intrinsic meaning and purpose, but it is up to the individual to find that purpose. Existentialism is the complete opposite. Existentialists claim life is intrinsically meaningless and the individual must work to bring meaning or purpose into their lives” and allow you to mull the concepts over.
Meanwhile, let me tell you a short story that made me right this blog post. I have been in search of a book by Walter Kaufmann for a while now and have been consistently failing to procure it. Given the fact that I am an avid reader and a book hoarder, this failure had me pretty bummed out. I was recently on the Eisenhower Fellowship with twenty other fellows from the Middle East and South Asian regions. I mentioned in a public post on my social media that this fellowship came in my life at a point when I considered myself saturated in terms of friendships. To me, I needed no new friends especially since I knew I couldn’t make the kind of long lasting friends that you make during your college years.
Lo and behold to my surprise, along with so many other things, experiences, inspirations and knowledge that the EF fellowship provided, it gifted me with a bunch of new friends. This post is my way of introducing one of them, Rama Kayyali to be precise. Four days before we had to leave, I was on a train from New York to Philly, when I messaged her to order the book for me from her Amazon Prime account – mentioning categorically that if I don’t get it now, I will never get it (as dramatic as that sounds – and I wasn’t being bossy although she would state to the contrary). Anyway, she ordered it. The next thing I know, we are in Philly, its 2 PM and we are going through a round of last day meetings, events, report preps and stuff, we are all leaving on flights the next day and the book is a no show. Apparently, Amazon tried to deliver once and no one answered at the delivery address (which was EF House in Philly) and the second time, the online information said the book had been delivered but no one at the EF House had received it.
So I skeptically crept up to Rama and was like, “What’s the update on the book?” And we literally could not decipher what the hell was going on. And so it started with Vicky (from the Eisenhower Fellowships) calling the Amazon helpline and the UPS helpline and giving them all a piece of her mind. This phone call lasted more than an hour from what I recall. And bear in mind, it was the last day; we had an early morning session, a mid day session, we had meetings with EF teams and we had the Pin Night Diner. But amongst all this, I could see Rama and her determination to get me the book. The result was that the book would be delivered to the hotel next morning before we left.
Come next morning, after a long long night of almost zero sleep and partying and crying (because we were all separating), I came down to the lobby with my bags and I see Rama engaged in a serious conversation with the rep at the lobby. I ask her what is up and she says,
“Your stupid book has been delivered to the hotel but they can’t find it!” I was like listen, forget it! It is fine. I will find it somewhere else cause now I feel bad. But she didn’t stop. She got a senior rep breathing down the neck of the junior rep and at long last, they found the book. Rama gifted it to me of course, I didn’t have to pay for it. “Enjoy your light reading” she said, with a smile on her face. It was the last commotion of an eventful journey and it has to be one of the most endearing acts of friendships I have had the privilege too. The book along with the postage with Rama’s name on it, I vow to keep forever. But before that, let me pictorially introduce you to my new friend in this shot of her I took.
This shot is a whole other story. Tell me, does it sound like I am a fan of her? Because if it does, then mission accomplished because I am a fan (Google her and you will become a fan too). Now this whole story might not seem like a huge deal to any of the readers but it was a big deal to me. In a world obsessed with trivial things, in a world where beautiful gestures are becoming extinct, where the act of truly caring for another person is becoming ancient, where honesty is now a rarity, where the institute of friendship no longer holds any meaning, these little acts motivate me.
The notorious book is called “Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre”. Isn’t it a poetic coincidence? Tell me, am I crazy to believe that people choose their essence, they choose how to act. Friendship, love and loyalty – in their purest forms – are acquired acts. No one is born with them.
P.S. I have more friends and more stories so watch this space.