Monday, July 31, 2023

Rel 411 - Time and Existentialist Creation

Time and Existentialist Creation

On a Thursday in Bangalore India, I sat in a conference room of an engineering firm, listening to a small cadre of managers talk in detail about their manufacturing prowess, when I experienced an epiphanic moment. For a handful of minutes, a vision of sorts flashed in my mind, where I was a therapist sitting in a chair in a quiet room and across from me was a patient. I asked the patient to contemplate the most precious commodity humans possess: time. I told this client that they needed to feel the anxiety of time and to deliberate long and deeply about how they were going to spend the remainder of their time in life. I then turned to an hourglass sitting on a table, turned it over and asked the patient to feel the grains of sand fall from the top and pile at the bottom.

While I have been a student of existentialist philsophy for a number of years, I gained a deeper appreciation for it in this course. In this essay, I’ll focus on three lessons I learned from this class. The first is the pressing urgency of time in the context of living authentically. After having learned of the importance of existence preceding essence, I feel more keenly the need to use my time toward my own “meaning-giving project” (Crowell). Did my boredom in India lead to that epiphany which caused me to consider my own grains of sand? The second lesson I learned from this course was about the need for choice and action on finishing my life project. While the project is en media res, I nonetheless have had a re-kindling of effort to work towards making that creative project into a reality. From Sartre I learned the concept of “bad faith” regarding how being the perpetual dreamer does nothing but whittle away the grains of sand in return for nothing. While dreaming of transcendence is needed, so too is action. The third lesson I learned from this course, via Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, was that I must always create with no expectation of fame, immortality or any type of reward. As Camus writes, “to work and create ‘for nothing’ … this is the difficult wisdom that the absurd thought sanctions” (Camus 103). The protagonist of the film The Shawshank Redemption fittingly summarizes these three lessons when he said, “get busy living, or get busy dying.”

Did I experience profound boredom in that conference room in India? Possibly. My enlightenment might have been what Heidegger called Augenblick or “a moment of vision” in which I was experiencing such unadulterated dullness that I achieved an awareness of what I am missing in life (Gibbs 602). Indeed, Camus seems to confirm that such moments of brilliant boredom cause one to snap back into existential reality. He writes in Myth of Sisyphus, “Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and one day, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm - this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the 'why' arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement” (Camus 19). One scholar has noted the worth of boredom in that “it has specific value in awakening our ability to experience meaningfulness, often through its negation; when bored, we may question meaning or, more precisely, lack of meaning by indifference” (Gibbs 603). For me, in that awakening moment in India, a contrasting vision came to me, in which I found myself “taking a stance on being” and I felt the urgency to make progress on what is meaningful to me (607).

The second pivotal lesson I learned from this course is related to action and making progress on my life project. From Sartre, I learned of the concept of bad faith and more specifically, the bad faith of not acknowledging my facticity and only focusing on my pure transcendence – in other words, only wishing for some possibility but never acting (Flynn 74). Like the woman on a date, in Sartre’s example, to not commit to a choice and action in order to become something (i.e. the woman refusing to admit that she is a body who can enjoy the touch of a man and postponing commitment) is living in bad faith (Anderson 6:07). To live in good faith is to admit to myself that my facticity as a human requires making a choice towards transcendence via focused and diligent work in order to change and make dreams into a reality. Good faith requires choice and action.

The third lesson I learned was more of a reminder of a brutal truth. All too often, our life projects aim at more than existence. We strive for lasting fame, status, power or abundant wealth – to overcome and become more than our circumstances. Indeed, Nietzsche wrote much of this with his concept of will to power. I discussed this idea in one of my essays when I quoted Nietzsche, “What is good?—All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad?—All that proceeds from weakness.  What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases—that a resistance is overcome” (Wilkerson). However, Camus importantly clarifies that we ought not expect anything in return for our efforts. While the notion of the will to power may spur us to action, we must never forget that ultimately our creative project will be buried by space and time.

In a moving passage from The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus explores the challenging question of whether a person can persistently create with no expectations – to create for no reason other than to create. The point demands the full quote be mentioned.

I want to know whether, accepting a life without appeal, one can also agree to work and create without appeal and what is the way leading to these liberties. I want to liberate my universe of its phantoms and to people it solely with flesh and blood truths whose presence I cannot deny. I can perform absurd work, choose the creative attitude rather than another. But an absurd attitude, if it is to remain so, must remain aware of its gratuitousness (Camus 93).

Taking this absurdist attitude is a revolt against our condition. Too many times, people, including myself, feel the utter despair of casting maximum effort into a project or presentation, only to have it briefly acknowledged and then forgotten about. It is tempting, for me, to assume an attitude of: better to have never loved than to have a broken heart. The “higher fidelity” Camus and Sisyphus teaches us is to not only recognize our absurd condition but to also rebel and create projects despite our strange state of being (111). A scene from the film A River Runs Through It captures this attitude nicely.

The father of the protagonist was also the schoolteacher for his sons. The older son (the main character named Norman) was taught how to write well by his father. In the film, Norman muses, “while my friends spent their days at Missoula Elementary, I stayed home and learned to write the American language.” In the scene, Norman writes an essay and then hands the paper to his father. The father reads it, turns to his son and says, “half as long.” Norman returns to the project, labors over the paper and then walks back to his father to have it graded. The father reads it, pauses and says, “Again, half as long.” Norman drags his feet back to his desk and makes additional edits. Again, he appears before his father, who reads the essay. This time, the father judges the essay acceptable and says, “Good, now throw it away.” Normal wads the paper – representing his work, effort and time – and throws it in the trash bin and runs off to go fishing. We must have that same perspective for our projects – work diligently on them but be perfectly willing to let them go when the next adventure calls. This is to create gratuitously.

In conclusion, I’ve gleaned three lessons from this course. The first is the rekindling of pressing urgency with regards to the use of my time toward my own “meaning-giving project” (Crowell). It would seem boredom has played a role in this rekindling. The second lesson I learned was to be aware of “bad faith” on my part, and to choose and act with good faith towards making my creative project into a reality. Lastly, Camus reminded me that the existential absurdist must always create “for nothing” – I must embrace this perspective and brutal truth, knowing full well the benefit is in the creative process, not the enduring creation (Camus 103). Perhaps Nietzsche captures the spirit of urgency, action and the notion of creating for nothing, when he wrote,

the secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors, as long as you cannot be rulers and owners, you lovers of knowledge! Soon the age will be past when you could be satisfied to live like shy deer, hidden in the woods! (Kaufmann 106)

Works Cited

A River Runs through It. Directed by Robert Redford, Columbia Pictures, 1992.

Anderson, Ellie. “Sartre’s Theory of Bad Faith.”, 29 Apr. 2022, Accessed 25 July 2023.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. 1955. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Penguin Books, 1979.

Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”, 9 June 2020,

Flynn, Thomas R. Existentialism : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Gibbs, Paul. "The Concept of Profound Boredom: Learning from Moments of Vision." Studies in Philosophy and Education, vol. 30, no. 6, 2011, pp. 601-613. ProQuest,, doi:

Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. 1956. New York, Meridian Books, 1960.

The Shawshank Redemption. Directed by Frank Darabont, Columbia Pictures, 1994.

Wilkerson, Dale. “Nietzsche, Friedrich | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Rel 411 - Jean-Paul Sartre: Breaking the Mold, Living Authentically

 Jean-Paul Sartre: Breaking the Mold, Living Authentically

Sartre contends existence precedes essence (Sartre). Coming from a Mormon background, I was taught I pre-existed, which simply meant my essence came before my existence (Marshall 197). From the moment I was born, my essence would be defined by others and God. But after 38 years of living Mormonism, I came to realize I was not living authentically – there was a gap between who I intrinsically felt I was and what others (family, religious leaders, neighbors and peers at work) thought I ought to be. The first step was to accept that my existence came prior to my essence. Afterward, I began to reconcile the gap and unify my psyche. This process has taken several years and is still a work in progress. In brief, I recognized I needed to “radically escape bad faith”, and subsequently I realized I had freedom to take steps to break the mold in which I was raised and to begin to live authentically (Detmer 88).

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or more commonly known as the Mormon church, one of the underlying doctrines of the faith is the concept of pre-existence. This dogma is taught to all members from a very young age, and then reinforced throughout their lives. Members of the religion are taught they are “spirit children” of a “Heavenly Mother and Father” (Marshall 197). Before humans’ physical existence, God had laid out a plan for his children, which included daily activities and various milestone rituals and “practices [which] intricately cross sect members’ physical, temporal, and social planes of existence” (197). This plan for each member is the essence of who they are and what they must become. In other words, each member, assuming they remain in the religious fold, never has a chance, from the beginning of their life, to define what their essence is or will become. In short, in the Mormon faith, essence precedes existence. However, as experienced by myself and thousands of other Mormons, placing essence before existence creates problems. One of Jean-Paul Sartre’s pillars of his existential philosophy is to emphasize that existence precedes essence.

In his well-known lecture entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism” Sartre lays out his argument for placing the recognition of one’s existence before defining one’s essence. He uses an analogy of a creator of a book or paper-knife conceiving those objects in his mind. This conception, in the creator’s mind, is the essence of those objects, and before those objects are produced with physical material, one can claim their essence precedes existence. Applying the analogy to God and humankind, theists, like the Mormons, claim that humanity’s essence was conceived by God prior to humans taking mortal form. However, in all of humanity’s existence, it has collectively never agreed or settled on the definition of God, nor has it found proof of God’s existence. While all discussion on God has been conjecture, what is known to humanity is its own existence – we exist. And even if granted the premise of God’s existence, humanity still lacks access to the mind of God in order to ascertain human essence. Thus, Sartre argues “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards” (Sartre). Given the individual exists first, he is then faced with the prospect of establishing his essence – this is his life project. This project involves blunt honesty with oneself in a perpetual struggle to live with authenticity. To live authentically, one must be on the look-out for “bad faith” actors and paradigms in one’s life.

While the individual’s life project to define his essence remains in flux, he must be alert to outside impositions, self-deceptions and perpetual dreaming with no action (Flynn 72-74). These forms of bad faith span two poles, one which is the “facticity” of the individual and the other is his “transcendence” (74).  Outside imposition (living for others) and self-deception (“dull resignation to one’s fate”) fall under the form of bad faith of facticity, while perpetual dreaming with no action falls under the form of bad faith stemming from transcendence (73).

For me, having been raised in the Mormon faith, I realized I was suffering from bad faith in the form of facticity.  My religious leaders, parents, friends and neighbors sought to impose a specific role on me. They made demands of my life and argued it was my duty and obligation to be Mormon. In a similar vein, Sartre uses an example of “service industry” roles “which [demand] of all persons in the service industry that they give up their status as autonomous human beings and exhaust themselves utterly in serving their social function” (Detmer 79). The other form of bad faith from the facticity pole is resigning oneself to his fate – a lazy argument, in a sense. All too easy for me, and a line of thinking I continually battle today, is to lie to myself by leveraging any and all stories which are “selective and slanted” toward what I think I cannot change about myself (Detmer 81). Overcoming this form of bad faith, for me, is to constantly battle the Mormon “autopilot” programming of my first 38 years of existence (Marshall 205).

The other form of bad faith I must fight is that of “the dreamer” (Flynn 74). Having left the Mormon faith, I was left with a new-found freedom to make myself who I wished and intended to be. Through the course of the last several years, I have dreamed of becoming either a teacher of philosophy, a life coach or a psychoanalyst, despite the fact that I’ve worked in the Information Technology field for over twenty years. While I am prone to making plans and dreaming, I must overcome this bad faith and work towards making those dreams into a reality. While working towards a degree in philosophy is a good first step, I must continue to define my essence as someone who is knowledgeable in philosophy, psychology and their application towards helping others overcome bad faith and define their own essence.

Living authentically means maintaining a tension between the two poles and not “insisting [life is about] either transcendence or facticity” (Flynn 74). Authentic living must emphasize and rely on freedom.  Sartre notes, “the actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest for freedom itself” (Detmer 138). This simply means that I have the power and the duty to choose who I will be as an individual. I can no longer throw my hands in the air, pointing to God or my religion or any other fact of my existence, and blame them for who I am. Nor can I admire my dreams of who I think I should be, while never acting on them. Indeed, my existential freedom demands I accept my circumstances – my facticity – and to prod myself towards the future by exerting my freedom and will – my transcendence. Between these two poles, “living authentically involves living without regret” (Cox 138). Lastly, living authentically is not a one-and-done choice, rather it is a constant re-commitment through an ever-evolving life. “Authenticity is the continued task of choosing responses that affirm freedom and responsibility … [and] continually resisting the slide into bad faith that threatens every project” (139). It is simply not falling into another pre-defined mold.

In conclusion, Sartre contends existence precedes essence, which frees the individual to life authentically. Living authentically is keeping oneself ever wary of falling into bad faith. The project of life, like a jazz song, jibs, jives and riffs and is ever moving. Sartre’s character in Nausea comes to this realization: “what summits would I not reach if my own life were the subject of the melody?” (Golomb 145). The aim of life is not reaching a destination, but rather one of breaking the mold and creatively improvising off one’s circumstances.

Works Cited

Cox, Gary. Sartre: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Detmer, David. Sartre Explained : From Bad Faith to Authenticity, Open Court, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Flynn, Thomas R. Existentialism : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Golomb, Jacob. In Search of Authenticity : Existentialism from Kierkegaard to Camus, Taylor & Francis Group, 1995. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Marshall, E. Brooks "The Disenchanted Self: Anthropological Notes on Existential Distress and Ontological Insecurity among Ex-Mormons in Utah." Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, vol. 44, no. 2, 2020, pp. 193-213. ProQuest,, doi:

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism Is a Humanism, 1946.”, 2019,