The Power Of Existentialism
Mental well-being reconsidered
I have heard it said that the private nature of our mental landscapes — and the illnesses that might affect them — can make our inner lives a lonely place. Perhaps concerned that our mental states cannot be objectively measured, as blood pressure and cholesterol can, we consider our minds to be closed-off places.
I applaud those who suggest the alternative approach, to think of mental illness as part of the regular wear and tear of life, just like physical illness. You wouldn’t keep quiet about a broken arm now, would you?
These considerations make the positive case for treating mental health as a facet of everyday life. If conversations about mental health are more open, then the disorders that are apparent all around us may seem more like practical problems that simply need fixing. And there is something refreshing in seeing mental health in this matter-of-fact light.
But I also want to make a case for keeping mental health in a realm of its own. To efface the difference between mental and physical health too far is to diminish one very salient factor of our inner lives: that it occurs in the sphere of subjective consciousness, and this can be a very powerful thing.
To understand why, I want to draw on the philosophy of existentialism, which makes the particular case that the subjective aspect of life is where we can find our most authentic sense of self.
Let us say, for example, that you have broken your arm from a fall. It is painful — I remember from childhood breaking my own arm after I jumped down the stairs at home (I was ten years-old and thought I could fly). Your muscles refuse to work, your hand goes limp, you know something is badly wrong. Now let’s say that the doctor or nurse who treats you examines your arm and takes an x-ray, and tells you that in fact it is not your arm you have broken but your wrist, and that it’s not broken but merely sprained. How does this information affect you? You might be relieved, surprised, disappointed or pleased. Still, the facts of the injury remain as they are: your wrist is hurt and you must rest it for a few weeks so it can heal.
Let’s now imagine you visit a doctor after experiencing something quite different: a panic attack. You go with a list of symptoms fresh in your memory — a racing heart, a severe discomfort in your body, a sense of claustrophobia, chest pains, perhaps a worry that you are actually mortally ill — and you describe your experiences as accurately as possible. The doctor takes your blood pressure and listens to your heart, and tells you that, physically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with you. With this information, you immediately feel better, and the shadow of the attack lightens. Later on, however, you begin to ruminate on the episode again and wonder if something similar might happen in the future, and now you feel worse. Then you read some positive advice online and think about seeing a professional, and you feel better again…
What I’m getting at is that mental health is a state rather than a fact. It is a revising series of experiences, and responds to changing conditions in a way that physical health doesn’t. I don’t mean to say that physical and mental health are not intimately connected, but rather that mental health is prone to slipping, looping around, judging itself, being acted upon, rising and falling and switching between conditions, in such a way as to make it quite different from physical ailments.
The contention I want to make here is that, to see our mental landscapes as subjective realms with their own inner dynamics can actually be empowering. From my own experiences, the philosophy of existentialism provides a pathway to this empowerment.
“A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short a synthesis.” So wrote the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who successfully captures the strange dynamics of simply being alive.
Kierkegaard, born in 1813, is widely regarded as the father of existentialism. He produced a series of powerful essays that explored the territory of conscious experience, suffering and despair. Of the latter, he considered it in rather modern terms, as a common aspect of everyday life:
“Just as a physician might say that there very likely is not one single living human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows mankind might say that there is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare try to know.”
This observation prepares the great theme of existentialism, that the human condition is a forlorn and anxious place. We are faced with pathways all around us, but to know which pathway is best for us, this is more frightening.
In these circumstances, according to the existentialists, we must look to ourselves for our values, for they are in us and are expressed directly in our actions, even in our sense of play.
“Like great works,” wrote Albert Camus, “deep feelings always mean more than they are conscious of saying. […] A man defines himself by his make-believe as well as by his sincere impulses. There is thus a lower key of feelings, inaccessible in the heart but partially disclosed by the acts they imply and the attitudes of mind they assume.”
Existentialism achieves the distinction of placing the individual at the very center of the possibility of change. The freedom it emphasizes is above all a freedom to create values for oneself. “Nobody can do this for you,” might be the rally cry. Jean Paul Sartre emphasized that existentialism is a philosophy of action — and the individual is the key actor.
The contention of existentialism is that we are never trapped by our conditions. To pose an objective account of a person’s circumstances will only capture the outward truths; it will not describe how things are for the person themselves. The subjective experience is always unfinished — always emerging, as it were, in the light of new stimulus.
This is not to say that the forces that influence and mold us, our upbringing say, are not important. Each of us has a set of natural and social circumstances that inevitably shape our lives. Our sex, bodies, race, class, and nationality, all play a part. And in the area of mental health, genetic predisposition, chemical dysfunction and also the vicissitudes of life — which can emerge as catalysts for distress — are salient factors too.
But our subjective selves still have choice.
To get an understanding of this, think about how a set of properties might be applied to you: your class, your race, your social class, your job, and so on. The description might be objectively accurate, but exactly how these properties actually affect you and your sense of self will also depend on how you interpret them. And this interpretation is yours to make. In other words, whatever your circumstances, you are still free to decide what meaning you attach to them. In making this choice, you become yourself.
Hence the power of existentialism is to elevate subjective experience to the level of liberator. We are not alone in our subjectivity: we are raised up by it.
The perception we have of our own ability to change — to find an inner means of repair and strength — is instrumental in the pathways of mental wellness. Yet we have to acknowledge that change is sometimes difficult or close to impossible. When one is enmeshed in the cruel ferment of depression or anxiety, to look up and gather one’s bearings is not at all easy. Existentialism recognizes this partial-view, and recognizes its benefits too. If one’s emotions feel entrenched in disquiet, existentialism argues there can still be dignity in the reflection. And in the consciousness of that reflection, a liberation too. This is a powerful thing indeed.