Finding Good Teachers: The Existential Whiz Kids

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Existence precedes essence.

- Jean-Paul Sartre

(Warning: This article is not for the philosophically faint of heart,

nor is it necessary to read it in order to benefit from

the majority of the articles on this website.)


o one escapes childhood psychologically unscathed. We all exit adolescence with gaps and distortions in our understanding of what it takes to be a grown-up. These gaps and distortions are the result of our upbringings because none of us had perfect parents. And some people had perfectly awful parents.

What would be helpful for each of us now would be access to an advanced set of parents – caring and wise people who can guide us through the process of filling in those gaps left by our original mom and dad, teachers, coaches, ministers and so on. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit down with a new, improved “parental unit” to figure out why our lives are getting a little symptom driven?

But where do we find experts in how to live a grown up life? Where are Mr. and Mrs. Miyagi when we need them?

The last place most people would look for friendly advice would be among the crusty, eccentric and unfathomable existentialists, but no one knows better than they about taking life seriously. Despite their reputation for bleakness, the existential thinkers had a great respect for the human capacity for self-construction. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus and others spent their lifetimes outlining the human skills that underlie a sound adult life. Therefore, if you want to reorient away from a wandering and disheartening existence and toward self-determination, you could do no better than listen to the existential whiz kids.

Note: As I've discussed in several other articles, the existential writers are best introjected as the father voice that trumpets out expectations for us to be brave and independent. If we want to be on solid psychological footing, this challenging voice needs to be balanced with an equal and opposite mother voice of support and attachment as conceived by feminist writers.

Nietzsche’s grandchildren

All of us have, floating in our heads, dozens of fragments of existential thinking that have come to us through aphorisms, bumper stickers and song lyrics. We feel the gravitas of these fragments, because even in abridged form they ring with a compelling profundity. We recognize in these little sayings the unavoidable truth that humans must – before anything else – come to understand what it is to exist. We understand that weaving through the life of every human are scary existential truths – time, uniqueness, responsibility, meaninglessness, fate and isolation. We flirt with the idea that there is joy to be had by committing deeply to the thrilling rawness of life.

Does it strike anyone as tragic that nowhere in life are we presented with an organized and pithy way to understand and utilize the great thinking that lies behind these aphoristic bits of wisdom???

It does me.

In my work with clients over the past 30 years, I have seen the stabilizing and empowering effect of presenting existential thought in a cogent form to people struggling with life’s problems. I want to introduce you to this accessible existentialism that I have found to be so helpful.

 

Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre

- Walter Kaufmann

Basic Writings of Existentialism

- Gordon Marino

Dreadful Freedom: A Critique of Existentialism

- Marjorie Grene

The Denial of Death

- Ernest Becker

Novels

Look At Me

- Jennifer Egan

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

- Leo Tolstoy

 

 

Send your questions to me at: jan@self-construct.com.

 

Let’s start at the beginning.

What is it exactly?

Most people have a fairly accurate intuitive sense of what the word “existential” means, but they don't trust that visceral grasp. Understanding what existentialism is can be both straightforward and complex, but because most folks fear that they don't comprehend the full range of that concept, they will too often shy away from it entirely. Therefore, the first bold step toward utilizing existential thought in the design of our essence is to get one's head around its meaning.

The term “existentialism” conjures up images of darkly written novels concerning bleakness and nausea composed by brilliant but unattractive European men. We picture tortured artistic souls sitting in cafes, smoking cigarettes and exploring wretched truths. We are aware of the authors’ names (Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, Jaspers, and others) and the aphorisms (That which does not kill me, makes me stronger. – Nietzsche. We are our choices. – Sartre.) but we rarely know much about this philosophical movement. Our confusion is not due to the fact that we slept through the existential lectures in our Intro to Philosophy course, but is due to the fact that there is no actual school of philosophical thought organized around existentialism. It is more accurately a post hoc compilation of the work of philosophical shock jocks who explored those fundamental givens of existence – uniqueness, responsibility, meaning, fate, isolation, and time. These implacable existential givens are those most basic things we know to be true about every human life. Basic truths about being human that are so absolute that each conscious person understands no one can ever change them.

Simply put, then, existentialism is the somewhat vague label used to describe the very concrete process of exploring how our precocious human consciousness forces us to face impossibly difficult questions: What am I supposed to make of the fact that I am unique? How can I learn to be responsible for my thoughts, my feelings and my actions? What am I passionate about learning, doing and being? How can I cope with knowing I’m going to die and with not knowing when? Do I matter to anyone and does anyone matter to me? How can I live my life in the face of these unanswerable questions?

As important as these questions are, equally vital to existential thought is the following twin set of beliefs: humans are beautifully designed to face these questions, and there is no expectation that we need to answer them correctly. To be fully alive existentially requires only that we commit to ponder life’s dilemmas bravely and to make our best guesses about how to address them. Then we implement the choices determined by our guesses. Therefore, the essence of existentialism is this: we must form a personal opinion about how to exist in the face of those questions, we must choose an action and then we must implement it.

With life experience, we come to realize that we can only guess about what to do next because we’ll never have enough evidence to have certainty. We also learn that we don’t have to choose the perfect thing, we just have to choose something. And we don’t have to implement the choice perfectly, we just have to attempt. We self-actualize not when we succeed, but when we think and choose and try (and, as they say, try again).

You may have noticed the bad news in the above paragraph. We can never do more than guess about how to proceed in life, and what is at stake when we are guessing is, in actual fact, our life. If I am going to risk so much with my every guess about these fundamental aspects of being alive, then I would like to consult with the very best minds available. Again, those minds belong to the existential thinkers. When I go spelunking in the existential literature, however, I end up with pithy underlined sections like this:

To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose oneself. - Kierkegaard

He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how. - Nietzsche

Existentialism must be lived to be really sincere. To live as an existentialist means to be ready to pay for this view and not merely to lay it down in books. - Sartre

To breathe is to judge. - Camus

Individuality is not retouched, idealized, or holy; it is wretched and revolting, and yet, for all its misery, the highest good. - Dostoevsky

When he treats himself seriously, he receives back in turn what is more than himself. - Jaspers

Is it possible to read words such as these without then embracing Shakespeare’s heartfelt assessment: “What a piece of work is a man!”? Is it possible to read words such as these and not long to take one’s place beside all these people in the effort to become our very best selves? But is it possible to read words such as these and have any idea what to do with them?

Too often we feel the beauty, clarity and heft of existential insights, but, as with a sack of uncut diamonds, we return them unused to the safe deposit boxes of our lives and continue on with our bewildered, perhaps uninspired, daily living. We turn away from the wisdom of the words not because we are idiots, but because we don’t know how to make use of them.

Profound thought is moving and aphorisms make great bumper stickers, but how can they help us turn our life around?

A contemporary model of existentialism

Happily, as I said above, a comprehensive model of existentialism is straightforward to understand and interesting to learn. What follows are about 3,500 words describing one way to organize the existential material so that it can provide you with concrete and nimble directions as you work to self-construct.

Put another way, this material is designed to help you understand the five basic points that underlie all existential thought. Like a five-pointed compass, which I call Kierkegaard’s Compass purely for the alliterative satisfaction, it will help you both maintain and regain your bearings as needed. When you finish reading it (alright, maybe reading it twice), you will understand where the points of the compass come from and you will be able to hold the concept of existentialism in the palm of your hand, with each heading represented by one of your handy five digits. Sartre and his buddies will then be ready for easy access as you navigate through life.

Take a deep breath and plunge in.

Kierkegaard’s Compass

Because human minds are conscious and body-bound, they are forced into a relationship with time. Humans know that they exist, they know that they exist now and they know they exist temporarily. But existentialists believe that this recognition is not enough. Humans must also understand:

1) Now is a moment relative to an infinite past and an infinite future.

2) Each life is a series of nows that represents a minute portion of the infinite.

3) Our individual existence will be swept through that portion of the infinite whether we are actively participating or not.

More briefly put, we exist whether or not we are defining ourselves. Most briefly: existence precedes essence. Existentialists didn’t agree about much, but they agreed about this: we are granted existence by virtue of our birth, but we only have an essence if we create it for ourselves. To understand this key concept of existentialism is to move beyond a naïve relationship with time into a sophisticated relationship with existential time. The implication of existential time is that our life will matter only if we make it matter, which we do by making authentic design choices. Because humans try to avoid making these damnably difficult choices, we need to use our awareness of existential time to maximize our participation in the creation of our personal life meaning. If we’re going to die soon, for example, we’d better get a move on. And, we may be going to die soon. Maybe just a month from now.

Two distinct values are operating here. The first is that there is something to be gained by understanding the difference between culturally defined time and existential time. The second is that creating one’s essence is desirable. All the existential writers were unequivocal in their belief that authentic participation in one’s life is nonnegotiable. To them, creating our essence is the defining human characteristic and I refer any doubting reader to their gifted treatment of this issue. (See the FAWBOT box for some suggested reading.) This section, therefore, stipulates to the latter value (the fact that being an informed and consistent participant in creating one’s meaning is desirable) and focuses on the former (demonstrating what is to be gained toward that end by having a powerful relationship with existential time).

Culturally defined time is not organized around individual existence but rather around community efficiency. What we learn about time growing up, then, is ironically called "how to tell time." We are taught how to parse time units in order to coordinate with others in running the generic aspects of participating in human cultures. Appointments, deadlines and holidays are all examples of culturally designated time concepts. There is nothing wrong with being synchronized with others in order to belong to an efficient and safe culture. Culturally defined time is simply the external chronological construct that provides the language of planning to use out in the world.

Existential time, on the other hand, reflects an intrapersonal relationship with our particular presence in our particular here and now. It is this version of time that we cover in this article.

Although time has been privileged existentially since the early writings of Martin Heidegger, none of the psychological models that have evolved from existential philosophy have utilized this centrality. The model of Kierkegaard’s Compass, on the other hand, is based on the assumption that the necessary skills needed for self-construction can be developed in the process of mastering an understanding of and relationship with the existential complexity of time.

Thus, the critical first step in using existential thought to direct your life is expanding your understanding of the structure of time.

As an aside: because I have found that existential time describes the human experience so completely, I have worked to ensure that every article about every skill on this website has taken the best available information about each construct from the psychological domain and then augmented that information as needed to include missing components of that construct specified by each of the five chronological points of the compass. It has been my experience that the effectiveness of psychological skills increases by at least one magnitude when all the components are in place. While it may take a little more time to learn all the elements of a complete apology, for example, once you have done so and can smoothly enact a thorough mea culpa, your affect on your interpersonal environment will be profound.

The structure of existential time

Infinity is too large an environment for the human psyche to inhabit. While we can understand limitlessness as a theoretical concept, we are not designed to live there. Given how human beings are currently designed, if we were forced to exist for all time, as do vampires in modern fiction, we would eventually become bloodlessly insane. What protects us from the insanity of the infinite is existential time. Existential time serves as a boundary, shutting out all but a minute corner of the infinite chronological universe and creating a space within which we feel psychologically contained. This timeframe is created by the five dimensions of existential time, which are: past, present, future, death and energy.

What? Existential time has five dimensions?

Yes.

At any moment we have some conscious temporal relationship with our past, our present and our future, we know that death is a momentous part of our personal timeline, and we have a certain energy level that determines our degree of participation in each moment of our daily lives.

These five components mark the boundaries of existence for every human who has ever existed.

We can visualize the five dimensions interlocked to create a pentagon within which each human exists – protected from the infinite.

Although the concept of containment within infinity is soothing (for, as Sartre explored in No Exit, it would feel hellish to confront living for all time given the physical and emotional foibles we each have as human beings), the truth is, humans will experience their timeframe as being both too small and too big.

It will feel too small because of the inherent existential limitations that each component of the timeframe generates. To wit:

Due to the unidirectional nature of time, we are limited by our past because once time leaves our hands and becomes the past it is immutable. We can learn from our past, but cannot redo it, meaning that many truths concerning the quality of our lives have already, irrevocably, been set in motion.

At its most basic, the present is limiting because it doesn’t really exist. In other words, because of its negligible duration, there isn’t room in any present moment to enact a complicated existential endeavor. We have to take responsibility for creating the present with portions of our near future, but even as we manage to do this, we are clear that we can never create enough present to do a thorough job of choosing. (To understand how to create a duration, see the article Willpower: The Little Engine That Could.)

We are limited by the future dimension of time because it represents an unknown territory that we have to navigate with neither horizon nor charts to guide us. We don’t know how long a journey we will have even as we hope it’s vast and fruitful. We do know that we get only one journey, and even if vast, it will not be able to contain all the exploration we would like to be able to do. And what it will contain is a s***load of mistakes.

Death limits us because it is both capricious and fatal. We cannot preserve our essence on our current plane of existence when death dictates otherwise. Nor can we ignore it, because the very best design elements within us conspire to remind us of its presence, and thus the cost of ignoring death is the price of our humanity.

Energy is limiting because we can’t refuel in flight. We are forced to step off the flow of time to renew our resources. As a result, much of our time allotment is unavailable for pursuit of meaning due to either the biological limitations of being human (the need to rest, eat, heal or sleep) or the psychological limitations of being human (the existential depletion caused by emotional engagement in our day-to-day life).

You with me so far? Good.

These five limitations inherent in the timeframe press in on each existence, affecting the quantity of life.

Despite the inherent limiting nature of the timeframe, however, the space it provides is probably larger than we will fully use in terms of the quality of our existence. A high quality life, in existential terms, is one characterized by a fairly consistent willingness to push back against the limitations created by the five components of time in order to optimize the percentage of our lives we spend committed to establishing our essence. Examples of pushing back would be when we work to rise above the limitations of our past or we train ourselves to stop postponing difficult decisions. When you decide to self-construct, you have launched yourself into a high quality life.

As can be seen, then, there is a positive side and a negative side to the limiting aspect of the timeframe. The positive side of limitation: If we acknowledge that there is something to be said for not having to face the madness of infinite time, we can appreciate the containing aspect of existential time. In other words, we imagine that we can persevere through our time allotment because we know that someday it will be over. No matter how difficult our existence, we won’t have to manage more than, at most, 120 years of life. The negative side of limitation: Most likely our allotment will be smaller than we would like because so few of us live 120 years, and many of us have exciting lives that we will be loath to leave. Thus, humans are both contained and constrained by the five components of time.

In order to acquire existential intelligence, we must first willingly inhabit this most basic aspect of the human condition by learning to orient simultaneously to both the negative and positive aspects of the limitations created by existential time. It is an exquisite yet claustrophobic truth to remember – we are both safe and stranded on our own, tiny island in time.

Next, we need to accept the challenge of creating as much of our essence as possible within that limited timeframe. None of us lives daily to our fullest. A great deal of our time allotment is squandered in misdirected activities or inactivity, as any near-death experience tends to illustrate. A high quality life, in existential terms, is one characterized by a fairly consistent willingness to marshal our resources against the limitations created by the five components of time in order to optimize the percentage of our lives we spend taking ourselves seriously. Put another way, we need to understand that our job is to push back against the limitations of time in order to avoid an unnecessarily limited existence. I refer to this endeavor as filling the timeframe.

How do you go about pushing back against the five dimensions of time? Naïveté around how to take on this most fundamental task of existence is what existential thinkers believe is the cause of human psychological distress. More starkly put, it is not the dreadfulness of the givens that overwhelms humans. What overwhelms us is ignorance about how to face them with aplomb.

The limitations of the timeframe create in humans tremendous emotional turmoil, and this turmoil begins when we are quite young. We feel some degree of panic as we realize that our past is growing larger and more cluttered with errors day by day; that we don’t seem to be getting better at facing the excruciating “nowness” of the present; that our future is shrinking and yet we still don’t know if we’re on the right track; that our relationship with death fades in and out as we experience good luck and bad; and, that we don’t have a high degree of confidence that we will rise refreshed in the morning, psychologically or physically ready to take on our day. By definition, limitations create challenges and challenges are disconcerting – especially if we are naïve about what to do in the face of a particular challenge. There is a specific form of discomfort for each component of time. They match up like this:

Past/Guilt: Because our past is a vast storehouse of data about ourselves, we tend to make assumptions about our effectiveness in life by assessing our past. Our past will be replete with actual errors (choices that, in our opinion today, turned out to have caused harm to ourselves or others) and fictional errors (stories told to us by our communities about how our choices were ill advised). Both types of errors can precipitate the remorse and regret of guilt.

Present/Error: If the past puts us at risk for the residual guilt of having made errors, the present puts us face-to-face with the opportunity to make the next mistake, for the present is where, existentially, we experience our freedom. While acknowledging individual coefficients of adversity, existentialists believe that there are infinitely more choices competing for our commitment at any moment in time than we can imagine, let alone assess and implement. What this means is that our potential for error is also limitless due to the fact that we are responsible for errors of omission (all the things we don’t choose) as well as errors of commission (those things we do choose). Nor can we avoid the potential for creating error, for choosing not to choose is still a choice.

Future/Groundlessness: Groundlessness is the term that existential writers use to describe the free-floating anxiety that arises when we truly contemplate designing our particular future. If our individual lives are to have meaning (a gratifying future), we have to create it for ourselves, understanding that we are doing so on faith. This dilemma is inescapable. The resulting tension is exacerbated by the fact that we have to establish meaning for ourselves even as we are trying to relate to the ways in which others are establishing meaning for themselves. If others don’t agree with what we establish as meaningful, our faith in our choices can be threatened.

Death/Helplessness: Awareness of death, a defining aspect of being human, triggers a crushing sense of helplessness. This is not an unrealistic fear. We are helpless in the face of death, for, as mentioned, death is capricious and it is fatal.

Energy/Disconnection: Psychologically and physically speaking, we are self-contained beings who need both a reason and the resources to exist. Both these needs are served by our connectedness. We can be connected to anything – thoughts, feelings, behaviors, people, places, things, etc. but the things to which we connect can either drain us or fill us. Our task, existentially, is to manage our resources such that those things that replenish us (e.g. innovation, serenity, mastery, healers, forests, dinner) will balance those things that can drain us (e.g. conformity, grief, practice, subordinates, parking lots, bills, diets).

Cultural interference

Here’s where things get gnarly.

Most people understandably are daunted by these feelings of discomfort and look to the cultures around them for instruction about how to handle things. Unfortunately, cultures tend to be the antithesis of what we need existentially, not because they’re villainous but because cultures are designed as a set of rules that will facilitate generic interpersonal effectiveness and maintenance of the status quo. As such, they tend to insist that humans relinquish their instructive existential angst and submit to culturally determined scripts. Further, most cultures punish any deviation from generic scripts with shame. Rather than step in with support and training to help stabilize and empower a constituent in the face of the discomfort of facing off against the dimensions of existential time, then, most cultures (and many families) actually subvert our relationship with these existential issues by forcing us to choose between mainstream rules for existence or shameful marginalization.

Further, when we struggle with these existential issues, cultures tend to teach us specific words to use to describe our inner existential conflicts. They are:

These character indictments are experienced as demoralizing, immutable truths that, when combined with dread of facing the unavoidable limitations of existential time, can thoroughly paralyze us. Then, frozen by indecision, we come to believe the worst about ourselves – we’re also lazy.

Please believe me when I tell you that these indictments are the avoidable limitations of the timeframe. They are avoidable because they are imposed on us from the outside. And they are not true.

Understanding how these lies get established is a huge and nonnegotiable step in developing existential intelligence. Each of these false labels are more thoroughly covered in this article The Complete List of Awful, but, to understand the model, I must address them all too briefly here.

Our relationship with our past can limit us unnecessarily to the extent that shame about who we have been leaves us thinking we are inadequate to the task of being us. This lie gets hammered home repeatedly throughout childhood as the adults around us inadvertently or intentionally reject our attempts to self-define as we learn how to navigate along the tricky route to adulthood. The limitation is created specifically when our caretakers interfere with the development of our ability to learn from our mistakes. The ability to learn from our past is an extremely critical process that can only occur when we have learned to fully digest our former behavior absent shame.

Our relationship with the present can limit us unnecessarily if we are taught that errors represent irresponsibility rather than the unavoidable byproduct of self-authorship. Further, by misrepresenting constructs such as willpower, psychological symptoms, stipulation and petulance, children are led to believe that life is easy and their struggles are therefore diagnostic of a weak character.

Our relationship with our future can limit us unnecessarily if the set of dreams we have for ourselves is not found to be delightful to the adults around us. When this happens, most cultures will actively sabotage our dreams, leaving us unable to move forward toward the implementation of our gifts. The lack of success that this procrastination begets translates fairly easily into a sense that we are boring. The many cultures of our upbringing accomplish this misdirection by trying to commandeer our early dreams (again using shame) in order to strip away any behaviors that threaten to redirect us from where the cultures want us to go. In other words, we are taught that our dreams are only interesting to the extent they align with culturally approved life goals.

Our relationship with our death can limit us unnecessarily if we come to believe that we are cowardly because we find the concept of death terrifying and thus unusable. Most cultures create this character assassination (cowardice) with both lies of omission (ignoring the topic entirely) and lies of commission (Rather than address the very appropriate fears that death activates in us, most adults deflect the appropriate curiosity children have around death with simplistic fables about "better places." Whether or not "better places" exist, all thinking humans fear the unknown and death is a big unknown.) To shame kids for fearing death is to cripple them existentially.

Finally, our relationship with our energy level can limit us unnecessarily if we interpret lethargy as a proof of our unimpressive character. What children need is expert training in how to wisely attach to those people, places and activities that will invigorate their lives. What they often receive instead is a forced menu of options that may or may not suit their particular personalities and gifts. Mismatched with the world, these children most often flounder as they try to pull energy from an unstimulating life. The resulting low energy puts them at risk for disconnection from significant others. That disconnection puts them at risk for believing they are unlovable.

But how do we avoid these unnecessary limitations? If we look to the language of existentialism rather than the language of shame to describe our discomfort with the limitations of existential time, we discover an inoculating alternative to the character assassination interpretations described above. Returning to the truth that we are conscious and body-bound, we are reminded that each component of the timeframe will precipitate a specific form of appropriate existential dread and that there is an apt existential explanation for that dread that rejects the notion of shame. In other words, of course we will experience an emotional reaction to the givens of life because these givens are beyond daunting not because our character is defined by the complete list of awful.

The discomfort we experience when we face a given of life is now identified as suitable dread precipitated by the fact that we are human, as opposed to demoralizing shame precipitated by the fact that our cultures think we are horribly flawed. Further, we have a pairing of each internal given with a component of the timeframe that looks like this:

Past/Uniqueness – our past is the documentation of our uniqueness. Our life to date tells us who we are becoming when we can assess it without shame.

Present/Responsibility – the present is where we must create the space to make our choices. We are forced to choose to choose, and our human birthright of willpower allows us to very often do so.

Future/Meaninglessness – we must both guess about and commit to what will matter to us in the future. Who are we meant to be? Another birthright, will to power, makes this existential exploration possible.

Death/Fate – our relationship with our death is just one manifestation of how we relate to the larger concept of fate. Humans are aware we cannot control fate even as we are aware that we cannot abdicate what little free will we may have.

Energy/Isolation – we spend our energy trying to close the existential gap between ourselves and everything else. While this distance between ourselves and our world is never completely closed, our lives have more vigor the closer we can get to things that matter to us.

In other words, there is an existential given that matches up with each component of the timeframe.

Why is this important?

Well, here’s the nifty part of the model.

It turns out that everything we need to know about how to enthusiastically fill our timeframe can be learned in the process of confronting uniqueness, responsibility, meaninglessness, fate and isolation, for these internal givens are our teachers. The lessons they can provide us are:

Past/Uniqueness: appreciating our uniqueness teaches us to have an expansive relationship with our past. Expanding our relationship with our past greatly increases our pride in our unique progress through life. Even though the past is gone, we can learn to retrieve new and better data about ourselves from our past by increasing our comfort with and interest in being uniquely ourselves. We can learn to eliminate shame so that we can routinely harvest more and more rich data from our unique past.

Present/Responsibility: when we learn strategies to enhance our confidence around the relentlessly difficult choosing process, we will be better able to create more present. For example, using the existential tools underlying will to power, we can habituate to remembering to choose to choose. That allows us to move more comfortably in the present, which is where we can create a coherent version of ourselves.

Future/Meaninglessness: we will be able to design our future when we learn to decide for ourselves what kind of dreams we hope will come true. A greater intimacy with the groundlessness of living in a universe without consensus-meaning will inure us to unavoidable vertigo and encourage us to embrace hope rather than resign ourselves to a limited future. Put another way, when we know how terribly difficult it is to find a thrilling life path for ourselves, we will be more patient with and persevering in our efforts.

Death/Fate: this pairing demands strength and courage, which can be learned when we pay attention to how we interpret our good and bad luck. The sheer number of articles on this website is an indication of how dreadfully difficult it is to be a human being, in large part because fate messes with us so thoroughly. Knowing this to be true can create a little distance between us and the need to be perfectly poised and ever brave. That distance can give us a little breathing room which can allow us to gird our loins a bit more. Every little bit of increased courage will allow us to be better able to use the urgency inherent in the looming of our death to resist the helpless postponement of our life.

Energy/Isolation: we need to learn that what we decide to engage with and whom we decide to love will determine for us our psychological and physical abundance or depletion, for whatever we connect to will renew our energy or drain it. Although we can never fully surmount our isolation, the more thoughtfully and earnestly we connect to the folks and the endeavors that matter to us, the better we are able to conserve, generate and allocate our energy. Again, the majority of articles on this website are designed to help you increase your potential to attach to your world.

So our completed existential icon looks like this:

How to use Kierkegaard’s Compass

As I mentioned in the aside above, I have used Kierkegaard's Compass to fill out the existential dimensions of this website. All the life lessons described in self-construct.com are derived from my belief that our natural receptivity to existential challenges is severely compromised by our upbringing because the elders responsible for raising us were unskilled existentially. (This is not their fault. They were not trained by their elders.) Therefore, all the articles herein are aimed at helping you restore that natural receptivity to the challenge of creating your essence. If you can allow yourself to be soothed by the idea that I have gathered for you on this website the best thinking of the existential and feminist writers, then perhaps you can recline into the belief that working your way through the articles is both manageable and life-changing.

Let the five compass points direct your process of self-construction. Start by using your feelings to locate the dimension of time that needs attention first: If you feel stupid, work on your relationship with your past. If you feel childish, focus on the present. If you believe you are boring, pay attention to your relationship with the future. If you can’t trust yourself to be brave, develop a relationship with fate. And if you consider yourself unlovable, study your connections to people, places and things. If you feel that laziness defines you, remember that all the articles on this website are designed to help you strengthen your relationship with existential time in order to live an appropriately disciplined life. If, like most of us, there are several places where you are vulnerable to the complete list of awful, know that there is peace of mind to be had simply by starting the process of personal growth.

Choose the area of your life that troubles you the most and start. If you feel too overwhelmed to imagine starting, please make use of a competent therapist to support you over the threshold and into the process of self-actualization.

You are the keeper of your essence. Please take a moment here to take a deep breath, grab that compass and start walking toward that glorious, if terrifying, truth.



If you are one of the few people who have made it all the way through this article, I would love to hear from you about how the experience was for you, what use this information may be to you and what changes would make it more accessible.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.