Existentialism Revisited.

As I sit in a cozy recliner, looking out at the old-growth trees framing the view from my patio, I feel content. I live alone, do not work at a job, am not in relationships, and have no responsibilities other than to attend to my daily personal rituals – eating, sleeping, cooking, shopping, reading and writing.

Strewn haphazardly around the side of the recliner are nine books. After a long hiatus, I started going to the library again. I recently watched all four seasons of House of Cards, along with several movies I had been wanting to see. After binging on screen fodder, I have moved on to books. Today, I checked out two books on gluten free diets and a book called, At The Existentialist Cafe.

In my senior year of high school, the local community college started letting seniors take college courses. The first course I signed up for (in 1971) was Fortran, a computer programming language. I dropped out after three classes and switched to a course called Existentialism, which I did complete.

I now consider the course on Existentialism to be the first freely chosen decision of my adult life (if I consider adult to be everything after high school). And, if I look back over the 46 years since then, I can find traces of this philosophy in everything I have done, thought or been. At an age when most young women were looking for a husband, or at least a boyfriend, I was looking for a framework that would guide me on a quest for a uniquely individualized and unusual life.

The odd thing about this decision was that nothing in my family or personal life at that time would have predisposed me to take a class in philosophy. My father was illiterate, my mother only read books about movie stars, and my brother had dropped out of high school to be an auto body mechanic.

But if I go back to my earliest years, from nine months to the age of five, I see where the seeds of my future were planted. During this time, I lived with my great-grandmother and her male partner, both in their early sixties. Having lived together for over thirty years without the sanctity of marriage, they were pariahs in the family and in the neighborhood they lived in.

From what I can recall, family members (including my parents) only came over for holiday dinners and my birthday parties. The neighbors never came into the house or even stepped into the yard. Many years later, when I was in my forties, I found out that the adults had branded my great-grandmother ‘a whore’ and my cousins called her a witch. My primary source of entertainment (outside of the house) was long walks through a nearby cemetary.

It makes me laugh now to think about how my childhood was one step removed from the Addams Family. During a recent conversation with a 78-year-old uncle, he said, “You were always different, but then how could you have not been, given who you grew up with.”

While I know he said this in a spirit of meanness, I did not experience my early childhood in a negative way. On the contrary, it was probably the closest thing to bliss a child could experience. I had non-stop, undivided attention from two people who had nothing to do but adore me, and on top of that, I literally got everything I asked for.

I had my own room filled with dolls, my own private cupboard filled with candy and my own bureau in the den that was filled with my books. As there were no other children present, and no one setting any rules, I had the freedom to be whoever I wanted to be. They taught me how to read and write, how to play cards and how to ride a bicycle. I got up in the morning and did whatever I wanted to do – which is what I do now. My senior years, sans the doting guardians, are pretty much an exact replica of my early childhood, (I even live near a cemetary).

In the book, At The Existentialist Cafe, the author says, “Existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete human existence. I am free and therefore I’m responsible for everything I do, a dizzying fact which causes an anxiety inseparable from human existence itself. By describing experience well, they hope to understand this existence and awaken us to ways of living more authentic lives.”

Given that I have ended up in the same place I started, I wonder if I ever made any free choices that took me beyond what I already know. Have I lived an authentic life or have I simply gravitated in a direction that was set by someone else? Have I spent my entire life unconsciously wanting to ‘go back home?’ How much does anyone move away from the gravitational field of their early years, from their family lineage, from the socioeconomic status of their early caregivers?

According to the dictionary, ‘authentic’ can mean:

1) of undisputed origin; genuine, made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles the original.

2) (in existentialist philosophy) relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.

If I was ‘different’ as a child, would a more authentic life have meant being ‘less different’ as an adult? Would the more difficult path for me have been ‘fitting in’ rather than standing apart? Am I lone because this is a choice or because this is the only thing I know how to be? Have I lived an authentic life or have I simply remained faithful to my origins? Did I challenge myself or take the path of least resistance?

I have never asked these questions.


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