The existentialist guide to finding purpose in an uncertain world

The world seems to be falling apart. Then again, what’s new?

I’m sure many of us wouldn’t be surprised to wake up tomorrow and find that World War 3 has started or that new technology makes mind reading possible.

Technology is accelerating even as humanity plunges back into the worst patterns of history.

So where do we look for answers about our lives?

How does a person find their purpose in the midst of all the confusion and instability? Do they turn to religion, spirituality, wise friends, stand-up comedians?

Perhaps. But I have an even better suggestion:

Let’s turn to the wisdom of the existentialist philosophers who grappled deeply with the seeming chaos of the modern world, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s and following decades. 

The chaos of their times was even worse than ours, but they didn’t give up.

Earlier existentialist thinkers and authors like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard also put their full energy into coming up with what we can do to find meaning in a life that’s so uncertain. 

Here’s what they advised.

1) Be true to yourself

Existentialist German philosopher Martin Heidegger emphasized that being authentic and true to yourself has to come first in finding real meaning in life. 

Heidegger advised us to dedicate our time and energy to finding out what makes us tick, and tapping into our source power. 

We have to choose who we are despite all the external pressures, beliefs and narratives around us. 

As Heidegger aptly put it:

“Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.”

2) Accept radical freedom 

There are many limitations in life:

If you jump off a cliff, your body will be crushed by the force of your own weight under gravity when you hit the ground. 

We’re not free to jump off a cliff with no flying implement and be fine. 

But we are radically free in many areas of our lives and choices, and that’s something we need to accept and acknowledge to find meaning in life

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, the human being is free and does not have a predetermined essence. 

This means that each one must create his own essence and become who he or she consciously chooses. 

3) Grasp the power of the present

Spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle emphasize the power of the present moment, and they’re profoundly correct. 

We exist here and now, and the past and present remain in what’s gone before and what will come. 

But what is, is. 

We exist in a continually shifting present, and that’s where our power lies. 

Existentialism demands that we grasp the power of the present and our ability to make choices and shape ourselves in the present. Nobody else can do it for us.

4) Prioritize self-awareness

Existentialist philosophy emphasizes the importance of knowing yourself

Just as the ancient Greek oracle at Delphi advised self-knowledge as the first path to wisdom, existentialism urges us to be completely honest with ourselves and get to know ourselves. 

When we become aware of who we truly are, we become liberated to achieve our full potential. Our mission becomes clear. 

5) Embrace the absurd

For existentialist author Albert Camus, the purpose of life is to find happiness amidst the absurdity of existence. 

Existentialism doesn’t believe in a creator or even an inherent purpose to life, only the one we give it. 

As such, there are many ironies and situations in life which are quite simply absurd. 

They make no sense and will drive you insane if you try too hard to find meaning in them: 

So instead, learn to laugh at the chaos and recognise that the only meaning in many things which happen is the meaning you give to them. 

6) Value your experiences 

Your experiences hold the key to what to do with your life. 

The good and bad times you’ve had in life form the foundation for the goals you will set out to achieve. 

It all depends what you make of them. The key that existentialism teaches is to think of life more as a phenomenon or experience than a math problem.

There isn’t some sudden, exact “solution” lurking out there to be found, just experiences that you need to value and find the meaning in.

As the Danish existentialist and theologian Søren Kierkegaard put it:

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced”

7) Face your anxieties 

Existentialism has a lesson about anxiety:

It’s a natural response to life having no set meaning or order apart from raw existence itself. 

Most people find out there’s nobody really in charge except them and they panic, seeking shelter in myths, familiar patterns and codependency. 

But the existentialist thinkers encourage us to face our fear and channel it. 

The fear can’t be fully avoided, but it can be used through an act of willpower. 

8) Take responsibility when things go wrong

Many things happen in life which aren’t our faults. 

But existentialism encourages us to take responsibility when things go wrong, even when they’re not our fault. 

In this way, we become masters of our own destiny, accepting what’s out of our control and doing our best to shape what is in our control. 

By refusing to be a victim, we tap into our own power and adopt a can-do mindset that maximizes our willpower and drive.

9) Seek knowledge within and without

Knowledge is power: few truer words have ever been spoken. 

Existentialism teaches us to learn about ourselves and about the outer world. The more you know, the more tools you have when life’s uncertainties and chaos blows at gale force. 

There is no roadmap, just your own drive to succeed and your own dreams. 

Learn everything you can so that the vicissitudes of life don’t blow you over.

10) Create the meaning in your life

Existentialism teaches that we must create meaning in our own life

If you’re not sure what that might look like, it’s time for self-reflection and an honest look at your desires and what they represent. 

What do you really want from life if you were to strip away all the social conditioning and what you think you should want?

What’s left?

Follow this desire inside and turn it into an overarching goal and purpose in your life. 

‘Freedom is what we do with what is done to us’

Sartre said the quote above. It rings true for me on so many levels. 

We’re not in charge of much of what happens to us, particularly in early childhood and our formative years. But what we do next is at least partly up to us. 

As we gain more self-sufficiency and choice in life, our true freedom and power becomes up to us. We begin to shape ourselves, modeling our future self out of the clay of the present. 

We find purpose in an end goal, and also in the process itself. 

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