Ah, Sunday morning. Do you ever get sucked into one of those existential moments? When you’re deep in the throes of contemplation about the nature of human existence—all its mystery, uncertainty, and complexity. Its pleasure and suffering. Its beauty and horror. And you’re compelled to evaluate your role as the architect of your brief and minuscule life?
They can be a struggle, these existential moments. They can be enlightening and terrifying both, and I am prone to them. Usually something sets them off. It might be a tragedy but just as easily might be a blessing, or even a little nothing. This time it was the idea of happiness that got me thinking.
Twice this week people have told me to be happy. Do I look downtrodden, crestfallen? I look in the mirror. My usual self looks back—hardly a bubble of joy, but not a sad sack either. Happy is not my natural state, but neither is misery.
There is no love of life without despair of life.Albert Camus
Nor is happiness my goal or purpose in life. For me, happiness is a transitory emotion. By nature or nurture, my emotional states trend up and down, moving toward and away from an even keel. I experience happy moments, for which I’m grateful, and sad moments, which I dutifully accept.
My objective isn’t to live in a state of happiness, which I find unattainable and not particularly important. My goal is to forge a meaningful life in what feels like a meaningless universe. My meaningful life is about having a sense of purpose, about acting in ways that align with my values, using my time with intent, and expressing myself through my craft. A meaningful life for me is serving and being present for those I love the most and who need me the most. It’s about practicing empathy.
Often I fall short. Other times I succeed.
I can’t go on. I’ll go on.Samuel Beckett
Maybe I’m prone to these musings more frequently because I’m rounding the clubhouse turn of life and trying to give it all with the finish line in sight. I turn to the words of other writers to guide me. Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone De Beauvoir were three of the great existentialists who wrote about the struggle to find purpose in life in a world that can be simultaneously horrible and divine.
I am incapable of conceiving infinity, and yet I do not accept finity. I want this adventure that is the context of my life to go on without end.Simone de Beauvoir
And I often seek out the words of one of my favorite writers: Philip Roth.
There is no remaking reality . . . Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes. There is no other way.Philip Roth
And then this: Roth’s most succinct and poignant definition of life, spoken by the Swede’s prodigal daughter Merry in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral:
“Life is just a short period of time in which you are alive.”Philip Roth
It’s no more, it’s no less. Can you get more existential than that?