Ever since I was 17, I have been an existentialist. I do not mean by this that I fully understood what that meant. I am still not sure I fully do. I am certainly not a trained philosopher. And most certainly, leaving Orthodox Judaism behind has changed what being an existentialist means to me. All the same, an existentialist I was, I am, and will be.
The way I understand existentialism is as a positive form of nihilism. Many people see nihilism as negative in its essence. I do not believe this is true. I believe it is neutral. All nihilism means to me is that there is no inherent, taken for granted, meaning in life. It does not mean that it cannot (have meaning). Existentialism comes along and says, life has no inherent meaning, but not only can it, it should. Every one of us gets to (and to live life fully must) decide what that meaning is. That meaning can be different for different people. It can also be different for the same person, at different times and different stages in life.
This means that some of the questions we frequently ask ourselves are the wrong questions. It is only human to ask, “Why am I here?” It is only human to ask, “Why did this happen to me?” It is only human to ask, “What inherent meaning does my life, in general, and this moment, specifically, have?” It is only human to ask these questions, but they are unanswerable.
We must accept that these questions are unanswerable, and ask entirely different questions. We must ask, “Now that I am here, what meaning will I give to my life?” We must ask, “Now that this has happened to me, what meaning will I give to it?” We must ask, “What approach and action will I take, that will give meaning to my life, in general, and specifically to this moment?”
I purposefully phrase these questions in the singular first person. If existentialism acknowledges that there is no inherent, taken for granted, meaning in life, how on earth can I tell you what your meaning should be, be you the singular you or the plural you. I can tell you what meaning I have found. That may help you find yours; nothing more, nothing less.
This does not mean there are no absolutes. In fact, an inherent absolute truth that flows from this is that every single person must be accorded the opportunity to find their own positive meaning in life, and that necessarily, your quest for positive meaning cannot impede others’ opportunity to find theirs. In other words, as Hillel the Elder stated what we call today the Golden Rule, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Now, go study.”
Hillel, the Elder
(From the Menorah in front of the Knesset,
the Israeli parliament)
It is this existential approach that has helped me in my life. This helped me, as I stood over my young mother’s grave, and five years later, as I carried my child in my arms to a grave not far from hers. This helped me, as I answered students’ unanswerable questions on September 12, 2001. This helped me, as I followed my convictions, left a way of life and a good living, and ventured out into the wilderness.
So, how do I answer the question, “Now that I am here, what meaning will I give to my life?” How do I answer the question, “What approach and action will I take, that will give meaning to my life, in general?” I am blessed to have two professional pursuits, which I am passionate about. I find great meaning in working every day to help build a system that will make homelessness in
rare, brief and nonrecurring. I also
find great meaning in helping interfaith couples have the wedding ceremonies
that are most meaningful to them. I am also blessed to have three children. I
find great meaning in raising children that are and will be free to (and able
to) answer this question, for themselves.
This means that they may answer it in very different ways than I do, and
that is OK. In fact, it should be celebrated.
And how do I answer the question, “Now that this has happened to me, what meaning will I give to it?” How do I answer the question, “What approach and action will I take, that will give meaning, specifically, to this moment?” Though moments vary, and meaning evolves, the answers in the previous paragraph apply still. In a life grounded in existential meaning, the moment contains in it a call to recommit to those things that give my life meaning, in general.
This I present as what worked and continues to work for me. To paraphrase Hillel, this is my commentary. You, the reader, must figure out how to answer these questions for yourself. You must figure out what your commentary is, so now, as Hillel instructed, go study.