I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Existential thinking

Taken on a December morn
There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn't true: the other is to refuse to believe what is true. —Soren Kierkegaard

When I was in my twenties, I became obsessed with learning what happened during the Holocaust, and I ended up reading volumes of books that chronicled the atrocities that were carried out against more than six million souls, mostly Jewish, during the 1930s and 1940s. I don't know why I got so focused on that period in history, but I suspect it might have been because I stumbled upon a book that simply fascinated me: Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, written in 1948 about his experiences in a concentration camp.

It was a long time ago, and I know that I was pregnant with my first son during that time and was rather unhappy in my personal life. I was only eighteen and forced to get married when I found myself "in a family way" with someone I barely knew. But it was 1961, there weren't a lot of options for me at the time. So I immersed myself in the suffering of others, I suspect. Within a few months, my husband was transferred to an Air Force Base in Puerto Rico, and I was pretty much by myself as I waited to join him there. I read incessantly until I flew to Puerto Rico, six months pregnant.

When I look back at that time in my life, and in the historical period itself, I think that I needed to find a way to think about things that made sense. It was a difficult time for me, but there were also the events surrounding me: the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and I was living in Puerto Rico when it happened. Then JFK being assassinated, and then so many other leaders being lost as well. I was just a kid, I realize now, trying to make sense of life. I continued to read incessantly, and after having studied the Holocaust, I turned to books that might help me understand how to think about things. I went in several different directions over the years, but I know now that the concept of existential thinking has brought me to my present belief system.

Existentialism: a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the issue of human existence. Existentialist philosophers explore the problems related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence, and personal agency. An individual person's phenomenological starting point is direct experience of life. (Wikipedia)

By the time I turned thirty, I had been married and divorced, lost my infant son to meningitis, and was the mother of a young boy who was forced to endure all those upheavals along with me. He is now also gone, but he lived to the age of forty before dying of heart disease. We became good friends, but I still live with the knowledge that I was not a good mother to him. When he was a teenager, he dropped out of high school and nothing I said or did would change his mind. I sent him to live with his father, and that helped somewhat. He went into business with his dad and I think it was the best path for him at that time. But as I said, I still feel a great deal of guilt for the trials and tribulations we both faced during those years.

Now I am old, and looking back on my life, I realize that I had to make an attempt at understanding what it is all about in order to stay sane. During all those years, I never stopped reading and went through several different periods of interest. I read long involved novels that would allow me to forget my current circumstances. I had to work all during those years, and I also went to community college to earn an associate's degree (but I didn't finish). It was surprising to me to find that I really liked chemistry, but it only served to give me another direction in which to focus my reading. 

When I discovered quantum mechanics and Buddhism, more recently, many of the concepts that had been swirling in my mind began to come into focus. To learn that all the precepts of Buddhism dovetail so perfectly into the ideas of quantum mechanics has been a revelation, and it makes me feel much more confident in continuing to read about both of them with an eye towards better understanding the world as I perceive it.

And now, today, my world is feeling pretty stable, with a dear partner who shared those skydiving years with me, and I continue to read quite a lot. These days, I usually read books on my Kindle, since my eyes are no longer able to spend endless hours over hard copy. But I still read and realize and am grateful for how much I have learned, and continue to learn, as I make my way towards the exit.

None of us knows for certain what the future holds, but I feel quite content in the life I have today. Of course, it could all be altered in a few minutes, but for the present moment I wouldn't change a thing. I wonder if the fabled earthquake will occur while I am still alive, or if we'll have our current political situation go kablooey, as it has in so many places around the world, or if it will continue along pretty much as it has for so many years now. Who knows? 

Since I have learned that my happiness does not come from external circumstances, but from how I perceive my life, it has made me feel much more serene in daily existence. I've had a lot of it now, many years to ponder and experience the vicissitudes of life. I've had many wonderful people over the years to share my life and thoughts with, and through the magic of the internet, I no longer feel the need to be present in corporeal form to have an entire community of friends.

My dear partner still sleeps next to me as I begin to wrap up this post and look to the day ahead. As usual, John will pick me up for breakfast in Fairhaven, and then I'll go bowling with my dear friends Lily and Ace. It's shaping up to become another wonderful day. I do hope you will have a lovely week ahead. Until we meet again next week, I wish you all good things, dear friends.


gigi-hawaii said...

I took Philosophy in college and studied Kant, Descarte, and Sartre, the father of Existentialism. Many philosophers have different views of life and how we perceive it. I think basically we are often shaped by our religious upbringing, if any. A Catholic perceives life differently than an atheist would.

ApacheDug said...

Good morning DJan--I very much enjoyed this week's "DJan's Search for Meaning". (I'm not just saying that, this is one of your better posts, a bittersweet mix of looking back and present day pondering.) We are such a... unique species. We've been cursed/blessed with the ability to question the meaning of life, and our place in it. More than anything, I would love to know if there's "self conscious" life out there in the universe. I'm sure there's a trillion trillion planets with all sorts of fungi organisms and sea creatures and the like, but are there beings like ourselves, with the abilities to question who they are? Oh darn it, now you have me in a deep train of thought... :^) I hope your week ahead is a good & thoughtful one.

Linda Myers said...

I love this post. I remember my reading flowing along with my life happenings also. I learned some new things about you today and I can see how interesting and also challenging your life has been.

Buz said...

Another wonderful post. The thought of you bowling makes me smile.

Anvilcloud said...

I think maybe I wrote a paper on Existentialism and Kierkegaard, but I am not sure whether I fully grasped it then or now.

Elephant's Child said...

I hope your day (and the weeks to come) is WONDERFUL. I too am an insatiable reading. I read for education, for distraction and for comfort. I am sometimes lucky enough to find all those things in the same book. Some years back I stopped looking for meaning though. Life is, and I try and savour it.
As always thank you for your Sunday perspective. It is Monday (early) here and you have given me thoughts to ponder.

Linda Reeder said...

I like what Elephant's Child said, " Life is, and I try to savor it." I am going to borrow and adopt that statement as my "EXISTentialism".
Even though I have read your previous biographical posts, I learned more about you today. Thank you for being so open.

John's Island said...

This post gets back into your philosophical overview of life as we experience it. This is one of my favorite reasons for following Eye on the Edge. I love your open outlook on life and your willingness to consider the purpose behind **everything**. I especially appreciate the quote on Existentialism. I could really get on my soap box about that, but, to your benefit, I will resist. 😊 Now, you said, “Since I have learned that my happiness does not come from external circumstances, but from how I perceive my life, it has made me feel much more serene in daily existence.” IMHO, regarding that exact quote, most humans have not reached a point where they realize the truth and reality of what you said AND the resulting serenity. They just won’t see it or understand it. But that is OK. We are all moving forward with the evolution of humanity and what the future holds is up to all of us. So far, we’ve come a long way since the invention of the wheel. 😊

Gigi said...

As always, your Sunday posts give me food for thought; something to ponder over for the next few days.

It hurts my heart that you think you weren't a good mother...you were doing the best that you could given the circumstances. And teenagers are hard; particularly for a single parent. You loved your son fiercely - that alone made you a good mother. Sending love and hugs.

Rita said...

I read everything I could find on the Holocaust in my 20s, too! What started me was watching a series on WWII about the holocaust on PBS that was running late at night. Dagan was a toddler if I remember correctly...very young, anyways.

You can google anything!
"Holocaust was produced by Robert Berger, and it was filmed on location in Austria and West Berlin. It was broadcast in four parts from April 16 to April 19, 1978. The series earned a 49% market share; it was also well received in Europe."

Dagan was 3 1/2.

I remember watching it through my tears.

When I read some of the books--OMG! How people sacrificed bread to people they didn't even know. The lights of the world show themselves brightly in the deepest darkness. I wanted to be one of those people. I never wanted to lose that part of me. Made a choice while watching those pictures through my tears.

Red said...

I often what what would have happened if you had gone further in your education. what would you have found? How would you be thinking today?

Galen Pearl said...

I wonder how many mothers look back and think, "Wow I was the most awesome mother ever!" I certainly don't think that about myself, and can still wither inside at some of the memories of my failings. We move toward acceptance and forgiveness, yes? What else can we do? And yes, like you, I am fascinated by the intersection of Buddhism and quantum mechanics. Thanks for another lovely Sunday reflection.

William Kendall said...

Very well said.

Marie Smith said...

I would love to have a coffee with you some morning, Jan…ahhh…I just did! What a wonderful reframing of social media!

Tabor said...

As a teenager, Diary of Anne Frank, was enough for me. Then later I read Black Like Me. It is hard to accept all the anger man has for man. I admire your broad interest in it all.