The pleasure of the week for me involved my first trip into the world of existentialism. I’ve finally picked up At the Existentialist Cafe, a look at the existentialist movement of the 20th century, lent to me months ago. The author Sarah Bakewell, centers the work around the two largest figures in the philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, legends in their time and as important to the reshaping of global society after World War II as anyone. These two kicked ideas around in Paris in the ‘30s and ‘40s, chatting over apricot cocktails at cafes on the Left Bank, exactly as you’d hope a few Parisian philosophers would. Rows of tables line the cafe exteriors, seats face outward as bikes, cars, and pedestrians amble past. This situation is set for chit chat and people watching. Frequently imitated, never reproduced.
The book teeters between history and philosophy, offering anecdotes and stories to the reader about the creation of existentialism while offering suggestions for how various thinkers were intending their works to be understood. It’s a great step into this world, and while I’m not taking on Sartre’s Being and Nothingness or Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, I don’t think I would make it to the depths of the subject without such an approachable first step.
All that said, I’ve been moved by the ideas of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a giant influence on the existentialists, who analyzed the idea of Being and its importance to philosophy. The inclusion of Being in answering difficult questions within our lives inserts person specific, historical context. Rather than thinking about how ‘a man’ would act in a fictional world that controls for variables to isolate the problem, we ought to analyze problems as we live through them, in a historical time and place which absolutely affects the decisions. By appreciating our place in time, we are released from the pressure of making decisions as ‘any man’ would make them. The time in which we’re making these choices is such a crucial variable that it frees us from expectation. Unfortunately, Heidegger crafted some of these ideas in a form that justified his support for the Nazi party in the early ‘30s, casting a shadow on his work, ruining his greatest friendships, and leading to a questioning of his work. But the idea was fresh enough, novel enough, to influence the century’s greatest thinkers, and has ignited a kindling in my own mind.
We live in a new time, connected to one another in ways that would have seemed outrageous and impossible to earlier people, including my younger self. Information is exchanged in real-time throughout the world, between any combination of people. Not only can everyone in the world watch the Super Bowl, distributed by a huge, expensive media company, but everyone in the world can watch me make dinner at home, distributed through social networks directly from my phone.
Managing this new world is not trivial, a task in prioritization and time management that battles corporate incentives trying to own our minds and schedules. Putting boundaries and rules in place, formally or subconsciously, is a modern expectation required from anyone looking to interact in our new world. Email, messaging, photo sharing, and phone calls aren’t part of everyone’s lives but an absence is increasingly a conscious choice.
I, more than others I know, have benefited greatly from this new world. I’ve been empowered to live far from home without losing touch and endure long physical absences thanks to technology. Separation has led to improved communication in many of my relationships, built on top of tools that were once science fiction. I can distribute my thoughts on the world easily, every weekend (almost), and get feedback just as simply.
What we’ve bumped into now, with the advent of constant connection, is an expectation for timely communication. I may be on the other side of the world, but that doesn’t excuse a missed phone call on one’s birthday or a timely Facetime to be a friend when it’s needed. We don’t need to do it all, to be everything to everyone, but these opportunities and decisions can no longer be ignored.
The philosophers mentioned seemed to understand an important point about the human existence, with life and choice comes anxiety. Heidegger’s Being and its place in time removes aspects of anxiety by contextualizing our decision making within the time. For now, that has raised expectations and forced decision making. Who will we communicate with? How much will we give them and how frequently? They’re new questions that pertain only to us, and it’s only us that can answer them.