'Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
Thus spoke Macbeth in the play Macbeth written by William Shakespeare in the early part of the 17th Century. Later, in the 20th Century the French novelist Albert Camus agreed, stating that life is ‘absurd’ and that it lacks any inherent meaning. Addressing this sense of empty meaninglessness, the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously put it, ‘existence precedes essence’. For the existentialists, human beings define themselves, make their own meaning, and establish their essence only through living and by making free choices about what we do and how we live our individual lives. In other words, there is nothing essential in the human condition except the freedom to choose, which causes anxiety because we are forced to make choices. As Sartre puts it somewhat pessimistically, we are ‘condemned to be free’.
THE STRUGGLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL
The context in which Macbeth made his pronouncement on the insignificance of life provides us with some insights on the pessimism and freedom of the existentialist outlook. Firstly, the play Macbeth is a tragedy that explores the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake. Secondly, the character Macbeth who commits murders for the sake of a blinding personal ambition succumbs to pessimism in the face of the consequences of his actions. Yet, Macbeth’s words also appear defensive and self-justifying. If everything is meaningless, then Macbeth’s terrible crimes are also less terrible, because they too ‘signify nothing’. However, when we consider the complete story of Macbeth, it seems appropriate to reword Sartre’s famous phrase from ‘condemned to be free’ to ‘free to be condemned’, at the very least by the consequences of our own freely chosen actions.
The story of Macbeth is not unique. The feelings that life is absurd and that nothing really matters can appear somewhat salvatory in a bewildering world full of the restless activities of living, the astounding range of possibilities in today’s world, the difficult choices that come with modern life and the rise of atheism. What is a single individual to make of it all? This is the question that haunts the existentialist movement and leads too many individuals in the modern world into the shadows of an existential crisis.
However, this is a poor starting point for contemplation because it is simply the wrong question to ask due to the illusory nature of modern individuality. The truth is that we are not as individualistic as we might think, feel or wish to be for we cannot exist in isolation. Our individual being cannot exist apart from the countless connections that sustain each one of us.
THE BOUNDLESS BEAUTY OF BELONGING
The list of connections is endless. To the modern mind, science has revealed many of these wonderous connections: such as the genetic information that we inherit from our parents and which they in turn received from their parents running back through time well beyond recorded history; the chemical elements in our bodies which were born in the stars of the universe and eventually come to us through the diverse range of life forms that we consume from mango to mackerel; the oxygen that we breathe that comes from the photosynthesis of plants; the carbon dioxide that we excrete which nourishes plant life; the bacteria that we harbour in our guts which helps us to digest food; the water that we use and excrete that contributes to the water cycle; the family environment that we grow up in which helps to build our character; the surrounding human culture that shapes our identity; and the human family that we belong to forming one worldwide species of modern human. Every person we meet has grown from the ancient lineage of the tree of life. We are not alone!
Each one of us could choose to explore any single connection and spend a lifetime exploring its significance. This is what some scientists do, painstakingly observing a single phenomenon and trying to make sense of it. But what if we try to understand all the connections together. Is such a thing possible?
Sartre believed that the key to existentialism is that God’s existence is beside the point. We humans are ‘thrown into the world’ and must make sense of it for ourselves. This might feel true in the sense that we don’t ask to be born but the important point is that we are born into a social world, a world full of present connections with significant links to the past. Everything in the universe is interdependent. Sartre also went on to say that there is no such thing as human nature. This dubious speculation is not backed up by science nor by our own lived experience of the Christian faith. Human nature does exist. If science and our faith tell us anything, it is that our existence is primarily social. We have been born into a social world, filled with connections. It is short-sighted and overtly individualistic to suggest that we have been simply ‘thrown into the world’. The great metaphysical poet John Donne beautifully expressed our connected reality:
No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend's Or of thine own were: Any man's death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
Now, more than four hundred years after that poem was written, we know that our connectivity is even greater. Echoing Donne, we can enlarge our vision to say that we are ‘involved in creation’. This involvement suggests to us where the meaning of our individual lives is to be found and helps us to answer the question of whether it is possible to try to understand all the countless connections that sustain us.
NATURAL AND SUPERNATURAL HARMONY
In today’s world, we have truly wonderous reasons to be alive to the integrity of the cosmos and the life-giving harmony that surrounds us. We each form an essential part of this epic account of creation and interdependence. The past, present and future of this unfolding reality is revealed to us through sacred scripture, our studies of the natural world and our lived experiences of concrete reality, which together offer us a window onto the eternal mystery of God’s infinite wisdom, goodness and love.
To reject the existence of human nature is to reject the natural world as understood by science. To reject God is to reject not only the supernatural world but everything sacred that has ever existed, exists now and will ever exist in the future. Paradoxically, this rejection also includes us. Everything that carries God’s impression is destined to last but not in ways that we can fully understand in this life. Both the natural world and the supernatural world are brought together in the life of Christ. Christian spirituality is not based solely on some sort of separate spiritual reality. Instead, Christians place physical matter at the centre of our spirituality. As embodied persons, our spirituality has a material component. But, it is not just the material component that matters.
For existentialists, individuals create their own essence from the clay of their existence. However, both the natural sciences and the Catholic faith point to the truth that we don’t essentially make ourselves. We might exercise our freedom by making some modifications to our appearance and by striving to gracefully acquire the virtues, but we don’t essentially make ourselves. To insist that we do is to arrogantly deny what we have been freely given and to reject the interconnected reality to which we belong. In other words, as Catholics, we make the best of what God has given us and learn to give thanks for what we have.
THE MEANING OF FREEDOM
Existentialists are right in one respect, we are free. But, we not just ‘thrown into the world’ because in this life, we belong in creation. Humankind is free because God created us in God's image of trinitarian love. We only experience love out of our own free will. When human beings choose to be separated from the love of God, we risk turning this world into one lacking love, a seemingly absurd and chaotic world. In such a world, it can be difficult to discern the threads of belonging that connect and anchor us. If anything, a loveless world attests to the scriptural truth that we are fallen and need the light of God’s revelation for our salvation.
All the connections that sustain us find their deeper meaning in relationship. Close personal relationships help each one of us to grow, to broaden our horizons and to live more meaningful lives. This truth was also taught by Jesus when he told us that the Law and the Prophets hang on the commandments to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. It is also profoundly evident in our relationship with the living Christ. This is not to say that our lives are always neat and tidy or without doubts. We don’t always appreciate the interconnected reality of our lives. But, life can’t be absurd because God has created us in a way that gives us incredibly deep roots within an interconnected reality that anchors our individual journey. Our sense of purpose and meaning grows from loving and serving God along with loving and serving others. This is a universal truth that illuminates the pathway to true freedom.
THE INTEGRAL NATURE OF TRUTH