From Exit the King dramaturgical Notes on Existentialism by Tonya Rae Chrystian
What gives your life meaning?
Existentialism, the underlying philosophy of the Theatre of the Absurd, is the belief that your existence precedes your essence, proclaiming that your life has no inherent value other than the one you ascribe it. You are born, that is to say you exist, and then you, and you alone, must impute that existence with meaning.
There are infinite potential meanings to choose from, and no knowledge or hierarchies as to which are best; this leaves you with a horrifying amount of freedom with which you must cope in the search for answers in an answerless world. If there is a God, it did not create you, the earth, or the cosmos with any particular purpose in mind.
Scared yet? Stay with me.
If I told you that an existential crisis is not a crisis of despair, would you be surprised?
An existential crisis has 5 components:
1. Things you’ve taken to be “common sense” about your life become uncannily relative and random. Why do I have this job and not some other? Why do I live here and not somewhere else? Why did I marry this person and not that person? Etc. etc. You become suddenly aware that there are far more options than you previously allowed yourself to believe.
2. Anxiety sets in. You have deluded yourself into thinking you had to be a certain way for the sake of social norms, and you are frightened that you have chosen wrongly. You realize your ultimate responsibility is to yourself and not the social world.
3. You gain a heightened awareness of death and an increased focus on the slippage of time.
4. Confronted with all the choices that you have to make, you realize the human condition is to be denied access to the knowledge you need to make any of these choices with ultimate wisdom. This is where we often resort to the authority of society, of morality, of religion, or of powerful leaders, but all authorities are fake. No one has any more information than we do. Everything is inherently meaningless until we decide it isn’t.
5. Overwhelmed with the terror of so much freedom, existentialism encourages us to remember that in light of such odds we cannot continue to believe in the notion of perfection; the agony of choice is merely the experience of being alive. We are not alone in our anxiety as all human beings face the same individual struggle to create meaning.
The most hopeful thing existentialism gives us is the realization that we are the ones who decide for ourselves what matters, not social standards, not oppressive regimes or ideological paradigms, and certainly not the narrative of history. We are not fixed beings, but capable of great, sweeping change should we so desire.
In case you missed it, read more about the playwright Eugène Ionesco in Inside Exit the King Part 1: Enter the Playwright.