That’s the word I’m talking about.
When I was young, it was a word I used to sometimes hear floating around in ‘adult conversation’. To my childish ears it sounded terribly grand and intelligent, and the kind of word that glamorous sophisticates used. It was a word that described something I knew nothing about. I simply knew that I didn’t have a clue what it meant, and hoped that one day, when I was a ‘proper grown up’, I would. In fact, I hoped to not just comprehend it’s meaning, I wanted to be one of those adults that was clever and refined enough to throw it around carelessly, with the ease of a word as well integrated and understood as ‘crayon’ or ‘cat’ (bear in mind my tender age when thinking these thoughts).
Of course, there is a vast difference between a word describing an abstract philosophical concept, and a simple noun. I knew that, and I knew that I had a long road to travel before I really ’had’ it in my wordbank. As such I didn’t really stress myself too much, or make any huge efforts to try to understand it (the internet did not exist in those days, don’t forget)
I have no witty story culminating in a hilarious calamitous event that caused me to suddenly realise that I was an adult who didn’t really know what it meant. To be honest, when getting engrossed in life, work, family, living, there isn’t a whole lot of time left for contemplating the concept of ‘existential’?
It really wasn’t something that my conscious thought had a lot of time for until I started spending a lot of time really examining my own thought process, in therapy. But that’s what therapy does. It gives us the time and space to look at our memories, our hopes, our fears, our aspirations and so much more besides– our consciousness.
So somewhere along my journey of looking at myself, of looking at all the events and micro-events, and seminal events, and inconsequential events, and ‘wished for’ events and ‘thankfully dodged’ events…and making senses of how all these pieces have contributed, impacted, made me who I am, and how I work, I came across the word again. Existential. Now is probably a good moment to introduce the dictionary definition of it.
Adjective adjective: existential
relating to existence.
I know. That’s it. That’s all it means. It means it is. My long introduction to it…my youthful apprehension of it… the generally fearful and (a little dismissive) public perception of it as a word suddenly all seem a bit laughable. It is a word that describes a very simple concept indeed. One which every single one of us knows and is intimately familiar with. What it is to be.
By giving it an adjective, it makes an incredible internal process (a process so deep within that it is mostly unconscious to us) the ability to be looked at externally. I guess that is where the concept of it becomes a bit high brow. ‘Objectively looking at the existential’ is traditionally the realm of philosophers, and for me the very word ‘philosophy’ has always oozed intellectualism. But the truth is, we all have the capacity to be a philosopher. By that I mean that, given the time and space to consider, we all have thoughts and views on what is to be.
Which leads us on to the term ‘existentialism’ – an intimidating word on first impression. I think it has a scholarly reputation because of it’s association with the philosophical movement associated with Nietzsche, Camus, Kierkegaard, Sartre and the like, and the(often) lengthy, wordy tomes they wrote about it. Well, let me tell you – since making friends with the term, and dissolving my fear of it, I have made it my mission to read most of those books. They are complicated, and for a good reason. Because life, being, existence, is complicated. (Do the words used need to be so complex? Hmmm. That is definitely up for debate, but another time for that…)
The existentialists posed the idea that in order to fully look at life, and understand it, we have to break it into smaller chunks. They call this concept ‘the four givens’, and these are;
Now, for me – personally – I very much like this and wholeheartedly appreciate that they came up with this great framework for me to use when I consider what it is to be. After all, ‘being’ is the heftiest subject I can think of (and I challenge you to think of one bigger!), and to have it broken into these (still extremely hefty) sub sections makes it feel much less daunting for me. When considering the double edged swords that they can all present, and noticing our own feelings about them, what it means for our values, our spirituality, our morals and our entire way of being – it certainly does seem that it gives us a very deep insight into ourselves.
For me, when training as a psychotherapist, learning about the four givens gave me my ‘a-ha’ moment. It illuminated a road that I wanted to travel along, and it excited me so much that I knew I would always want to encourage and accompany anybody else who chose to walk down that road with me. It was a crazy, unexpected by- product of that epiphany, to realise that this meant I understood what ‘existential’ meant; that I was finally that elusive idealised adult that I used to fantasize about being when I was a child. A wonderful by-product, I hasten to add, one that boosted my confidence enormously on one level, and dissolved a myth on another.
On reflection, I feel it is healthier to have that myth dissolved. I guess that is why I am writing about it, and trying to convey how simple yet complicated the concept of existentialism is.
Because life, being, existence, is something we ALL do. We all cope with. We don’t always understand it, and we don’t always feel that we are necessarily managing it well, or with the agile dexterity we would like at times, but we all do it, and think about it on some level or another.
Counselling gives us space and time to contemplate the existential. That is, to look at what it is for us to be. For some it makes more sense to go for smaller bite size and more easily digestible chunks. Perhaps six weeks of therapy is enough to work with, for a few years. Whereas others prefer to make a long term commitment to it, and go for a long term deep analytical type approach. (A deep hefty Sarte book vs a web page that just seems to hit the spot that resonates, perhaps?)
Both are fine. Neither approach is right nor wrong. We are all individuals with differing capacities for concentration, absorption, ways of learning and being. But one thing we all have in common, is that we all are, therefore we all have the capacity to look at the existential. We just have to find the approach that suits us, and in therapy – it is the therapist’s job to help us do that.
Please visit my main website to find out more about my work as a counsellor psychotherapist, and how I apply this existential approach to my work.