Existentialism 101 by Rev. Anthony D. Makar

It’s been said that the iconic dress of the existentialist is the black turtleneck

Let’s go with that.

Imagine that one of the most famous existentialists of them all, Jean-Paul Sartre, is here with us. Wearing the black turtleneck (perhaps a French beret), he’s only five feet high. He’s round-shouldered, with downturned lips, big ears, and eyes that point in different directions because one of them wanders. About this last part, Sarah Bakewell, in her wonderful book At the Existentialist Café, says, “Talking to him could be disorienting for the unwary, but if you forced yourself to stick with the left eye, you would invariably find it watching you with warm intelligence: the eye of a man interested in everything you could tell him.”

Interested, especially, in a thing called “bad faith,” which he defined as self-deception—as lying to oneself about what is really happening and how one is fundamentally free despite feeling the tug of forces external to the will pushing and pulling. Bad faith is when you feel the tug, give up to it, and then make excuses for why you did what you did when you didn’t really have to!

Jean-Paul Sartre, with his left eye, is watching you and he is watching me.

And now he is going to take us on a journey, as in a postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress. Existentialism is many things—because there have been many teachers of it speaking many languages and emphasizing different things, sometimes disagreeing—but above all it is a meticulous investigation of human existence; it is an urgent exposé of all the ways we lie to ourselves about being unfree, and it is a wise guide to living into the truth of our freedom. A wise guide to authenticity.

So, the postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress journey. Sartre, wearing the black turtleneck, is going to introduce us to several different situations where the temptation to fall into bad faith is great, and he will show us the way out. Existentialism is many things, but this is the basic introduction.

Existentialism 101.

The first situation is a chestnut tree. We meet up with this tree in one of his books entitled Nausea. Through the eyes of the main character, Antoine Roquentin, Sartre wants us to see this tree in a way unfiltered by memories of experiences with other trees, by knowledge of tree anatomy, or by any other ideas that might distract us from just what is happening in the moment. Just look!

And what happens to Antoine Roquentin is similar to what happens when you repeat a word over and over and over again until the sound has become stripped of sense and it is like a glob of lard in your mouth, a dumb pebble in your hand. “I slumped on the bench,” says Roquentin, “dazed, stunned by that profusion of beings without origin…” Beings that seem inexplicable and pointless. Beings refusing to make sense of themselves. Beings that are fundamentally absurd. It nauseates Roquentin. The entire world is nauseating in its existence which is fundamentally weird and inexplicable.

Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish existentialist of the 19th century, felt that nausea too—have you ever felt it? He once said, “I stick my finger into existence and, pulling it back out again, ask, ‘What is this?’”

But Sartre did not approve of Kierkegaard’s way out of the nausea. Kierkegaard believed in “the leap of faith,” which is about trusting that ultimately there is a cosmic rhyme and reason to life because God exists and God is good. Sartre, a firm atheist, saw this as a bad faith stance.

Some existentialists will tell you that the existence of God or of karma or of other cosmic guarantors of objective meaning is completely consistent with existentialism, but Sartre disagrees. His view is that Roquentin (and the rest of us) must find a different way out of the nausea.

Because if we don’t—if we allow ourselves to get stuck in this perception of the world’s utter absurdity—then we’ve committed yet another form of bad faith. Sartre says nothing can determine a person’s attitude and approach to events. Human freedom is never extinguished, even in situations that seem hopeless. It’s like the T-shirt that says, “Being challenged in life is inevitable. Being defeated is optional.”

(In fact, let’s put that on the back of Sartre’s black turtleneck.)

And so, in the book Nausea, Sartre has his main character Roquentin listen to some jazz music. The jazz music brings back a sense of order and meaning to life. And Sartre would recommend the same thing to us. Listen to music, or make some. Enjoy art, if you don’t actually create it. Build friendships, and keep them. Make choices that establish a sense of purpose and structure and order. Yes, in a world without some cosmic guarantor of objective values, such purposes and structures and order can never be absolute, but they still serve our lives and keep things moving forward.

The meaning of life is to make life meaningful. When Sartre takes us to the chestnut tree, and he says LOOK, and we see the universe’s fundamental absurdity, and it makes us want to throw up, don’t abandon your freedom to make life meaningful. You are a way the universe has become conscious of itself. Don’t squander the preciousness of that.

But now we leave the tree, and Sartre takes us into a different situation. This one has to do with something Sarah Bakewell calls “competitive gazing,” and she paraphrases an example of it that comes from Sartre’s big work Being and Nothingness: “Sartre puts us in the hallway of a Parisian hotel, peering through the keyhole of someone’s door—perhaps because of jealousy, lust, or curiosity.” “I am,” she says, “absorbed in whatever I’m seeing, and strain towards it. Then I hear footsteps in the hall—someone is coming! The whole set-up changes. Instead of being lost in the scene inside the room, I am now aware of myself as a peeping tom, which is how I’ll appear to the third party coming down the hall. My look, as I peer through the keyhole, becomes a look-looked at. […] That Other has the power to stamp me as a certain kind of object, ascribing definite characteristics to me rather than leaving me to be free. I fight to fend this off by controlling how that person will see me—so, for example, I might make an elaborate pretense of having stooped merely to tie my shoelace, so that he does not brand me a nasty voyeur.”

And THAT’S what competitive gazing is all about. In another person’s eyes, I have become something definite though I experience myself as far more fluid and various. It feels terrible. I want my freedom back. So I will do things to manipulate appearances. I will make that my focus. You’ll be doing that too, because you are just as affected by my gaze as I am yours. We get so lost in that, we forget what it is we really want to be doing…..

How many of you are familiar with competitive gazing? We could also talk about competitive sighing, as when mere sounds become triggers for fierce marital spats….

Sartre, with his left eye, is watching you and he is watching me.

The freedom we feel breaks down in the gaze of another, and we feel controlled, and we want to break out…

Sartre’s great love, Simone De Beauvoir, took this issue of gazing to a new level when she spoke about what it meant to grow up female in her book The Second Sex. You need to know that The Second Sex, published in 1949, has been the single most influential existentialist work of all time. De Beauvoir is astonishing. Brilliant.

Essentially, what she says is that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” One becomes a woman through a process of rigorous socialization that begins immediately after birth, and constantly the message is “do not aggressively assert and be yourself.” Females are locked up in towers, and the heroes are supposed to be males. “Throwing like a girl” is, happily, an idea being reclaimed today, but it is trailed by a long history of images that evoke helplessness, awkwardness, weakness.

And this is where De Beauvoir works in the issue of gazes. One becomes a woman, essentially, when one learns to picture oneself as they would look to the male gaze, the gaze that wants to see women locked up in towers and sexy but weak, helpless…

How shall I dress? When what I wear would look good to the male gaze. What shall I do? When what I do would look good to the male gaze. And what happens when I don’t look good to the male gaze? Backlash. In no uncertain terms, men let me know. In no uncertain terms, women who are in thrall to the male gaze let me know. Both women and men patrol the borders of the myths of femininity.

And the ultimate result, says De Beauvoir, is women living much of their lives in bad faith. Women want to assert their authority and power, but an entire lifetime of socialization and an entire world of men and women make them feel like traitors if they do. “A struggle rages inside of every women,” says Sarah Bakewell, “and because of this De Beauvoir considered the problem of how to be a woman the existential problem par excellence.”

The problem of competitive gazing. The problem of being socialized to constantly see oneself from the vantage point of the male gaze. De Beauvoir believed that the weight of this was almost crushing. It has felt crushing all this election season, with the historic candidacy for the President of the United States of a woman and all the backlash and double-standards. It felt particularly crushing the past several days, when he-who-must-not-be-named bragged opening about his sexually predatory behavior and he’s still a valid candidate. But, as an existentialist, De Beauvoir resolutely affirms that, despite the crush, we are still essentially free.  We can shrug off the weight. We can fight the sexism. We can fight rape culture. We can find a way.

Everybody needs to remember something drag queen extraordinaire and philosopher RuPaul says: “We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.” We must not forget this. We must not let our drag drag us down….

RuPaul also has some advice regarding competitive gazing, and squandering our energy worrying about how other people see us: “Mama said, Unless they gonna pay your bills, pay them [female dogs] no mind.”


But now we leave the hallway of the Parisian hotel. We leave Simone De Beauvoir and the existential problem par excellence. And Sartre takes us to the Publix just down the street. He takes us to practically any aisle and he shows us the ten varieties of ketchup, the twenty three varieties of mustard, the sixty three varieties of cereal, and on and on. He does this to remind us of all the choices available to us today, in all areas of life, that we are free to make. He asks, “Do you ever get tired. Too tired to choose?”

He’s wearing his black turtleneck. He’s watching us steadily with his left eye.

Now, I have to come clean. Here I’m putting words in Sartre’s mouth, because, frankly, I’m not sure he ever addressed the issue of decision fatigue. And it would be a winning bet to say that he’d have no idea what a “Publix” is. Plus, he died in 1980, and the science of “decision fatigue” is recent.

But the implications to existentialism are important. Sartre says, “There is no traced-out path to lead [people] to [their] salvation; [they] must constantly invent [their] own path.” Beautiful. But hey, Sartre, is this humanly possible? Is the biological price of ceaseless invention too costly?

Listen to what the science says. One research study shows that the decisions judges make are strongly influenced by how long it has been since their last break. At the start of a session, the percentage of favorable rulings is, on average, 65% but that goes to 0% by the end of the session. After a break, the percentage abruptly returns to 65% and then, again, it trends downwards as the judges get tired. New York Times writer John Tierney gives us the big picture here: “The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice.” If there’s a default option, take it.

It’s estimated that the average adult American makes 35,000 decisions a day. Every day, people spend three to four hours just choosing to resist desire—to resist eating, to resist sleeping, to resist the urge to slack off, to resist the urge to let that jerk have it right between the eyes. “I’m tired” is a pretty powerful excuse to pretend we are not free. To just stay in default mode.

But remember the quote on the back of Sartre’s black turtleneck? “Being challenged in life is inevitable. Being defeated is optional.” If decision fatigue is a huge issue, as I think it is, the thoughtful existentialist will ask, How can I avoid squandering my biological energy for choosing? When I am proactive in adjusting the settings of my iPhone so that I can maximize energy usage, why not do something like that for myself?

Do you see? It’s bad faith to think that there’s no way out of the “decision fatigue” problem. There’s always a way. Think back to the study of the judges. Don’t schedule back-to-back meetings. Take your breaks—really. Engage in the spiritual practice of the power nap. That old idea of keeping the saw sharp (as opposed to just pressing a dull blade into wood harder, sawing harder) is true.

And now the postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress, with Sartre as our guide, is at an end. We’ve been to the chestnut tree; we’ve been to the hallway of the Parisian hotel; we’ve been to the Publix near by. Sartre says, “There is no traced-out path to lead [people] to [their] salvation; [they] must constantly invent [their] own path.” He says, “to invent it, [people] are free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within [them].”

Every hope lies within us.