I wrote this awhile back in a Theories class; choose a theory and let it punch you in the gut. In hindsight, it probably knocked me out. The essay is written in chunks, with the first being a brief summary of Existentialism according to Yalom. The second section includes a short biography. And if you’re inclined to skip all the way to the end, the third section is Existentialism as relates to me. It’s honest, unfiltered, and sometimes sad, and because of that, it makes me very scared to make public. But here you are.
Theory of Existential Psychology
The essential assumption of existential psychology is that human beings have the capacity for choice and the freedom to transcend the “givens of existence,” the ultimate concerns and inescapable realities of living in the world. Transcendence entails the human capacity to choose one’s future in spite of the limitations of time and space, of the past and present. In confronting the conflict imposed by these givens, the individual has the power to create meaning in their lives, “to conceptualize, imagine, invent, communicate, and physically and psychologically enlarge their worlds.” However, it entails more than a simple shift of the mind; one must have the courage to take action in the face of a future fraught with difficulty.
According to Irvin D. Yalom, if we “bracket” the everyday world and reflect upon our existence, we can perceive four “ultimate concerns,” or the “givens of existence”: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. Human beings are caught between the inescapability of death and the desire to live, groundlessness and our wish for structure, absolute isolation and our longing to be connected, and finally, our pursuit for meaning in a universe without any. How an individual confronts these conflicts come to shape the quality and form of his life.
Death, Yalom writes, “haunts us as does nothing else…it is a dark, unsettling presence at the rim of consciousness.” We cannot postpone the future and the future is not guaranteed. Indeed, the only given is that all of it will someday end. If life is essentially an act of authorship, then death compels a conclusion; to deny death is to thwart meaning and resolution. Human beings are fundamentally meaning-seeking and meaning-making creatures. They seek to understand and make sense of the world, to live a life with meaning and purpose. However, for the existentialist, in a universe without a grand design, there is exists no meaning independent of one’s own creation.
Reality is contingent upon the individual. According to Sartre, man “is doomed to freedom.” The individual must accept that he is the uncontested author of his own self and the world he lives in. He is responsible for his destiny, his happiness, and his suffering. Awareness of our ultimate responsibility produces an anxiety rooted in groundlessness. To seek relief, the individual constitutes the world as something independent of himself; he searches for a superordinate structure greater than himself. In doing so, he denies responsibility and flees from freedom.
To defend against an awareness of responsibility, the individual may resort to compulsivity, displacement, or denial. If he resorts to compulsion, the individual frames his life as if driven by an irresistible, external force. He may also avoid responsibility by displacing it to another person. Other individuals may play the innocent victim of unfortunate events—events they often have a hand in creating. Some resort to “losing control,” relying on an ego that is temporarily out of order.
Freedom is choice under circumstance. The natural boundaries imposed by our physical environment and organic biology impose powerful limitations on an individual’s freedom. It does not, however, deprive an individual of their capacity to choose. It is left to the individual to determine whether circumstance becomes fate, whether adversity becomes impossibility. According to Tillich, “Man is asked to make of himself what he is supposed to become.” Individuals are born with a primordial knowledge of their potential self—a knowledge that cannot be ignored. Failing to actualize our potentiality is a transgression against the self; it is the fount of existential guilt. An individual’s potential self demands a reckoning with false impossibilities; a settlement of accounts between what one could have been and what one is.
To acknowledge one’s debt to oneself, is to assume responsibility. Payment, however, involves meaningful action, not impulsive activity. Before we act, we must wish. Wishing entails an admission of our deepest desires and a commitment to manifest those desires in a meaningful way. The act of wishing exposes the individual to life’s ultimate concerns. He must find meaning in the face his mortality, groundlessness, and isolation. The individual must divorce himself from the dictates of rationality and the imperatives of morality. The wish must come from an individual’s feelings and thus, can leave one feeling vulnerable, open to disappointment and rejection.
Some individuals avoid choice by indiscriminately pursuing all of one’s wishes. Wishing involves choice and choice requires sacrifice; some wishes must go unfulfilled. Thus, it is important to pursue those wishes that are held most deeply. An individual must assign priorities. And where two wishes are mutually exclusive, the individual must choose one over the other. Essentially, the individual must bury a dream. Others avoid choice through compulsive action. These individuals are imbued with a sense of purpose, but a purpose that is alien to his wishes. For this individual, action defends against doubt. When his defense falters, he will become aware that his purpose and the meaning of his life are not his own.
When an individual embraces his wish, he must decide and commit himself to a course of action. Decisions are difficult because they represent the death of possibility. And that furthermore, we ourselves are responsible for that death. An awareness of our decisions causes us to reflect on our sacrifices, losses, and failures. To blunt the feeling of existential guilt, we often deny the deeper meaning underlying our choices. But an authentic life requires that we confront our guilt and atone for wreckage we have reaped. In doing so, we must alter the future.
I am really tired, exhausted, and afraid—consumed by a fear that I am unwilling to engage. I have come to a standstill. I am filled with a sense of hopelessness; consumed with thoughts about the inevitability of defeat. I feel guilty and that in many ways I have failed—to be a good father, husband, and friend. And in what way I have failed myself, I don’t even want to ask. I am hiding. I am in denial and have alienated myself from my experiences. But on the other hand, I really think that I’m just full of crap.
Over the course of this semester, I have failed to meet the deadline for each and every paper. I sit at my desk and pour over my notes hour after hour, night after night. I often see the sunrise—meeting the next day with the same problems as before. Of what I do produce, I trash. I have written this essay more than once. In my compulsion, my body suffers. When my wife worries, I resort to obfuscation. When she asks if I have slept, I told her that I slept on the couch so as not to wake her. We both know the truth, I guess. To keep up with the illusion, I go about my day as if it were like any other. I make breakfast for the kid, take him to the park, then for his nap, hand him over to his grandfather. Then I go home and plod on. I sit at my desk and scan over papers that I no longer understand. Rinse and repeat. I have been doing this for three weeks.
Relevant Historical Background
During my early childhood, my mother and I lived with my aunts. Growing up, I never knew my father. He and my mother separated before I turned two. Before the second grade my mother married Carl. He was a strong proponent of traditional masculinity and was determined to raise me according to those ideals. It was not a nurturing environment. I was paddled, verbally abused or ignored for every failure and mistake, including those that I had failed to prevent. When the neighborhood kids snuck into our swimming pool, I got hit. When someone stole my bike from the patio, I got hit. He was also exceptionally keen on advancing my education. He imposed daily reading requirements in addition to my homework; in the 5th grade I was to read 50 pages a day. Getting through Jurassic Park was a particularly harrowing experience. Because “comfort breeds laziness,” I was locked outside until I finished. To prove that I had understood the reading, I had to write book reports on what I had learned. At that point it was easier to take the beating than to do the work.
And as a short aside, that asshole used to tie me to a fence during baseball practice, give me a glove, and chuck balls at me; I became a particularly good catcher. And when it came to fielding, he tied my elbows down so I wouldn’t flare my arms. He’s a total prick.
During my 6th grade, rumors that I was gay had spread throughout my school. During a sleepover, me and my best-friend slept in the same bed; for whatever reason he told everyone that I hit on him. That was a particularly excruciating time in my life. They made fun of what I wore, how I stood, how I walked. When I passed people in the hall, they would strike a mocking pose. Because I went to the same school as some of our family friends, my mother caught wind of it. That filled me with a lot of shame. With the troubles at home and my issues at school, I moved back in with my aunts. My mother stayed with Carl—at least until their divorce a year later. After I moved out, I undertook a project I later called, “the great reinvention.” I changed what I wore, how I walked, and what I said. Between middle school and college, I threw quite a few punches.
Shortly before my freshman year of high school, my mom and I moved to Buffalo, New York. I ended up moving with her to a small town in Hamburg, New York. Jorge, my new step-father, was a really kind and generous man. I think my mother and I took advantage of that kindness. He passed away before I could apologize for that. During my freshman year of high school, I was the only non-white student out of 500. I was very angry kid; aggressive and hostile. When someone asks me why, I usually say it was all because of the racism I experienced. Though it got pretty bad, when I think back on it, I probably provoked the hostility and race was just the most obvious way to respond. My acting-out extended to the home. On one particular evening, an argument between myself and Jorge almost escalated to physicality. The police were called to intervene. Because I kept going at it, they decided to hospitalize me. It was there that I was initially diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After I was released, I was out for about three months until I had to be hospitalized again. Truth be told, I really enjoyed my time there.
Before I moved to New York, my biological father reached out to me. I started to spend my vacations with him. We became close enough that I asked if I could move to the Philippines with him. My mother and I needed a way out. Because of that, we never shared my diagnosis with him. My father had certain expectations of me. It was from him I learned table etiquette—how to use a napkin, the proper placement of silverware. It was a different country with different values. At the time, he was a congressman running for re-election. To keep up appearances, I wasn’t invited to his wedding; or maybe the invitation just got lost in the mail, which is probably unlikely because I lived with the guy. And when political advertisements went up, I wasn’t included as part of the family. It was then I decided that if I wasn’t his son, then he wasn’t my father. To enforce my curfew he instructed the house guards to bar my entrance if I came home too late. I moved out before my senior year. As one would expect, I got myself into a lot of trouble. In some sense, I had sort of a death wish.
I ran out of options and the only people that would take me were my aunts. During my first year back in the States, I thought a lot about death. It was an honest evaluation of whether or not it was better to end my life or keep on going. And if I were to move forward, what it was I was supposed to do. The fact that I was bipolar was undeniable. My emotions were dangerous and not to be trusted. I never actually entertained the idea that my issues might be related to something else. My treatment was entirely psychiatric and it employed an arsenal of medication. And in search for some ultimate truth, I looked towards philosophy, history, and literature. I was consciously looking for a father; I literally Googled, “best fictional fathers.” And lastly, I abdicated my responsibility and asked my family what they thought was best for me. They told me to go to law school, and so I went. About seven years later, I attended Santa Clara Law and in the first year, I found myself in the deepest depression I’ve ever experienced. At 25, I remember begging my mom to let me take a leave of absence: “This is your bipolar disorder. Weather the storm and stick it through.” My whole life I’ve been called a quitter and loser. I just didn’t want to be beaten again. I didn’t want to run anymore. I powered through the year and requested a leave of absence. After that, I chose to pursue Psychology.
My greatest fear is the fear of the abyss, man’s essential groundlessness. That as a being who is solely responsible for the authorship of his self, his world, and meaning, I have created nothing. The burden of the responsibility has left me exhausted and demoralized. Confronted with the wreckage of my life, I attempt to displace the burden of that responsibility by constructing a world that exists independent of myself. I rely on external authorities to decide meaning and significance. Rather than starting from a base of feeling, I look outward. Ultimately, I refuse to author my own life. Everything I pursue is checked and rechecked against what I call the “canon,” works of literature or philosophy that are held in high regard. Failing that, I check my choices against the opinion of others. I am often caught between what I “ought” to do, rather than what I want to do. And for any wish that is truly mine, I keep it a secret. It is a project that is never shared.
I often deny my responsibility by “losing control.” I hide behind my diagnosis and furthermore, I employ it. In order to manage my disorder, I must abide by certain rules. I need to sleep. I need to take my medication. I have to eat well and exercise. When faced with truly difficult decisions, I often let go. Madness absolves me of responsibility. Furthermore, in letting go, I destroy the body. I render it inoperable. Rather than choosing a path, I walk until I fall. And in that process, I pull from the “canon” stories of martyrs and tragic heroes. I exalt Byron and Rilke, mad poets whose creations I pretend are mine. I turn to others and ask if it is ok to stop, to lay down.
I repress my own potential and taint it with the toxic values of performance. I confuse the origin of my existential guilt by framing the conflict as a battle between my “ideal self” and “actual self.” What is forgotten is the self that I was supposed to become. I do not trust myself. I do not trust my body, nor do I trust my feelings. Thus, much of what I wish is not imbued with the force that stems from meaning. Unless forced, I choose not to discriminate or prioritize between my wishes. Though I acknowledge only a few wishes, I chase them all until I break. I deny the possibility that certain wishes exist in contradiction. I pursue one without thought of the other. And if they do exist simultaneously, I leave the decision to others. I am at my core, terrified of making a decision. I have placed myself in a dangerous situation by my failure to construct meaningful or alternative wishes. Consequently, decisions, because they relinquish possibility, exposes me to groundlessness.
According to Yalom, where the decision seems to be self-destructive, the “therapist will invariably find…that in some highly personalized or symbolic mode, it is self-preservative.” I often deny the existential implications of my decisions. I frame them in such a way as to avoid renunciation. In impulsively choosing all things, I preserve my meaning and purpose. Because to choose one wish means I have to evaluate the relevancy of my wishes, my potential, the meaning behind those wishes, and even whether the wish is my own. My fear is that in having to evaluate my wishes, I will discover that they are meaningless. Thus, I have to undertake an act that is self-creation. And consequently, I must own my feelings and speak to my true self.
By Franco Romualdez