Is Existentialist a Synonym for Pessimist?

Every time we’ve entered class this week I was thinking about whether or not an existentialist could ever have true joy. Could a person who ultimately believes nothing is real and has no meaning find any kind of purpose in life? Could an existentialist play the game of life while still maintaining their beliefs? To me, that just seems absolutely dreadful. Like it is explained in Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus,” the true tragedy comes from consciousness and ignorance seems to truly be bliss.

I personally, am very okay with living in that ignorance. I don’t think I would like to look into the eyes of my father and think “this is not real,” or marry someone someday out of practicality. To me that seems like sticking yourself in one hopeless, never-ending box.

But in what parts of existentialism could one find happiness? Sometimes I think about what I would do if I truly did not care what people thought or about the consequences of my actions. If I didn’t believe in the system of education, I know I most certainly would not do my homework, I would not be, what seems like, relentlessly stressed over college. I definitely would not equate my value to the 4 digits of my SAT score. In that sense, I believe I would be happy.

But I feel like existentialism is inherently selfish. Those things I mentioned before, only benefit me. Existentialism seems very much solely focused on self and not on how the choices I’d make would affect others as well. If I suddenly stopped caring about school then I would be negating the hard work my parents put in to move to Oak Park so I could get a good education.

So, if I did not care about others and I didn’t care about probably ending up impoverished and bitter, I would be an existentialist. But I don’t prefer those things, so I’m good.

2 thoughts on “Is Existentialist a Synonym for Pessimist?

  1. Finn G.

    I think this response is very interesting, but there’s one part of it that I strongly disagree with, which is the idea that existentialism purports that nothing is real. In my understanding, existentialism doesn’t deny that the world we live in is real — in fact, it’s the most real anything can be. Rather, existentialists believe that the world and life don’t have an inherent meaning to them. That doesn’t mean that your or my father isn’t real, but it does mean that the emphasis we place on family ties is artificial, and we should only keep obeying that societal norm if it really makes us happy.

    The criticism that existentialism is selfish is a legitimate one, and one that existentialism has a hard time arguing against. A hardcore existentialist would probably just ask why your parents put in that much hard work into giving you an education in the first place if it wouldn’t make either of you truly happy in the long run (or would it?). I believe it is possible, however, for people to find their own meaning in life, rather than the one society assigns them, without rejecting society entirely. It does mean that there will be more moments of temporary unhappiness, but it would likely be more fulfilling than a life spent worrying too much about finding “true love” or any similar meaning, and less harmful to the people around you than one spent actively rebelling against every part of society.

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  2. Connor D

    I don’t mean to sound rude, but I think you’re misunderstanding what existentialism is saying. Existentialism isn’t really about focusing on the self. It can be a side effect, but it’s not the point. Existentialism is more about living life on your own terms. This can seem like you’re disregarding everything but yourself, but that’s not really true. It’s more like giving you the freedom to choose what you care about, and what you don’t. For me, that looks like putting my energy into my friends and extracurriculars instead of worrying about being the perfect student. Societal norms don’t get to dictate what I care about; I do. I find the joy in life where I choose to. Existentialism doesn’t make you less compassionate; in fact, I find that it gives me the ability to be the compassionate person I am.

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