When we discussed the premise of existentialism, I struggled with the idea of individualism above all else. If the only thing that truly exists is random, absurd suffering, then the only thing we can do that matters is to attempt to alleviate some of that suffering. Trying to help others live a happier, more secure, more comfortable life must be the only worthy goal. And to do this effectively, a person can’t be strictly independent; they have to consider the needs and feelings of other people as well.
But according to Frank Kappler’s article “A Torturous Road to New Morality” (linked in the existentialism resources on Classroom), which explains Sartre’s theory of existentialism, helping others is not necessarily at odds with existentialism. Sartre claims that it is in fact a way to escape the despair that comes with the knowledge that life is absurd, describing this principle as “engagement,” or as Kappler puts it, “Committing oneself by a resolute act of free choice to a positive part in human affairs.” As long as you chose this path yourself– in spite of the absurdity– you can remain an existentialist even as you try to fulfill a purpose (although I would argue that if you have such a purpose, then that gives life some meaning). I thought this was an interesting, surprisingly optimistic aspect of Sartre’s theory that made existentialism more understandable.