Existentialism, and Me

NEH, Santa Barbara, Laramie, UNO, Existentialism, and Me

David Martin

Sometimes, the truth is too simple for intellectuals.

Jean-Paul Sartre, French philosopher, 1905-1980

When I looked through the list of 1989 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Seminars for School Teachers, I was impressed by how many interesting programs there were. I studied the list for a month before deciding on my first choice. I would enjoy more than a dozen of the topics offered, but “Ethical Dimensions of the Modern French Novel: Gide, Malraux, Sartre, and Camus” kept rising to the top of my priority list. I wanted to attend that summer seminar at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

I learned so much at the previous NEH seminar, which I attended at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1986 with Dr. Walter Capps. Alexis de Tocqueville and his book, Democracy in America, was the focus of that six-week enlightenment period, and I became so engrossed in the topic, I had to be dragged out of the library to go to the beach. As a result, I wrote the longest paper of my life.

My friends thought I would return to Nebraska burned like a beach native. I surprised all of them and myself, but in August, I barely owned a tan. I was either in the library or the computer room typing, instead of swimming in the ocean. I loved the reading, the writing, and the dreaming that went with this challenging program. Never before have I had that much time to concentrate and write on one idea.

An unusual coincidence of the seminar in Santa Barbara was the Statue of Liberty celebration in New York City. Tocqueville, a French attorney, taught me a lot more about the United States than I ever expected, and I wondered if the new French exposure in Laramie would be as educational. At that time, I had been to France once. On a one-day excursion by ferry from Dover, England, I spent fourteen hours in Calais. That was my only chance to step on French soil, and I hoped to get adequate time in Normandy to visit Omaha Beach, where my father was in 1944, but those plans did not work out.

I possessed a hidden desire to teach philosophy to my high school students. My traditional, conservative, 90% college prep school would not allow something as frivolous as this into its established nineteenth century curriculum, but I thought about including it in my American Literature class, the next year during a free unit. I wanted to squeeze a bit of philosophy into the Early American Revolutionary War Period, which already included a discussion of Enlightenment ideas and religious principles surrounding our separation from Great Britain. Some of the early French philosophers might appear there. After all, those upstart and rebellious Americans could not have won their War of Independence without the French navy getting behind Cornwallis at Yorktown.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) asked me to develop an English Department undergraduate course. They wanted to expand their course selection and offer new topics to students. I gave them a list of six courses I might research, develop, and present. I was surprised when the department accepted the first course on my list, Existentialist Literature. I included seventeen titles in my required reading list. Some professors told me my class would not be successful, because what I proposed was too difficult, and not enough students would sign up for such an unusual offering. Quickly, seventeen students signed up, and only thirteen were required. The class was the most exciting one I taught, while teaching part-time at the university. I loved the experience, and the students had a good time, too. NEH, Santa Barbara, Laramie, UNO, Existentialism, and Me – we came together in a synchronistic wholeness, a personal mandala.

I was not an expert of Existential Literature, but I wanted to become one soon. Sartre, Camus, and the other writers I chose became good friends of mine. I did not want to let them leave, so I “invited” them regularly to dinner. We always had a good time. I hoped to become more knowledgeable about their way of seeing the world and learn more biographical information about these authors, their personalities, and their motivations for writing. I wanted to hear if they had more to say to me, specifically, and they told me a lot.

In the last thirty years, I struggled with many personal philosophical considerations. I searched for life’s meaning in my jobs, relationships, books, and soul. At first, this quest, was not a conscious one. Later, after hardships and personal loss, the search became a welcome journey, out in the open, one requiring effort and attention.

After graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree, I followed the American Dream and chased dollar signs for a decade. My first marriage needed those things, I thought. Didn’t every good American boy wish for more dollar signs and more toys? A successful business career in sales management, several promotions, raises, and cross-country moves followed, as I climbed the corporate ladder. Eleven years later, a divorce later, a career change later, seven relatives and close friends dead in a ten-month period later, a second wife and two more children later, my search got closer to significant revelations. These two seminars assisted me in that personal exploration. 

After returning to the classroom, I acquired a Master of Arts Degree in English Literature and was passionate to write. I read constantly. In one year, I devoured 150 books in twelve months. Most of them were about literature, philosophy, and religion. A quiet, introverted bibliophile, I am.

After our minister resigned and left town, unexpectedly, I ran our church for fourteen months. I am not ordained, but I considered earning a second master’s degree, this time in religious history. I don’t have the necessary qualities for what it takes to be a minister, but the studying, writing, and speaking were exciting. I was given permission, on a temporary basis, to conduct marriages and performed two of them. I was responsible for a friend’s funeral in the church, and in many ways, this fourteen-month period changed my life. It made me think about my existence more than I ever had before. Would my life be meaningful? Would I make a difference? Would it matter that I was?

Of all the existentialists, Jean Paul Sartre interested me the most. His writing genius was to say the profound, simply and clearly. He related to abstract messages. A philosopher is one who has visions, and what Sartre saw was spectacular and disturbing. He pierced the dead crust of tradition. He shook western society to its foundation. His existence focused on the here and now. To him, what went into words often died. What went into work lived. A philosopher is a reformer, an antenna of our time. Sartre felt which way the spirit moved and saw beyond the horizon.

Freedom was precious to Sartre and other existentialists. They told us to use our courage and take advantage of it. Most people like barriers around them, so they don’t have to be responsible for their actions. It is easier to blame someone else, an institution, a person, an idea, instead of accepting responsibility for what happens as a result of making their own decisions. If a person won’t accept the risk of being himself, he should go on about other people’s business. Subjective reason, intuition, freedom, and taking risks with the responsibility of that freedom, while creating his own life, defined the world of an existentialist.

What is crucial to people determines their priorities of consciousness. Individual experience shows what is important in our lives and how the world reveals itself. In the midst of existence, we establish the rules for how things work. I stopped waiting for others to help me. Now, when life situations are important, I become “911.” I can’t wait for any monosyllabic Gary Cooper to intervene and save me. Heraclitus taught us to make our destiny through our choices, values, and enduring the perplexity of existence. 

What is real life? Trying to create meaning in a cosmos, which appears to be devoid of objective meaning, is difficult. Educating ourselves, as we grow older, is a process of creating ourselves. With age, we learn to not depend on precedent, habit, and the authority of others, when deciding what is best. Our lives become individual classrooms. With this separate freedom comes an ominous responsibility for every act taken. To choose our lives, to act with freedom, to be ourselves is to become an authenticated person. For some, this brings disquietude, despair, anguish, nausea, anxiety, and boredom. These by-products challenge us.

Traditional philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel saw man as an abstraction, a category, an “essence.” Aristotle said man was a “rational animal.” Hegel explained mankind by saying we were part of a system, “thought objectified.” Existentialists reacted to this denigration of human beings and their rare qualities of individuality. Traditionalists, with their quantifying statistics of IQ scores, social classes, and age groups, don’t say anything about our uniqueness and specialness. Talking about people as blacks, whites, advantaged, and disadvantaged makes individuals invisible.

In most religions, essence precedes existence. There is a meaning to the universe, which stems from God before creation. Existentialists would say the reverse; first is existence, and then comes the essence of life. A person’s identity is defined as the person lives. It is not predestined. There are no moral absolutes given at birth. What is important is learned, as we go. Not choosing what is important is to live a life like a stone. By not making decisions is to deny one’s existential reality. No suffering means no rejoicing.

Sometimes, I am strong and confident, but like my children, I am also troubled by the dark. I am distressed by the void and absence of light in the world beyond my mortality. With darkness all around me, my small eyes provide a limited vision. I can see little in front of me. Night surrounds everything. With his eyesight failing, Goethe said, on his deathbed, “Mere licht” – more light. I wish I could see farther into the night. A lamppost in the fog, a beacon in the void, a lighthouse on a barren, rocky shore, Laramie at 7,200 feet – we need more ways to see. There is so much darkness and too little illumination.

General characteristics of existential thought:

  • All can live an authentic existence.
  • Living life to its fullest emotion brings satisfaction.
  • We must use our freedom to choose in life.
  • Awareness of death determines our lives.
  • Truth is determined by the will to believe.
  • Screw guilt.
  • With freedom to choose comes responsibility.
  • Beautiful music doesn’t come out of the hate bag.

Existentialism is a term applied to a group of attitudes current in philosophical, religious, and artistic thought, which emphasizes existence rather than essence and sees the inadequacy of human reason to explain the enigma of the universe as the basic philosophical question. The term is so broadly and loosely used that an exact definition is not possible. Existentialism has found art and literature to be unusually effective forms of expression.

The existentialist assumes that we and things, in general, exist, but things have no meaning, until we declare they do. Sartre claims the fundamental truth of existentialism is in Descartes’s formula, “I think; therefore, I exist.” The existential philosophy is concerned with the personal commitment of this unique existing individual in the human situation. It attempts to codify the irrational aspect of man’s nature, to objectify nonbeing or nothingness and see it as a universal source of fear, to distrust concepts, and to emphasize experiential concreteness. When people feel meaningless in this world, they experience discomfort, anxiety, loneliness, and a desire to invest experience with meaning by acting upon the world, although efforts to act in a meaningless, absurd world lead to anguish, greater loneliness, and despair. 

I am.

“Integrity is wholeness;

the greatest beauty 

is organic wholeness,

the wholeness of life and things,

the divine beauty of the universe.


Love that, not man apart from that,

or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions

or drown in despair when his days darken.”


-Robinson Jeffers, 1887-1962,

American poet, icon of 

the “Environmental Movement”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *