Dealing with Reality

Human race is addicted to illusions. I guess, at a very early stage of the evolution of human society, it became clear to man that what they termed as reality was too painful to accept as it was. Therefore, man created a pseudo ‘reality’ in the name of god, eternity, afterlife, heaven, hell and what not – this was man’s survival instincts at its creative best. When society needed order, man created god as an eternal punisher; when time became his existential limit, eternity of the soul was discovered. And probably boredom combined the two and created mythologies.

Despite all the attempts, none of this could prevent glimpses of reality in human society. Even the blind-by-choice could catch these glimpses, whether acknowledged or not. Eventually it became clear that belief in Krishna or Jesus could be desirable but disbelief in Hitler and the two world wars, however desirable, was difficult to attain. Illusions are impermanent shield and there remains no choice but to deal with reality.

The search for ‘truth’, a poetic synonym of reality, has apparently been on since the Greek ages. However, the most relevant of such inquiries have only taken place in the last couple of centuries[1]. It started when man finally decided to question his abilities and acknowledge his limitations. The first undeniable truth that came to be known by this process was that even if there is an absolute truth (or reality), man can never know it. Man is only capable of knowing what is within the limits of his five senses. Beyond that, all knowledge at best are calculated guesses. It took over three centuries and an Einstein to figure out that Newton was wrong. It was only after his theory of relativity that the idea that time need not always be a constant was brought from the realm of science fiction to a scientific theory. As absurd as it may sound, there is a very thin line of distinction between fact and fiction – the line of human capacity to see.

Therefore, in order to ensure that we live our lives true to our reality, it is necessary first to acknowledge that our reality itself is limited. Man must accept man as man – with all his failings, with all his limitations. Any attempt to surpass the limitations of the reality knowable to us is an attempt to deny the limitations of human existence. A warning for the romantics – do not misread deny as defy. Living in denial is shameful, living in defiance of reality is quixotically impossible.

It is this limited and undeniable reality of human life that Sartre[2] calls ‘human condition’. Like all existentialists, Sartre paints a dismal picture of human condition[3]. But then, is not most reality dismal? Which is more real – the happy picture of Jesus turning water to wine or Hitler turning Jews to ashes, methodically?

Franz Kafka wrote that man lives like man but dies like a dog. Sartre said that man is a useless passion. Camus said that man is condemned to a Sisyphean pointless labour. Are you shouting, “Stop it! Do you have a point?” Well, this precisely is my point. Time and again the reality of man’s futility hits him in the face. All the illusions that he has comfortably wrapped himself in, can not protect but only suffocate him in the face of reality. His situation is like someone who has sewn himself in a permanent warm overcoat in winter completely negating the fact that summer inevitably shall follow. And once summer arrives – then what? Two choices – suffocate in the coat until death or tear it open.

One may ask why paint such a dismal picture of human limitations and tragedies? Isn’t it life negating? If calling apple an apple is negating apple, then it is. Otherwise, it is a simple acknowledgement of the reality that is. And why is it necessary? Because a man living in denial of his disease always fails to take medication. A gory picture of human condition is precisely what the doctor prescribed for the human race – a race wrapped in illusions. How does this prescription help? By eliminating unfounded fears, liberating man to uninhibited and innumerable choices that had been kept away from him in the fake promise of the possibility of attaining heroic ends.

If we acknowledge human condition as it is, with all the disturbing details, what then? It is only on the acknowledgement and consciousness of the true human condition that we can truly venture into attainment of any value. When Camus talks of being aware of the absurd[4], in simple terms, he asks man to accept all the givens and not struggle into despair trying to change it. It is only when we identify the given can we concentrate our efforts on constructing the rest of our ‘conditions’ by choice. Unfortunately, most of our efforts are wasted in defying the given. A very crude example could be the time, energy, and money spent in the name of religion and prediction of the future (astrology, numerology, etc.) when every man knows within, the futility of it.

It has been said repeatedly and with an irritating conviction that desire is the root of all human miseries. I beg to differ. Desire is a given human condition and any theory that labels it as evil labels our very being as evil. And because it is not possible to change this given, it leads to false frustrations and miseries. Result – in the attempt of killing all desires, we now have added frustrations and miseries of failure alongwith the desires which, obviously, cannot be eliminated.

To see one’s life beyond the futility of daily chores – beyond aspirations, beyond achievements, beyond ‘success’ – that should be the purpose of any human inquiry. For, what are success, achievement, and aspiration beyond life? We trouble ourselves to no end in an attempt to define us, to find a purpose. We fail to see the obvious – that our existence comes predefined; the definition being ‘life’. However, our purpose on the other hand is not pre-destined. We need to realize that our purpose exists not in a pre-defined fate but only retrospectively authored by us by our choices, our actions. For, as Camus says, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Consciousness and rejection of the comfort of illusions are the only tools one needs to acquire the ability to scorn fate. The choice is simple and clear – either we deal with our reality or die within the life of illusions. As Albert Camus says:

If it (human mind) must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid – polar light, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. At that degree, equivalence encounters passionate understanding.

[1] This article is based on my personal understanding of what is commonly known as existentialism. I owe the development of these thoughts to the ideas I have read amongst the works of Albert Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, and others. Without justification to the theory, I can best explain existentialism as a philosophy which asserts that man exists first, without any meaning. He dies without any purpose. The realm of man is only that small part between his being and nothingness. Man is free to fill that void entirely at his discretion with complete freedom; whether he recognizes that freedom or not. Existentialism rejects all moral foundations and philosophies built on presumptions of tradition or after-life.

[2] Jean Paul Sartre was a 20th century philosopher, most notably known as the chief exponent of the philosophy of existentialism. His epic work, where he expounds his philosophy in great detail is Being and Nothingness. One of his most popular work of fiction is Nausea

[3] However, it may be noted that Sartre’s philosophy itself is not gloomy. Like Camus and many other ‘existentialists’, Sartre believes that man is the author of himself. In his work Nausea he shoes that glimpse of possible human victory at the conclusion, despite the entire book being set in a tone of despair and anguish.

[4] ‘Absurd’ is central to Camus’s philosophy. What Camus calls absurd is the existence of two irreconcilable eternal truths – the randomness and unreasonable world on one hand and the insatiable desire for order, logic, and happiness in man on the other hand. Camus discusses this in his work The Myth of Sisyphus and shows how it is essential for man to maintain the absurd and not defy it.

8 responses to “Dealing with Reality

  1. Between being and nothingness is like a canvass in which you can paint something out of a clean sheet. But that sheet is something you cannot choose: it may be rough, it may be dirty white, it may be silky. The fiber vastly differs from the other. This I think is the given of each life from which the life we want to paint is largely defined. It is the same canvass that helps us paint the image of our self, but at the same time it is the limit of our painting.

    Between being and nothingness, there is the given of an individual life: his physique, his psyche, mis mental prowess, the social miliue he is in, his parents. When man is born, he did not choose his physical, mental, and social constitutions. These are the givens which define largely of the kind of life that he can project.

    May I ask then. If you cannot relate to the canvass, that is, if you do not see any reason why you have to paint at all, so why go on with life?

    In this speck of the eternal time, man has to have a meaning, a reason to live despite that at the end of the day, all his life ends to nothingness. It may be absurd, but the religious man wants to project a life beyond so he has a reason to live a life. We all put a reason to life, to make life more passionate to live by.

  2. This is an absolutely beautiful post!

    But the only reason we think reality is absurd is that we thought there was a reason for it in the first place. We bought into the idea that there was an external reality providing that meaning for us. Nietzsche said in The Gay Science that the madman went running around to the crowds exclaiming “God was Dead”. But he soon realized he had come too early. This “madman” wasn’t speaking to the people who believed in God. He was speaking to those who claimed there was no God. These “atheists” had failed to realize that they had not yet realized God was dead because they had simply replaced God with reason.

    Daily chores aren’t futile unless we think there is a reason for them. The good old protestant work ethic guarantees us a place in heaven for our ascetic efforts and the secular perspective assures us our efforts will be monetarily rewarded. But we all know in this day and age that this is not true. We believed we were entitled, but the truth is, we have never been entitled to happiness, monetary rewards, etc. We get engaged in life because it is the engagement itself that provides meaning, not the end result.

    Desire is the root of all human miseries because it demands an end result that doesn’t exist. Passion, on the other hand, does not demand an end result. Passion is engaged and not based upon entitlement.

    What is the point of scorning our fate unless we believe we are entitled to something beyond fate? The problem is that we bought into the idea of God in the first place, but if God doesn’t exist and never existed, why not give up the belief in entitlement and embrace our fate without scorn?

  3. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Counter!!

  4. Sorry… I know this isn’t about your blog post, really, but I had to ask… would you be willing to tell me how you did the “jump to” code in this post? In other words, how did you link to somewhere else, later in the same post? You can Email me if you don’t mind helping me with this. Thanks so much! ((I was just looking for how to do this the other day!))

    MizB of Should Be Reading

  5. I know you will be disappointed, but there was no coding involved on my side. I wrote this article on MS Word and pasted it on to the dashboard section for posting through the link that lets you paste a word document. I had used the ‘endnote’ feature on MS Word. Coding was automatic courtesy ‘WordPress’.

  6. Hi,

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  7. I really like your posts – so much to think about. You seem to know a lot about philosophy too, a lot which I don’t! So hard for me to get my head around questions like this… but I enjoy reading your posts anyway 🙂

  8. mspennylane,

    There is not lot in philosophy that I know. Have read a lot of existential literature recently, though. That ‘school’, if I may call it so, makes a lot of sense to me. It’s just that these questions keep popping up to me as they do to you, I guess.

    Thanks for your comment.

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