Friday, February 12, 2010

existential angst, part III

The absolute freedom and responsibility we have is so pervasive it encompasses even the power to end our own lives.  And though we have so much freedom, we do not have anything essential or fixed within our nature to guide our choices (hedonistic desire alone is no longer sufficient).  If only we did!  This is the feeling of existential angst, a basic human condition.  In death alone, leaving all that one was behind, is one released from freedom, responsibility, and its attendant anxiety.  Hence, the greatest source of fear also becomes a fearful temptation that the imagination fantasizes in when the burden of responsibility overwhelms any rewards life presents.  Is this a method the mind uses to cope with stress?  I would postulate that, operating under the principle of enantiodromia, it does have a cathartic effect.  (To be sure, and mercifully so, for the uncompromised individual whose judgment is sound, and in light of the beauty and richness of continually unfolding human experience and the companionship of others, numerous other temporary and perfectly acceptable solutions are considered before taking any such permanent and irreversible action.  Robert Service presented another perspective as well.)

But what is the purpose of cathartic self-sacrifice when it may be more effective yet to reflect on the impermanent nature of life?  Nothing lives very long, really.  It is saddest of all for me to realize that my own children will grow up tomorrow, mature, and die as surely as do all other things.  As will my parents, my wife, and as will I.  I could try to realize this eventual fate as intimately today as it will be tomorrow to live an "authentic life".  From what may be regarded as the most appropriate of all perspectives, in a flash I am born, live, and die.  What freedom and responsibility I have now, is over in an instant.  And that instant is where I am right now.

I have written before about dukkha, the Pali word for unsatisfactoriness, the condition of life identified by the Buddha. I had thought it was something to be prevented, an "avoidance goal" in effect. But as a basic condition, it really isn't something to be avoided or approached, it just is. In such a world the best that can be done really is to walk a middle path between extremes, keeping in mind a profound understanding of the pervasive quality of dukkha.

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