Is it okay to see the glass half empty? – Struggling to find ourselves in a world without meaning

Zeb Kaylique, doctoral research student and author of this post.

Zeb Kaylique is a second-year doctoral student in the Faculty of Professional and Social Sciences. His research aims to explore the role of pessimism within existential psychotherapy and counselling, and challenges whether this is necessarily negative. In fact, could it perhaps make us more human? Here, he explores some of the most significant elements of existentialist philosophy and explains what draws him to the field.

About 25 years ago, I was at university for the first time and embarking on a science degree. I now find myself back at university for a second time as a postgraduate student on a doctoral programme in existential psychotherapy. It’s my second year on the doctorate and for my research idea, I’m hoping to explore what it is like for therapists to encounter pessimism in their therapeutic work with clients. My main thrust and motivation for doing this comes from my own outlook in life, which has always tended towards a more existentialist slant.

‘So, what is existentialism?’ you may ask. Very briefly, and in simple terms, existentialism is a philosophy concerned with finding the self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. At this point, maybe I can help explain this choice of study and why I am particularly drawn to this philosophical school of thought.

The intellectual side of existentialism

The first aspect that draws me to this philosophy is that there are two sides to it. Existentialism has a more obvious intellectual side, with writers such as Sartre, Heidegger, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty to name but a few. This side focuses on the text, the thinkers and the ideas, and is sometimes expressed in its own specialised vocabulary.  More than that, it has a deeper and more subtle side which is more to do with what I would refer to as an ‘existential sensibility’, or an existential way of life, from writers who have influenced me from my own reading of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Camus and Nietzsche.

In other words, existentialism makes an appeal to my mind, the part which wants to understand life more deeply, and it also appeals to the ‘spiritual’ aspect of myself which longs to experience life more deeply. A large part of me is drawn to existentialism in the way that it honours my intellectual curiosity but also the part of me that wants to feel deeply and powerfully alive.

I have come to learn that there are multiple perspectives on the meaning of knowledge, and for me, there is an ethical sense to learning which I believe existentialism has taught me to pursue. It’s instead a ‘how to live’ question rather than a ‘why to live’ question. I find that taking a rationalist or scientific approach ends up draining the ‘mytho-poetic’ side to experience. On the other hand, I am not adhering to any kind of explanation of life that is not rational enough to be intellectually convincing, as those sorts of approaches can end up feeling too metaphysically unreal.

Glass full of ideas - Craig Sunter (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Existentialism “honours my intellectual curiosity but also the part of me that wants to feel deeply and powerfully alive”. Photo by Craig Sunter (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Existential moments of honesty

In my decision to explore pessimism as a research idea, I found a second aspect of existentialism that I am more particularly drawn to: its moments of extraordinary and staggering honesty. Essentially, I find existential thinkers to be more straight and direct about many aspects of life that are difficult to admit and discuss. Matters such as the absurdity of life are brought about from the irreconcilable clash between the indifference of the universe and our human yearning for the meaning of existence within the same, indifferent universe.

In this way, I am drawn towards existentialism for its courage to not shy away from the darker side of life but to explore the anxiety and dread that haunts us all, as well as the subtle ways that mortality touches me and how that shapes my own experiences. I find this honesty illuminating, refreshing and exhilarating as it feels real and much more forthright and direct about the reality of human existence.

How can existentialism be strategic?

The third aspect of existentialism that I am attracted to is the fact it is a rebellious way of thinking about life. In a way, I appreciate existentialism’s attempt to seek out a deeper fidelity and a deeper relation to life irrespective of whether it coincides with what anyone else regards as fashionable. In essence, I am drawn to existentialism partly because of its strategic irreverence and sense of rebellion, and this is not for its own sake but for the sake of understanding things more deeply and ultimately living more deeply.

Can pessimism enhance your humanity?

I find existentialism has a stark and uncompromising ability to recognise the difficulties and suffering in life. Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher, coined the phrase ‘a pessimism of strength’. This could be correlated with suffering in the sense that it is all an embracing of the world as it is, a “great liberation” through a “pessimism of strength” which “does not sit in judgement of this condition”.

Holding a pessimistic view of my existence – in that without suffering I cannot fully experience the meaning of what it is to be human – is helping me to see the suffering side of life in a broader way.

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