Once I started teaching seniors, I looked forward every year to the day I would begin to introduce them to the concept of existentialism. I felt I had to go all Albert Camus on them because The Stranger was one of the central lit pieces that I taught.
I relished immersing them in the basic tenets of this philosophy, essentially alien to all of them, and for one or two days in a row I played devil’s advocate to every question, objection, personal experience, religious belief that they could challenge me with. For two days I would crush their spirits into the belief that they were living insignificant lives in an absurd and meaningless universe, continually verging on the edge of the abyss of despair and alienation.
Of course, then I would have to spend the next three weeks reassuring them that existentialism was simply one of many world views and not one that I was promoting. To avoid parent phone calls, I had to swear to them that I wasn’t anti-religion, that it was fine with me if they believed in God and the afterlife, and that, of course, they were leading meaningful lives.
But, for some of them, this one lesson was an earthquake. The fact that anyone could believe in such a philosophy, that it was a well-developed, much discussed pillar of post-modern society, that I could fill up a 40-minute power point with its principles was a shock to some 17-year-olds who had never considered a point of view that varied from what all of their families and friends had at least pretended that they believed in.
One student refused to speak to me for the rest of the year.
Part of the lecture was to discuss why existential thought considers an individual’s life to be meaningless. To illustrate this I had them think about how our 70 or 80 or 90 years on this planet compared to the eons that came before us and the millions or maybe billions of years that would follow our short lives. I asked them to add that to the fact that we are on a small planet, in a small galaxy, in the midst of an enormous universe, the size of which is, for me, incomprehensible.
So given all that, just how important was any single action, thought, or decision that any one of us might make? It usually got really quiet after that.
It took me a while to explain why I found this aspect of existentialism to be particularly freeing and not depressing. As someone who constantly second guesses himself and agonizes over sometimes trivial decisions, it helps me to be reminded that the world doesn’t turn on my decision on when it’s appropriate to buy a new vacuum cleaner or get the garden weeded.
It’s where I’d try to lead them to eventually—that meaning comes from within. That an existential point of view empowers them to wipe the slate clean and take responsibility for looking at their actions and decisions and figuring out for themselves what ultimately a meaningful life looks like.
Note: Most of them still liked me by the end of the year.