A few years ago, America’s most reliable news source, The Onion, published an interview with a courageous firefighter named James Farber. The story focused not so much on his heroic deed, remarkable though it was, but rather on his iconoclastic, not-so orthodox views about meaning in life, human existence and virtue.
From the start of the interview, Farber focused on a context far broader than the fire and the action he took that saved lives from the conflagration. To quote Mr. Farber:
Like any other man, I am thrown into this world, alone and terrified, to play a meaningless role in an empty life. In my case, that role happens to involve charging through towering blazes to pull helpless individuals from a sea of flames before they suffocate or are burnt alive. That hardly makes me a paragon of virtue.
Not surprisingly, the interview went viral. Farber’s reflections stimulated a national discussion of a deep philosophical nature. (Source: “Existentialist Firefighter Delays 3 Deaths,” The Onion, May 27, 2010, Volume 46, Issue 21.)
A Philosophical Challenge
Those of us striving to live a wellness lifestyle face one challenge in particular beyond the usual difficulties with which all humans contend, namely, how to stay focused, remain positive, cheerful, optimistic, kind and rational in the face of never-ending tragedies. Blazing house fires usually don’t turn out so well—and that’s just a small sample of larger difficulties all must face.
Consider a few macro scale perplexing issues and ask yourself: How can we not be appalled and dispirited by daily accounts of dreadful realities? Who can ever get used to terrorist bombings and natural disasters, plus so many intractable problems (e.g., world hunger)? How are wellness seekers to look on the bright side, given these and other horrors and perturbations?
Once again, firefighter James Farber’s case might provide help, not with physical actions, but with insights from his existential philosophy. The latter could relieve many people from mental travails common to our universal efforts to find what safety there can be in this life, at least temporarily. After all, nothing lasts forever.
How can we continue to do what little we can for ourselves and others to remain as well as possible while connecting with the larger realm (loved ones, community and the environment)?
Famed ethicist Peter Singer has described a few other challenges to expect in the years ahead:
The greatest ethical challenges facing us in the 21st century will involve questions of food, our changing view of life and consciousness in both humans and other animals, and the way we treat the end of life.
So, add these concerns to the stresses of familiar grim headlines. A wellness seeker might be tempted to give up, siding with Ecclesiastes who cautioned, all is futile. But, doing so will not support a continued sense of optimism that wellness pioneer Halbert L. Dunn (1896-1975) and others held as an essential quality for positive lifestyle results.
While Seeger identified universal challenges to a positive outlook, challenges will always depend on personal situations. Think of Syrian and other migrants today who are willing to board fragile raft operated by mendicant thugs to escape the horrors of life in their tortured lands. Such migrants knowingly risk their lives and those of loved ones on perilous, uncertain quests for a new life, knowing that even if successful they will find themselves in strange places to which they were not invited, where conditions are unsuited for other than short-term relief.
Ethical and other challenges vary, but we’re all affected by the ultimate concerns identified by Dr. Seeger. Most of us care about others and feel some responsibility, not just for those we know and others similar to us but for all people, wherever they live. But, because simply looking after one’s own affairs takes so much time and energy, reaching out and being of service to others, particularly strangers, seems like a big ask. Despite our recognition that it’s the right thing to do, at some level, just what we can and should do is usually unclear and stays unresolved.
Who isn’t tempted at some point, perhaps often, to put his or her head in the sand, hoping that our troubled reflections just go away? But, we can’t safely do this—it exposes our derrières, unguarded, for too long.
The Onion has done for reality what religions have done for pie-in-the-sky.
The satirical article in The Onion about a mythical existential firefighter named James Farber might hint at a partial response to some of the challenges described. Remove the details of the fire, the heroics and the other extraneous details and what remains from The Onion piece is a form of REAL wellness existentialism. It might be summarized as follows.
All is ultimately futile, postponing the inevitable as we march toward oblivion. Life is meaningless. You can choose to be be despondent, enveloped in a deep malaise absorbed by dread, or you can seek to be curiously happy, to the extent possible, lightly looking around, amused and tolerant at the chaos, embracing a few mental allies to share “white wine in the sun.
Alfred E. Newman famously preached the mantra, What? Me worry? This was a variant on maintaining an emotionless and silent demeanor, as if nothing happened of any consequence, no matter what happened. Hard to do but the alternatives are not a lot of fun (grief, gnashing of molars, depression, etc.).
Good and bad things happen every day, to someone near and dear to you, if not to you personally, at least not all that often. With an existential outlook, neither happens—ever, at least not so as to be emotionally damaging for long. (But only when you get really, really good at it, which can be mistaken for a mental condition by the unaware masses.)
Contentment, joy, happiness, love and all the rest of the good stuff, like existence, are but provisional circumstance over which we exert limited control. Practice, however, makes better.
How might we explain events and circumstances? Only as haphazard, amoral processes inherent in nature itself. Things will turn out, or not. Complete freedom is scary, a fact that is a foundation for the success of every dogma, all religions and all tyrants who imprison minds and harden hearts.
Best to just keep doing what, at the moment, makes you happy provided it does not risk prosecution or other likely ill consequences. Despite the coming of anguish and sorrow at unknown points, maintain a determination to look on the bright side, anyway. Perhaps, with a little imagination and a bit of good fortune, the bright side will appear, in some form, sooner or later. For a while.
There, does that make you feel a little better?
All good wishes.