By James A. Haught
When I came of age in the 1950s, and slowly began to think about life, I developed a strange feeling that the world is senseless, irrational, chaotic.
Forty million people had just been killed in World War II, and everyone said how noble and heroic it was. But the “Big One” was only the latest of thousands of gory wars stretching back before the earliest written records began. The number of wars is impossible to count. Honduras and El Salvador fought a 1969 war over a soccer match. England fought one with Spain in the 1700s because a British ship captain’s ear was cut off by Spaniards. I wondered: Is this what people do to each other: send their patriotic young men to kill other young men who feel just as patriotic for the opposite side?
Also, I saw three-fourths of humanity praying to invisible spirits and hoping to go to magical heavens. All politicians invoked the gods. But there’s no evidence that any of it is real. I thought: it’s crazy to worship something that probably doesn’t exist – yet billions of people do it.
I saw breast cancer killing women, and leukemia killing children, and hawks ripping shrieking rabbits, and sharks slashing baby seals, and pythons crushing pigs – and everyone said it was the divine plan of the all-loving, all-merciful Father Creator. Good grief.
I saw the cruel unfairness of life: how some are retarded, or blind, or abruptly ravaged by cancer, or killed by drunken drivers, or dragged down by wasting diseases, or paralyzed by strokes, while others are not. It’s an incomprehensible lottery – sheer luck: spin the wheel to see whether you’ll have a long, healthy life, or die early in agony.
The universe doesn’t care whether we live or die, or whether we’re virtuous or sinful. Nature simply doesn’t give a damn.
Our very existence is hit-or-miss. Some are born with high I.Q., in privileged white families in our rich modern society, and some are African pygmies in the jungle. I could have been born female, or gay, or black, or with cerebral palsy, or spina bifida – and I wouldn’t be the same person at all. And regardless how you’re born, we’re all doomed to age and sicken and die. That’s our only equality.
Our lives are just brief blips in the enormous span of human history. We could have been prehistoric primates – or medieval serfs – or slaves in Dixie – or people centuries in the future – serving our short stays, then gone. Sometimes it boggles me to realize that people during the Crusades, or bubonic plague times, or the American Civil War, tried just as fervently to cope with their daily lives and problems as we do today. Then death erased them.
When a life is over, the question lingers: Was there any point, really? Was it all meaningless? What was achieved by the lifelong hassle of earning money, raising children, fending off illness, and finally succumbing? I guess the answer is: Each person’s life is intensely real and vital to him or her while it’s in progress – then it ends. Afterward, did it really matter? (I remember a tombstone epitaph: “Where he goes and how he fares, nobody knows and nobody cares.”)
More irrationalities: I saw thousands of people pickling their brains with dope – or staggering from alcohol – or sucking tobacco smoke into their lungs – for what purpose? Willfully damaging yourself makes no sense.
That was my confused and bemused condition in the 1950s, when existentialism burst onto the world scene like a tidal wave of new thinking.
It said, yes, life is absurd and ultimately pointless. We find ourselves living lives, but we don’t know why we are here. We are doomed to die without ever knowing why we were “thrown into the world.” The only thing we have is our own individual lives, which are temporary. We exist – period – which provides the name, existentialism. We are “condemned to be free,” to live inside our own minds and skulls, separated from others.
And yet, no matter how much chaos and cruelty are around us, each of us has no choice but to formulate values and decide how we will behave, personally. We must craft an “authentic” life for ourselves, regardless of what the surrounding society does.
(Actually, I’m not sure I swallow existentialism’s assertion that we must decide our own values, because I don’t know whether people really choose their beliefs. Could I choose to be a racist Klansman in a lynch mob, if I wanted? Could I choose to be an armed robber? Could I choose to be a Pentecostal speaking “the unknown tongue”? Those values are alien to my psyche, so it isn’t quite a free choice for me to reject them.)
Once I saw the absurdist play, “Waiting for Godot,” in which nothing really makes sense, nothing is quite understood, everything is confused and uncertain – with patriotic-sounding political language that actually is gibberish – and I thought the play was a brilliant reflection of daily reality. When I was a kid in the 1930s, there was a Gene Ahern comic strip in which a bearded little man always said “Nov shmoz ka pop.” Eventually I latched onto it as a marvelous expression of meaninglessness.
Somehow, existentialism seems a perfect philosophy for secular humanists – for nonconformists who can’t embrace the majority god-chanting and war-fever chest-thumping and entrenched unfairnesses of society all around them. It’s for misfit thinkers who see the world as half-loony, so they each seek a private, personal path, outside the mainstream, trying to be honest and devoted to values that seem right to them alone.
During the 1950s, existentialism captivated me. But maybe I devised my own personal concept of it – my own concoction – not fully meshed with the view of experts. Actually, that’s probably the way most secular humanists form their worldviews.
(Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. This article previously appeared in Free Inquiry, April 2013.)