Authentic Engagement

A radical way of being.

We Are No-thing

From no-thing-ness I discover my unique existential identity.

Being somebody or something is very important in our culture. It is a major paradigm. My worth in society is determined by what I have accomplished. While there is value and joy that comes from accomplishment, I want to suggest a different paradigm for living. I advocate that we start out with the acknowledgement that at our core, we are no-thing. As Sartre stated, “Existence precedes essence.” What this means is that the central focus of our lives is our existence. That as human beings, we exist. Everything else derives from this fact. Thus ultimately at my core, I am all process, I am a stream of consciousness, I am not a thing. From this place of no-thing-ness, I discover and define my unique existential identity. What is powerful about this paradigm is that I am the subject of my life.

Acknowledging that we are no-thing goes against the cultural paradigm that all we are is some-thing. One must come from the space of one’s no-thing in order to be authentically some-thing. If I am just some-thing, I have only two choices in life: I must continuously strive to hold onto that some-thing or must push myself to be another some-thing. By coming from my no-thing-ness, I open up to the depth of who I truly am. I have the freedom to discover what I want my some-thing to be because my whole identity is not solely based upon my some-thing. Rather than feeling devastated that I am no-thing, I embrace the freedom it gives me because I always know that no-thing will move into some-thing. It is the nature of existence.

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Crisis often mobilizes us to experience the transitory nature of life and our no-thing-ness. For example, if I have only identified myself from the some-thing of being an accountant, a husband, or the parent of an honors child, my life can feel shattered if I lose my job, my wife divorces me, or I discover my son is using drugs. There is a loss of identity, a loss of my some-thing-ness. This is a very authentic reaction. Grief needs to happen to come to grips with what has been lost, with the dreams that will never be realized. Grieving is a letting go of what was and this allows me to experience my no-thing-ness so that then I can discover and embrace what has genuine meaning for me, in who I am now. That is the essence of an existential, authentic identity. It is always changing, even if subtly and unrealized. But that I can eventually move into a new authentic identity at all is a miracle. It can happen, because at our core, we are no-thing – not some-thing.

Because existence precedes essence, I have the ability over time to make new meaning of my life from my process in the moment. Thus, for example, the loss of my job mobilizes me to discover that I was in a career that I wasn’t passionate about and now I have the opportunity to discover a new career that will inspire me. Or, my divorce gives me time to take stock of myself and to discover my part in the ending of the marriage. I use these awarenesses to take responsibility for how I want to be in my next relationship. With the discovery of my son’s addiction, I come to grips with the fact I was not the dad I thought I was, nor was my son who I thought he was. I use this knowledge to reevaluate my relationship with my son and decide to be more engaged in his life.

Thus, meaning can be made from the events that occur in our lives, because ultimately who we are at our core is no-thing, is all process, is a free- flow of consciousness, is simply existence – I exist --therefore I am. This gives us the potential to allow a phoenix to rise out of the ashes of our life, so a new life can emerge from the death of what was.

Bob Edelstein, L.M.F.T., M.F.T., is an existential humanistic psychotherapist based in Portland, Oregon.

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