Some people we remember vividly because of their pithy, playful way with words, their ability to make observations that stay with us.
One of those people was my University colleague, Dr. Will Kouw, a hearty Dutchman and European-trained existential psychologist. Will was once asked by a student to explain the essence of the Existential point of view. He stroked his beard for a moment and replied: “Existentialists take Nothing for granted.”
I loved the play on “Nothing.” Existentialists acknowledge the rich details and nuances of our everyday lived experiences, hoping to overlook nothing, AND they recognize the Nothingness that is at the core of human existence. In the absence of ultimate meanings and truths, seeing beyond pious dogmas, a deeply lived life becomes a matter of choice, action, and self- assertion in the face of the anxiety that comes with being human.
The Existential Cafe
My friend Will died a few weeks ago and so perhaps it was no coincidence that I recently read Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existential Cafe: Being, Nothingness, and Apricot Cocktails. Since my days in college reading Camus’ L‘Etranger I have been fascinated and inspired by the Existentialists. Just the names evoke the exotic: Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone DeBeavoir, Albert Camus, Maurice Merlau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers.
In her chatty and engaging book, Bakewell gives us all the “fury and vivacity” of the “sparkling, tinkling, bustling, and quarrelsome” Existentialists, most of whom wrote (and argued) right before, during, and soon after World War II.
Some see Existentialism as offering a cold view of life, of humans adrift in a universe devoid of human meaning, condemned to the “absurdity” of searching for purpose and meaning where there is none. Yet for many Existentialists, the world is a profound, rich place deep in color, warmth, and connection—ripe for meaning-making for those with the courage to do so.
Blooming Into Being
What I hadn’t realized before reading Bakewell’s survey was how much of the Existential perspective rests on returning to our direct experience of things in the world, trying to see the potential of objects and events as they are, not as we think of them. This is the aim of “Phenomenology”-- to understand all the ordinary things or objects or events as they present themselves to our experience, so that, in Bakewell’s phrase, we “can concentrate on the dark, fragrant, rich phenomenon” right in front of us.
Existentialism originated in this study of our direct experience, and philosophers like Husserl, Heidegger, Merlau-Ponty, and Jaspers, are, most accurately, thought of as Existentialist-Phenomenologists.
As was my friend Will Kouw. He was fond of reminding therapists to “bracket your assumptions.” That is, we can’t get rid of our a prior assumptions and preconceptions, so we need to first become aware and then “bracket” them in our mind, moving them out of the way, if you will, so we can concentrate on attending as fully as possible to what is in front of us, missing nothing that is there. (And the Nothing that is, of course.)
For Existentialists the world becomes an infinitely fascinating and engaging place once we get past the ideas and attitudes and beliefs that imprison us in locked-in perceptions of what is. This gives us many more degrees of Freedom, as we liberate ourselves from our unbracketed suppositions and beliefs.
A momentary reverie
Some of the Existential- Phenomenological perspective must have seeped into my unconscious. One recent sunny spring morning I was sitting on my deck with my Mac Air surfing through the internet, answering emails, and otherwise chasing life down rabbit holes when I had an odd perceptual experience. The deck looks out on a verdant meadow. As I was closing my computer, a dark stream seemed to narrow down from me right into the black screen, captured by it, while at the same time the view onto our deck and the trees and wildflowers and blueberry bushes beyond seemed to blossom into being right in front of me. I felt as if a dark tunnel had disappeared as my computer closed and the world burst into color beyond it.
Bakewell writes about the world blooming into being when we adopt an Existential- Phenomenological perspective. I was startled by my mini- hallucination—this “blooming” of the world past the computer. I didn’t want to let it go. The meadow looked so beautiful compared even to the elegant Mac Air in my lap.
I wanted to explore what was in that experience of my “portal to the internet” becoming a dark, creepy tunnel. I left my computer and got my iPhone. What would happen if I bracketed my assumptions and tried to encounter my mobile device in a new and different way?
So I set it on a table. I surfaced all the assumptions I could about the device. An Apple product (be still my heart). Filled with Apps, with all the excitement and information they promise. A phone to receive and make calls. A mini- computer, a window to the world wide web. A connection to Europe, Asia, to thousands of cat videos, to live streams of animals in the wild, of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars.
I shifted all these “knowing” about my iPhone slightly out of my awareness. And I stared at the object in front of me, screen-side down. Thin and flat. Silver in its case. Small enough to fit into the palm of my hand. Striking to the eye, lean and efficient- looking. Nothing wasted in its smoothness. Mysterious in its unclear functionality, with the small round camera lens to the upper left and a black strip (product name) at the lower right. Definitely exciting in its sleekness and mystery. Exotic.
Would Sartre or DeBeauvoir or Maurice Merleau-Ponty (or my friend Will) approve of this mini-attempt at a “phenomenological reduction” (suspending judgments and analyzing an object as it is experienced)? I don’t know. Phenomenology is a hard discipline to master and I know of no manualized ways of “doing” it. Real phenomenologists spend hours at this.
I turned the phone over. The dark rectangle of the screen leapt out at me, dominating the perspective. Black. Underneath the rectangular screen was a round button perfectly placed in the center as if the rectangle hovered above the circle of the button. “Push me,” it seemed to say, just as the dark pool of the screen beckoned me to look into it.
I yearned to turn the phone on. It was like walking down the street and passing a window and not looking in. That’s hard to do. Yet I resisted, as if I would disappear into the darkness of the screen or into the colorful flicker of the numerous apps that awaited me.
The dark tunnel in my morning reverie had a gravity to it, too, as the closing computer seemed almost like an astronomical black hole, one that pulled light into it. I wasn’t sure I liked the lure of the dark screen, even as I had trouble resisting it.
So, I began monitoring when I turned to my cell phone—standing on line in the supermarket, or while out for dinner with friends or family, or in a quiet moment by myself.
The Possibilities of Boredom
Almost always, I noticed, there was first a moment of “boredom,” a slight felt agitation, in which I wondered, what will I do now, how will I fill this time? When I did press the seductive button, the black screen quickly filled with apps, color, light, the appeal of being entertained. And as that happened, I realize now, I also closed off another opportunity for something to “bloom” in my lived experience right in front of me, beyond the cell phone. On the checkout line, for example, or over dinner with my companions around me, or even alone.
I seemed to turn away from the anxiety of encountering another person and/or myself in this moment of “boredom” and so filled my consciousness with the programmed tunnel vision of the cell phone. What possibilities for direct contact do I close off?
The whiff of boredom that we feel in moments of possible deeper engagement with ourselves and others interested the Existentialists. To them, we are hardly defined by the very things we take to be core parts of ourselves—“personality traits, tendencies, limitations, relics of past hurts and so on”—and instead are free to choose who and what we want to be in the face of our experience of the world. Yet this kind of freedom makes us anxious, like staring over the edge of a deep abyss. So, we retreat to the safety of restraints of all kinds, which includes turning to our cell phones in the face of moments of unstructured spontaneity and possible novelty. (Yes, this includes waiting on a supermarket checkout line or encountering friends or family over a meal.)
How much, I wonder now, does my cell phone expand the possibilities of my life and how and when does it narrow them? When I turn to the cell, what have I turned away from in my directly lived experience in that moment?
“Having a cell phone means never having to be alone,” a friend of mine observed. Is this good, this loss of our solitude?
My late friend Will Kouw, with his talent for aphorisms, said it concisely. From time-to-time when I’d complain of feeling burdened by the list of things I had to do, he’d ask: “Sam, are you living your life or is your life living you?”
With that spirit, maybe it’s time we also asked, “Am I living my cell phone or is my cell phone living me?”
Sam Osherson, PhD, is a therapist in private practice in Cambridge, MA, and a Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, at the Fielding Graduate University. His most recent book is The Stethoscope Cure, a novel about psychotherapy and the Vietnam War.