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To Be or Not to Be: Engage with Life or Retreat from It

Navigating the ongoing struggle to grapple with or withdraw from life.

Key points

  • Each decision we make signifies our openness to engaging with life or our drawing back from that engagement.
  • There is an internal tension between being and not being.
  • Exploring the pull towards being and the pull towards not being leads to a fuller life.

A basic condition of being human is that we have within us both an opening to life and an awareness of death. "To be or not to be?" Shakespeare asked in his play Hamlet. The hero, Hamlet, posed a basic question of existence: Did he want to live, or did he want to die? Was he moving towards life, or was he withdrawing from it? Like Hamlet, we all have these two questions within us. They are an integral part of the human psyche, whether we consciously recognize this or not.

Through the existential lens, Hamlet’s question of "to be or not to be" becomes grounded in the therapeutic exploration of Who am I becoming? Do I even want to become? Through the existential lens, the framing of the questions isn’t just about Do I want to live, or do I want to die’. It is also a recognition that each decision we make signifies either our openness to engaging with life or our drawing back from that engagement. This is not an either-or process. It is recognizing the internal tension between knowing what is "being" and what is "not being". This is not meant to say that opening to life is always the objective. What is important is the awareness of what the opening to life or the withdrawal from life means to you.

Existential Framing of the Question "To Be or Not To Be?"

  • Humans exist in the material world.
  • What is universal is that we are all embodied human beings. We are all human beings having our own experience of being alive, and we all die.
  • There is no prescribed way for all humans to live their lives. Different cultures have different values as to how humans should live their lives.
  • We have the responsibility to make meaning out of the world we live in. We have agency to choose how we want to live and how we respond to the world we live in.
  • It is up to each human being to decide how they want to live their life in the world they are born into. We are informed by how we experience and interpret our family and our culture’s values and messages.
  • As human beings, we are fluid. We are always in movement from being to becoming. Thus, throughout our lives, we can change aspects of our identity, and how we choose to live in the world.

A Case Study

I offer this case study as an example of how we can transform a withdrawal from life or a not wanting "to be" experience into an opening to life and choosing a "to be" experience.

Jennifer, a 30-year-old middle-class, white woman came to see me for therapy. In the past year she had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. She felt that there might be an emotional component to the disease and wanted to explore that in therapy. When she came in, she presented as cynical and pessimistic about the world and where it was headed. She was disdainful of how ignorant and unaware others were of the existential crises facing the world. She was also disgusted by the fact that others who were aware of the existential crises were unmotivated to address them. She felt her view of herself, others, and the world was set in stone.

She chose me as a therapist since she valued my existential philosophy and hoped it could help her come to terms with her Crohn’s disease. Through the course of therapy, I was both compassionate towards, and challenging of her rigid view of herself, others, and the world. She expressed that she was glad that I, too, was concerned about where the world was headed. She also saw my belief that the world could progress in a positive, life-enhancing way, and simultaneously, I wasn’t in denial of the opposite possibly being true.

Over time, she gradually started shifting her rigid stance towards herself, others, and the world. She began viewing herself and the world in a multidimensional way. She recognized that she could have agency and choice in her response to the future of the world. She realized she could develop respect for others for their choices and see what she could learn from them. She began focusing on where she could find genuine gratitude and realized that by cultivating gratitude, she felt both more open and more resilient. This remained true, even when she had a flare-up of her Crohn’s disease and had to be hospitalized for a short period.

By the end of her therapy, she saw that she could change, and that other humans could change as well. She expressed that while she still had strong concerns about where the world was going, she sees catastrophe as not a given.

Regardless of the outcome, she sees that she can focus on how she can be engaged in life, both by being an activist for the issues she cares about and by enjoying her life with others. She also recognizes that there are times when she loses her new-found awarenesses, slipping back into cynical and pessimistic views. However, with her increased awareness, she is able to identify such lapses quickly and let go of the old views quickly. She values her new world view and who she has become.

I encourage you to think about your own tendencies to being open to life or withdraw from life. The continuous exploration of what it means "to be or not to be" is a profound act of courage and can lead to a fuller life.

I wish you the best in your ongoing exploration.

More from Bob Edelstein L.M.F.T., M.F.T
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