September 28, 2014

Baby shoes, never worn

How short can a story be and still have the characteristics of a story? Hemingway gave us an example. His shortest story consists of six words only: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” He called it his best work. Life is composed of stories, lived and told. Stories have a beginning and an end. If we ever reach a time when people can extent their lives forever, what will happen to our stories? Isn’t the brevity of human existence a major ingredient, the background to any story? What about the endings? Our lives are getting longer and longer already, but we have shorter and shorter attention spans. Why should stories be short?

For sale: Someone tries to walk away from a piece of destiny. There was no happy ending. Fate has struck, and it comes in the form of tragedy. Human life is very finite, sometimes too short. Our lives are framed by existential conflicts – conditions that we cannot overcome, no matter how much we invent. We live between birth and death, sexualized into man or woman, split between mind and body, stretched between the wish for freedom and the demands of society. How can I ever be myself? We yearn for financial freedom, and we want to believe in the American dream machine. But most people don’t just sell stuff. They sell a piece of their lives, or even themselves, hoping to become free.

Baby Shoes: Our live spans between birth and death; we don’t have any control over the beginning, nor over the end of our lives. To know about the unavoidable ending means that we face the ultimate negation of our existence throughout our life. That a conflict is existential means that each human being has to address it, and that there is no “answer.” These are conflicts that all humans face; they are not situational; they cannot be avoided. They are the fabric of human existence.

Time itself is an existential condition for us. Experiencing time means to age. We look towards the future, and we forget the past. Our feet were once small, and we were children. Isn’t it strange how much we forget? Recently, I heard of a woman who died at the age of 108. She died in the same bed in which she was born. Continuity gives us stability, but where do we find it? Time adds a dimension of tragedy to human life; it creates a horizon in which human actions are choices that cannot be undone. Because life is an irreversible journey from birth to death, every human action is final and has an absolute weight that defines the individual life.

The existential dimension of life is also the ethical dimension: because we make choices, we act freely, and therefore we can create meaning. We inhabit a body that travels through time and space, is always unique and solitary, even at moments of deep personal connection. The current moment is transitory, it spans between past and future, it is determined by memories, needs and intentions, and it is simultaneously real and already lost. Therefore, choices count.

In this perspective, we don’t look at life as a continuous progress. We face the wall of impenetrable conditions, with diminishing possibilities and increasing insight. This contingency creates solidarity and compassion among humans, and an understanding that can be the basis for deep love. Would we still be human if we could overcome the barrier of biological death? Is philosophy itself, the attempt to think systematically about the human condition, not also an attempt to cope with the contradictory conditions of life?

Never Worn: Life is shaped not only by what happened, but also by unrealized opportunities. What could have been? Or: If I would do x, y would happen, therefore I will not do x. This invisible barrier shapes our lives just as much as the actual choices we make. Life is also shaped by the choices we don’t make, and the basis of it is often anxiety. Maybe y would really not happen, somebody just told me that it will happen, and I believed her. Life consists of a range of possibilities, most of them will never be realized.

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Existentialism

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