Weekly Blog #11 - "Life can only be understood backwards - but it must be lived forwards..."
Updated: May 6, 2020
Here's a little train of thoughts on Existentialism, Danish Kings and Philosophers and taking action... this was originally not meant to be a Blog entry, but I will keep it in this category until I come up with a better solution.
In his late fifties and early sixties my father became interested in genealogical research. Since he already knew a lot about our Danish heritage he wanted to find out how far back he'd be able to track these roots. He eventually came across a couple of interesting leads and it turned out that we're most probably related to Peder Lykke (1359-1436), bishop of Ribe (1409-1418) and later archbishop of Lund in Denmark (1418-1436). Peder Lykke was the son of Jon Nielsen Bille and - allegedly - one of Iver Lykke's sisters. That doesn't sound too interesting until you find out that Jon Nielsen Bille was part of the noble house of the Bille Family and Iver Lykke was a high knight and part of the Danish Riksraad, Denmark's electoral council.
As to me it seems to be quite a stretch to claim being of noble descent - fun fact: I grew up in Dithmarschen, the only part of Northern Germany that has never been ruled by a Danish King - I will leave it to that. However, the matter stuck to me and I can't deny that I am somewhat proud to have Scandinavian roots (no worries, Mutti, I'm also proud of my Polish - and for that matter: Scottish - roots!).
Talking about something being Danish... since life is full of weird stories (I'll let you decide if this one is weird or funny or none of the afore-mentioned), I stumbled across a quote by a Danish philosopher a couple of months ago, probably in October last year, that I am now using as the headline for my website: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards...". This quote is by Soren Kierkegaard. I didn't know anything about Kierkegaard at that time, not even that he was Danish, and I have to admit that I don't exactly remember where I read it first, but I felt that there's a lot of truth in this quote and as it fitted my life situation and the thoughts and feelings I had at that time I decided to use it for my website.
A few weeks later, around late December, I eventually searched for Soren Kierkegaard on Google and found out that he is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher. What's that, you might ask? Here's a short passage about the core of his work:
"Much of his philosophical work deals with the issues of how one lives as a "single individual", giving priority to concrete human reality over abstract thinking and highlighting the importance of personal choice and commitment." (Gardiner, 1969)
This passage reverberated strongly in my head as it caught my attention during a time when I was listening to the audio-book of "Principles" by Ray Dalio. Dalio's first principle for success and one of his top-5 life and work principles is to "embrace reality and deal with it" and become a so called "hyperrealist" - in other words: the laws of reality have been given to us by nature, we didn't make them but we are able to use them to our advantage. You can find out more about this by clicking on the link below to a short YouTube Video he posted in May 2018.
But what is reality? And what does existentialism have to do with it? I am not able to give an exhaustive answer at this point, especially in regards to the first question, but here is my starting point: reality is what we do, how we act, what we feel, how we live. To the contrary, it is not what we are hoping to be, what we think we could do, what we hope our lives will turn out to be.
My life - and i assume many others - has significantly been shaped by hopes and dreams, by the worries about what others think of me, by pressure being put upon me through my social environment, families, friends, colleagues. It's shaped by wishful thinking. I am not saying that dreaming or wishful thinking is bad. It is the opposite. Dreaming is important. Dalio says in his book: "Dreams + Reality + Determination = A Successful Life" - but if we dream and do not act on our dreams - or for that matter: if we do not dream realistically - if we don't have the guts and persistence to follow up on our goals and visions and do something about them, they cannot become reality.
What I've learned from reflecting on this is that reality and authenticity go hand in hand. If I am open-minded enough to appreciate reality and be aware of my own capabilities, inabilities, strengths, weaknesses, successes, failures and all the little flaws that arise with being human, others will more likely perceive me as being authentic. This is where reality and existentialism connect: embracing reality leads to authenticity - and authenticity is the core virtue of existentialism.
Jean Paul Sartre, arguably the undisputed king of existentialism, coined the phrase: "L'existence précède l'essence" or "Existence precedes Essence". This phrase is based on the believe "that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are independently acting and responsible, conscious beings ("Existence") rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individuals fit ("Essence")." Existentialist philosophers claim that the human being in itself does not have any identity or value. Identity and value must be created by the individual, not being imposed on you by others. Only that makes it authentic. It is stated that by posing acts that constitute one's being, it makes one's existence more significant. But it has to come from within.
How does this translate to our day and age? I would probably start with the question of being in action vs. being in motion. This is a mistake (if you want to call it that) smart people often make, at least according to James Clear (https://jamesclear.com/taking-action). In short: if you want to enhance your existence and make it more significant, it is a good starting point to find out what areas in life you're interest in and where you want to start "posing acts". This part is called "being in motion". Having the intention of doing something, reading books on it, watching YouTube videos about it. All fair, all good. It makes us feel good and we are able to talk about it: "I'm gonna learn how to play the piano.", "I'm gonna start my own business, and this is my idea."... you start creating pictures of yourself being someone, doing something. But after that comes the difficult part: taking action. If you don't take the first step and act, you are probably still in motion, but you likely to be moving in circles. And I have been quite dizzy lately...
I've been in this situation for the better part of 2019: being in motion. I started journaling about who and what I want to become, how I want to live my life, self-affirmations, goals, check-lists, all that stuff... I created my IKIGAI, my "reason for being". But I didn't take action. I didn't dare to because - well, maybe because I was afraid of failing. And also because I probably waited for that huge wave of inspiration that would help me get started.
But here's the deal: inspiration comes with taking action. That's the way it works. According to Mark Manson the flow goes like this: "Action - Inspiration - Motivation". If you start acting - and if it's only five minutes of doing something you always wanted to do - then the chances are high that this tiny bit of action will inspire you and it will fire up your enthusiasm and motivate you to do more. And eventually you'll find yourself doing what you love, not only for five minutes but for hours and hours to come.
Now, a few days after starting to write this article and doing some re-reading of the sources I've been using, I am seeing more and more connections between the books and their author's thoughts - even though some of which have been written more than 200 years apart: Kierkegaard's thoughts of living life forward, enforcing personal choice and commitment, Sartre's punchline of being responsible for your own identity and value, Dalio's first principle of embracing reality and dealing with it, Clear's message of acting instead of just being in motion, Manson's "Do Something" Principle of inspiration and motivation following action... they all deal with the thought of acting, especially acting on your own terms. There are probably hundreds and hundreds of other authors writing books about and working with this thoughts, though I believe in many people's lives, including my own, they're not playing as a big role as they should.
So here's my pledge: I choose embrace reality, reflect on who I am and act on who I want to be. I choose to not stand on the sideline and let others define the terms of my life. I choose to be in action, not only in motion. I choose to be active and not procrastinate. I strive to achieve mental, social and physical health to act and find inspiration and motivation through action.
I'd like to close with another quote that in my opinion sums up this blog post quite well:
"Think for yourself to decide 1) what you want, 2) what is true and 3) what you should do to achieve #1 in light of #2." (Dalio, 2017)
If you're interested in some of the books mentioned above, please also take a look at my two articles "A few thoughts on books...":
Part I: https://www.marcuslycke.com/post/weekly-blog-8-a-few-thoughts-on-books-part-i
Part II: https://www.marcuslycke.com/post/weekly-blog-9-a-few-thoughts-on-books-part-ii
Sources (including Amazon Affiliate Links #ad):
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/
Holberg, Ludwig (1743), Herrn Ludwig Holbergs Dänische Reichs-Historie ins Deutsche übersetzt: Der Erste Theil, Bey den Gebrüdern Korte in Vollmacht
Gardiner, Patrick (1969), Nineteenth Century Philosophy, New York: The Free Press; ISBN 978-0-02-911220-5; (Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/2UxrukE)
Swenson, David F. (2000), Something About Kierkegaard, Mercer University Press, ISBN-10 0865548609; (Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/386kQ8P)
Manson, Mark (2016), The subtle Art of not giving a F*ck, Harper; ISBN-10 0062457713;
(Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/2S2M4aG)
Dalio, Ray (2017), Principles: Life and Work, Simon & Schuster; ISBN-10 1501124021; see also: Ray Dalio's Video on "Principles for Success" https://youtube.com/watch?v=Tfrrubw7pcE;
(Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/31vKCke)
Clear, James (2018), Atomic Habits, Random House; ISBN-10 1847941834;
(Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/2S4DfNB)