In a recent issue of Harper’s, Jonathan Ree suggested that the central issue of our age is not whether you have religious faith but whether you approach existence intelligently or not. That is to say, are you mindful of the fact that the universe is vast, you are small and the clock is ticking?
A big issue, almost too big. And when confronted with such things, my last impulse is to turn on the television. One afternoon, however, after falling idle, I switched on “Oprah.”
I’ve always liked the woman. She’s someone who’s clearly trying to approach existence intelligently, albeit in a very public way. Oprah is the American everyperson; she has a lot of baggage and she lives in a society that treats the human soul like a bellhop, loading it up with trunk after trunk of psychic shite.
Along to help is best-selling author Dr. Phil McGraw. Dr Phil is less lovable than Oprah, his boss. That’s certainly part of his shtick. He’s a bad cop who can get away with being pushy and peevish about the various domestic stupidities he’s asked to analyze, because Oprah, the good cop, is absolutely beloved by her audience. Lord knows how McGraw will do when he doesn’t have Oprah around to soften the blows. He gets his own slot, “The Dr. Phil Show,” starting Sept. 16 (airing locally 3-4 p.m., Monday-Friday, on WDIV-TV Channel 4) and he could easily slip into self-parody, becoming the Jon Edward of the “dead living.”
What intrigues me about Dr. Phil is that if you listen to him long enough, you realize that he’s propagating nothing less than the tenets of existentialism, a philosophy that cartoonists love to portray as the domain of grim-faced beatniks smoking cigarettes in bistros with rain clouds hovering over their berets.
In brief, existentialism has its roots in the 19th century. It has two branches, theistic and atheistic. Most prominent in the former camp is the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. For him, the crucial event in Christian history was the fall of Adam and Eve; as parting gifts, God gave them free will and a firm kick in the ass out of Eden. Thus we’re condemned to be free and confront every moment with that awful burden of freedom.
Kierkegaard also noted that every individual starts life at an existential zero. You either figure out how to resolve the yawning gap between the vast indifference of the universe and the fragile emotional bonds of you and your loved ones — or you don’t.
For atheist existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre is the man. Sartre removed God from the picture, leaving us to go it alone with our freedom and all of its responsibilities. Unlike other animals, we’re born without an innate nature. Our essence arises from how we exist. Thus, according to Sartre, we create an authentic self. Central to this self is an original project: what you do to maintain and nurture your authenticity. Bad faith arises when you refuse to face the music of freedom. In other words, you choose to deny your authenticity. Do this long enough and only a radical conversion can save you, a rediscovery and recommitment to your original project.
Shockingly, Dr. Phil lays all this out in the first two chapters of his book. You won’t see the big names and the big words, but the sentiments are all there. Living in this world with assigned roles (he writes) rather than an authentic self drains you of the critical life energy you need for the constructive pursuit of things you truly value. By contrast, once you start living your life with an authentic sense of self, then all of that diverted, otherwise wasted life energy starts speeding you down the highway of your life.
Even more impressive is McGraw’s understanding of Sartre’s observation that hell is other people. Although you want to be free, there are people who aren’t and they impose their anti-freedom upon you. At times you may feel very, very lonely. Strangely, even when you’re in the midst of people, there’s an ache of separation. You talk to others, but never feel totally listened to. You may feel misunderstood, even when you’re brave enough to risk sharing your feelings. Painfully, you may have learned that friends and family alike have the capacity to leave you or ignore what’s important to your authentic self, opting instead to have you be and do what’s convenient to them.
The rest of the book is really about learning to tell not just the petty tyrants (friends, family, celebrities, TV hucksters, etc.) to fuck off. Your past, full of donnybrooks and regrets, has to go as well. A radical conversion back to the authentic self is only possible if you give yourself enough breathing room to figure out what it was in the first place. And choosing not to choose a course of action is, in fact, a choice — a bad one.
McGraw often seems to be restraining himself. After all, the self-help business thrives on the soft sell. But I suspect part of the reason his book has spent more than 30 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list is that many people can no longer afford to lie to themselves.
Sept. 11 made us more anxious about many things: that more zealot kamikazes are on the way, that Ken Lay is tippling champagne with Robin Leach while your 401k swirls in the bowl, that Bush and Ashcroft prefer to rule from the Book of Revelations rather than from the Constitution. It also brought into sharp focus two elemental questions that previously were easy to ignore: Where’s God and what am I doing with my life? McGraw offers a viable plan for the second. Which may render the first very moot.
E-mail Timothy Dugdale at firstname.lastname@example.org.