It’s Not What Happens To You, It’s What You Do With What Happens To You

If there is one statement that is the core of the existentialist philosophy it is this one from a relatively unknown and under- appreciated existential philosopher: Jose Ortega y Gasset.

Existence as Seen By Existential Philosophers

Take a moment to read it. I mean really read it. Does it not capture and thus bring one to the awareness of what it is to be human? Freedom. Choice. Responsibility. And, importantly the intermingling between the three such that they are so intricately connected that they can never be separated. Though language and our feeble minds do exactly that: trick us into thinking that they are separate entities.

Today I bleed and that bleeding is occurring at the level of the deepest Self. That is what is so. And, I must generate powerful/sound answers to two existential questions:

1-The dimension of being: Who do I chose to be in the face of this bleeding; and

2-The dimension of doing: In which manner do I chose to show up and travel in the world – the shared world of human existence?

Today, I choose to use the pain that comes with the bleeding to reflect on existence. And put something of value into the world in the hope that others may find some benefit from it. So allow me to tell a personal story.

What Happened?

Village on the outskirts of Mirpur city. Mother farms, father works in England. One day there is a new brood of baby chicks in the enclosure in our ‘garden’. I am around 3 to 4 year of age. So excited, I keep looking at them. I name the chicks. Mother feeds and waters the chicks. I pester mother, along the lines of let me look after them, they are my chicks! She shows me what needs to be done. And trusts me to do it. For days I do what I have been told to do.

One day, I don’t do what I am supposed to do. Why? Because I am keen to go play in the fields with friends. I am out all day in the fields. It is a hot day. I come home and go immediately to the enclosure housing the baby chicks. Almost all are dead. I am distraught. I cannot understand why they are dead, I left them food before I went to play.

Eventually, Mother comes home after her day of farming. I race up to her and drag her to the enclosure. I show her the baby chicks. And, ask her why they died? Mother says because you didn’t leave them any water for the whole day. And, they need water especially on these hot days.

That is what happened in the real world, the world on the outside – the one that we co-create and abide in/from. A handful of baby chicks died of thirst in a nowhere place. This whole event in itself having zero significance to the world in which we live.

What Did I Do With What Happened?

There is another world, right? It’s the inner domain – and this personal and unique for each and every one of us. What went on here, in my inner domain? In this domain, what matters is the stories we tell ourselves. And, the decisions we make. So what did I tell myself:

So and so (I cannot remember the names of the chicks, and I do remember naming each of the dead baby chicks) died because I failed to take care of them properly.

I knew that I had to give them feed and water every day before I did anything else. And, I have been doing that. Today, I didn’t because I didn’t want to miss out on playing with my friends.

Because of this – my behaviour – so and so died.

This will never happen again. Never! I will take care of those that I am responsible for. Always!

Decision: The Past I Put Into The Future

In making this decision – “This will never happen again. Never! I will take care of those that I am responsible for. Always!” – I put the past into the future. What do I mean by that?

I mean that I made an existential choice. A choice to BE responsible. And, a choice to show up and operate as a person who on taking on a responsibility does that which needs to be done to honor that responsibility. And, this choice was made on the basis of some pain/decision coming from the past.

Existential choices are non-trivial, they shape our lives. Why? Whilst the choice is made by one individual (in this case me) it impacted and continues to impact anyone that shares the local (work, social, personal) world with me.

How Has This Existential Choice Shaped My Life?

1-I think long and hard before becoming responsible for someone, or something. Example, when my girlfriend told me that she was pregnant. I didn’t give her any answer immediately – which is what she was looking for. Instead, I sat with that for the whole evening and night. By morning time, I had made my choice: to BE a father, a good father, to the unborn child. And, secondary to support both the mother and the child. Specifically, the family would always come first, and then if there was something left then I would use that for me: time, energy, money etc.

2-If those who I care and am responsible for are not prospering (happy, healthy) then automatically I assume that I am the source of that: I did something I shouldn’t have done, or I failed to do something that I should have. See the link with the past? Whilst this can have negative effects, it also has its positive side: the fact that I do not just assume that it is has nothing to do with me and carry on regardless of the suffering of the other that matters to me. I care enough to find out if I am the cause. And, even if I am not, then in the enquiring I am likely to learn what is the real cause. Thus putting myself in a better position to help a loved one.

How Has This Existential Choice Impacted Others?

Each of my three children know (mind, heart, soul) that I have done everything humanly possible for them – for their well-being (health) and their flourishing (dreams, self-expression etc). Further, they know they are loved by me – totally and unconditionally. And, that I am proud of who they are and who they are becoming. Finally, they know that I am here for them, totally, to the end of my days.

How did it work out for the mother of these children? Not that well in some domains. Why? One reason is if something was not working in her life and/or she was unhappy. I jumped to conclusion – it’s my fault – and got busy doing. Usually the wrong thing. To the extent that she learned to tell me something like “It’s not your fault, and I don’t need you to do anything. I need you to let me deal with this on my own. And/or just to listen to me.” On the other hand, it worked out rather well in a bunch of other domains. She was allowed total freedom. She has never been without money. She was supported in pursuing her dream of becoming a Counsellor and that is who she is and does….

I Bleed. Why Am I Bleeding?

I created myself through a number of existential choices. The first, and arguably the most important, in terms of determining my being and doing is that choice I have described and explained here.

One of the aspects that I am most proud of myself, and as such a source of inner power and self-esteem, is this aspect: accepting responsibility and being the person who is necessary to discharge that responsibility! Put differently:

1-My word is my bond. Ergo, you can accept my word and so no need to draw up and sign a contract.

2-Honouring my word as myself. Ergo, in honouring my word I honour myself (irrespective of what the world says about it). And in honouring myself I preserve or elevate my self-esteem: the esteem I have for myself. And, with a full tank of self-esteem there is nothing that I do not see myself as a match for. Everything that I am arises from my esteem for myself.

Now imagine, if someone truly important comes along and says words to the effect: “You are damaged goods. You made that choice as a child….It no longer serves you. I really think you should go and see a good therapist.”

At the level at which most of us operate – that which Heidegger referred to as the “they life”- this is perfectly understandable. Perfectly understandable. In that world this statement is a statement of care even love.

Trouble is I don’t operate at that level. I operate at an existential level. At that level this choice (and it’s consequences) is who I freely chose to be. I LIKE that I am a person who goes full out to care for those who matter to me, and those I find myself responsible for. I VALUE and RESPECT myself for being the person you can count on to play full out to honour his word: to himself, to you, to others, to the world.

I do not see this as a defect. Nor do I see myself as one who is defective. And, my deepest self bleeds because someone who truly matters to me, see me as defective. Defective enough to warrant therapy so he can be fixed. To see me this way is NOT to see me. That is the cut that bleeds my deep Self.

Summing It Up

The World does it best to cripple us: to strip us of our self-confidence, self-esteem, self–worth. That is just so – you will see this if you look deeply enough. And, falling in the concept “The World” fall those who are closest to us: our fathers, our mothers, teachers, those in the workplace etc.

I refuse to collude in diminishing myself. I have chosen myself and I continue to choose/own the existential choices I have made. If “authentic” means anything important, then authenticity is exactly this:

1-Creating oneself through one’s existential choices; and

2-Showing up and operating in accordance with who one has chosen to be in the face of the ‘resistance’ the world presents to this choice.

And, I urge you not to collude with anyone that seeks to diminish you: who you chose to be, your dreams, your tastes, your priorities, your natural self-expression….

If you are still here then I thank you for the generosity it takes to listen to my speaking. Wishing you the best. Until the next conversation.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Management consultant. Working at the intersection of the Customer, the Enterprise, and Technology. Deep interest in human existence. Disposed favourably to the Existentialist stand. Penchant for originals and original thinking, as well as stimulating thinking and rocking the boat. Otherwise, thoroughly ordinary.

One thought on “It’s Not What Happens To You, It’s What You Do With What Happens To You”

  1. True freedom for a human being is discovering the walls, knowing that they are not really there and choosing to love the walls as all else.

    Like

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