‘Existential’ threats are all around. Confused? Listen to the beagle

Snoopy sits on his kennel, staring into the middle distance. A thought bubble above his head reads: “Where am I going? What am I doing? What is the meaning of life?”

Listen to the beagle, for he ponders existentialism in a nutshell. Every philosopher has a different take on the term. Consensus hovers around the mystery of human experience, or canine as the case may be. Why are we here – that is the ultimate question.

Snoopy the dog in the long-running comic strip Peanuts, by Charles M. Schulz, ponders the meaning of life.

To quote Calvin – the comic-strip kid, not the theologian: “I don’t understand this business about death. If we’re just going to die, what’s the point of even living?” The question is posed to Hobbes, his make-believe tiger. Together, as a final panel, the pair gawks at the horizon. Whatever happened to punchlines?

Dictionary.com, an online lexicon, gave existential its Word of the Year back in 2019, even before COVID-19 magnified the label. Citizens were asked to define the term. Responses ranged from “to be” to “doing more than just paying bills”.

Thanks to a recent email from reader James Nicol, focus fell on the word: “When it comes to existential, dictionaries tend to refer to Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet lately, ‘existential threat’ seems simply to be making an adjective of the word existence. What do you think?”

James, you may be right. As numbers escalate, both injections and infections, talk of existence has infused the modern forum. Shadows have sharpened. The great counterweight of life sits upon our thoughts. To some degree, all of us are Snoopy, taking our allotted time outside, wondering where this masquerade is heading.

To some degree, all of us are Snoopy, taking our allotted time outside, wondering where this masquerade is heading.

Fearing death, however, is not the same as questioning life – just as existential is the examination of existence as opposed to a description of one’s pulse activity. An existential crisis, by definition, should echo Calvin’s quandary. Why are we here? What do we do with our brief candle?

David Astle ponders the meaning of “existential crisis”.Credit:Jo Gay

It’s big stuff. Hence, the fancy word, coined 75 years ago by a Parisian playwright who wasn’t Jean-Paul Sartre. Instead, Gabriel Marcel published his opus, The Mystery of Being, in 1951, using the term widely within.

Though Sartre, a contemporary, made the neologism his signature, causing philosophy to turn back in on itself, to capture that destabilising gaze in the bathroom mirror. Indeed, Sartre left me spinning with: “One always dies too soon or too late. And yet, life is there, finished: the line is drawn, and it must all be added up. You are nothing other than your life.”

The words embody the enigma of being here. The opaque aim of it. Humans have grappled with The Grand Why since the cave. The ultimate puzzle generates religion and philosophy, though lately the word has wandered.

Apparently, due to the rise of streaming, Hollywood faces an existential crisis, claims the Financial Times. This somehow suggests the concerns of industry now eclipse those of the individual, or share equal billing. Industry and politics, as back in February, when ABC’s Laura Tingle wrote “how we face even more existential threats than normal”.

She itemises coronavirus, climate change, and Treasury’s dwindling surplus. Each stressor puts life under the microscope, true, though perhaps in terms of commercial resets and cabinet backflips rather than the classic Sartre reverie.

Yet maybe the crux of modern life is less about the navel and more about the global, as we seek to redeem order from this Delta shemozzle, nurse Mother Earth out of her swelter, protect the vulnerable, create fairer tax, or watch a brand-new Hollywood release in our living room, as we continue to investigate the colossal why of living in the first place.



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