Ways of Being in the World by Barbara Ardinger
I was in college in the sixties before The Sixties really set in. We talked a lot about existentialism in those innocent days, especially in my theater classes. Those were the days when the theater of the absurd was the big thing. We theater majors walked around asking each other, “How do I be in the world? What is the meaning of my existence?”
When I’m in One Of Those Moods, I have fun telling people I was in college while Shakespeare was still writing his plays. Then I watch their lips move as they try to figure out if I’m really 400 years old, and if I’m not that old, then what am I on?
I was in college in the sixties before The Sixties really set in. We talked a lot about existentialism in those innocent days before the Vietnam War, especially in my theater classes. Those were the days when the theater of the absurd was a big thing. We theater majors walked around asking each other, “How do I be in the world? What is the meaning of my existence?” Those were important questions to the post-World War II philosophers, authors, and playwrights. I can imagine Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, Beckett, Anouilh, Ionesco, and all those other guys (plus, no doubt, the shades of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Kafka) sitting around in some Paris café, smoking their lungs out and trying to figure out why we’re here on the planet and if anything we experience makes sense. (Think of it as a Woody Allen movie.) These authors had survived World War II, the Holocaust, and the Blitz, the Dresden bombings, the endless Battle of the Bulge. They didn’t see much reason for optimism, and while the absurdist plays can be funny, they’re not cheery. Take Waiting for Godot, which is popular to this day. (I saw it at the Long Beach Playhouse about six months ago.) It’s a vaudeville, these two guys killing time until Godot decides to show up. As you know, Godot never arrives
Now flash forward half a century. Watch TV this week. What is real about so-called reality shows? I’ve seen Jersey Shore. Twice. I wanted to find out who Snooki is. Read the newspapers. Articles about kids with guns killing other kids with guns. This morning, I read an article about two eleven-year-old girls who had a fight after school. One of them died. More articles about debt and foreclosure and cutting funds for public schools until we wind up with a whole generation that never learns anything. Pay attention to politics, especially the absurd Republican candidates. Let’s all quote Macbeth: “Full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.” Go to the movies. For every Artist or Hugo, there must be a hundred movies about self-absorbed forty-year-old adolescent men or other men with knives and chainsaws killing teenage girls.
How are we being in the world? What is the essence of the human condition in 2012?
I’m not a real philosopher (though I was once married to a philosophy major), and I can’t even begin to solve the big problems of the world. But I can make a fairly simple suggestion that might solve some of our smaller problems. As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (a Democrat who worked successfully with Republicans) famously said, all politics is local. So let’s make existentialism local. How do we be in the world? Let’s be kind, courteous, friendly. I like the word “benevolent,” which means “kindly.” I like all those words that come from the Latin bene, “good” when used as an adjective, “well” when used as an adverb. Benign. Benison. Beneficial. Benefit. Benefactor. Benediction. Let’s bring goodness into our essence.
Let’s walk around in the world being benevolent. One way to do this is just to look pleasant and talk to people. Not big important conversations on big important topics. Just little unimportant encounters. When I went to the grocery store earlier this afternoon, for example, I noticed a young man with glorious ink covering his arms, hands, and neck…well, most of the visible parts of his body. Really cool, colorful art. So when he turned up behind me in the checkout line, I turned to him and said, “Excuse me…does it hurt when they tattoo your throat?” “Yes,” he said, “it does.” “I have only three very small tattoos,” I said. “I’m not brave enough to do as much as you’ve done.” The man behind Mr. Ink asked to see my tattoos, but I shook my head, and then someone else said something about the pain of being tattooed. “I took Tylenol with codeine when I got my tattoos,” I said. “You don’t want to be twitching when someone’s got a needle in your skin.” As everybody laughed, I nodded, picked up my canvas bag, and walked out of the store. This was just chatting, being pleasant in line. We’d had a tiny, cordial conversation. It was only a tiny bubble of benevolence in the consciousness of the world.
If we are all benevolent, if we are kind to other people, all those bubbles of benevolence and kindness will collect in the noosphere. In our planet’s atmosphere. I’m not sure kindness will clean up the polluted air—from factories and cars, cigarette smoke, and the stupid things people keep saying—but here’s what I have in mind: if enough people walk through the world being benevolent, if we make kindness and courtesy the essence of our existence, then maybe we’ll all add up to a critical mass of kindness and make a significant change in the world. It can’t hurt to try.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.