Weird & Güd - DIY: Existence

Abandoned, Alone, and Never Better.

I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.

Icarus, 1970 - Adger Cowans

The Weird

In the quiet moments as you lay in bed, rushing yourself to sleep before your thoughts steal it from you; in the unplanned pauses brought on by traffic and slow internet connections; in the space between tasks where your attention regains a risky autonomy and wanders backward in time…who watches?

If you’re quick to answer “no one,” don’t let your certainty fool you—for most of history, we believed someone, something, a bigger, unknowable but omnipresent being permeated our every moment.

Where did that being go? Nietzsche announced his death and Sartre named his crime—in our modern, secular lives, we stand abandoned.

Existentialist philosophy is like a dramatic sandwich, with brooding language that gift wraps what’s ultimately an optimistic outcome. The term abandonment as used in existentialism is the secular afternoon to Nietzsche’s godless morning. If it sounds bleak, that’s because it’s supposed to be; Sartre first began using abandonment to name the state of a culture suddenly confronted by Nazi horrors that no prior understanding of morality could explain.

As the world woke up from an idealistic dream of a civilized future to discover the withering, smoldering bodies of its own brothers, it was clear that whatever being had once guided humanity had long since abandoned us.

You’ve probably gathered this, but Sartre was an atheist. The idea of god having abandoned humanity was a bit of poetic flair, as he never believed there was a god to abandon us to begin with. The idea of abandonment was meant to pose a question:

How will you live now that the one guide for living has expired?

As all good philosophies should, Sartre both pointed out the problem and offered the solution. Yes, a world without a sole authority like a god to guide our lives can descend into the same madness that first brought us to realize our abandonment, but a world without a sole authority is also the height of freedom.

Sartre’s response to the vacuum of belief birthed by secularism was not to seek out a replacement authority—as others did and do, replacing god with ideology, the state, or mortal leaders—but to place the full burden for your life with no one else but you.

Here again comes that savory blend of bleakness and beauty; in a world where no other being can decide for you how you should live, Sartre says we are “condemned to be free.”

Sartre refuses to offer us the comfort of circumstances to decry and beings to blame. In this existential bargain, you lose the ability to outsource your ethics and morality, but gain the ability to determine your ethics and morality.

Whether our abandonment is a curse or a blessing depends upon how deeply facing your own freedom can frighten you.

The Güd

Airports. Ghosts. Twilight. Purgatory. Centaurs.

This isn’t the Weird & Güd version of that episode of The Office where Jim mocks Dwight, but a list of things that both are and are not.

Each of these things evades easy categorization because it exists on a threshold between two ends. The airport is a place between destinations; the ghost is a being between life and death; the twilight is a time between day and night; purgatory is a level between heaven and hell.

Humans have known of the no man’s land between the defined points in our lives for millennia. In-between beings like centaurs were the ancient answer to humankind’s discomfort with the murky space that stands delicately between us and our beastly brethren.

This limbo is known as liminality.

Liminality, but make it sexy.

Liminality refers to a state of transition, coming from the Latin word limen that translates to “threshold.” It’s liminality that you experience when you lose your job and are between jobs, when you finish your final semester at university but haven’t officially passed from student to alumni, and less tangibly, when you try to grow out of an older version of you that you’ve come to reject and into a newer version that you haven’t yet obtained.

If you’ve ever tried to change yourself—and I hope you have—you’ll understand the unease, exhilaration, and risk that’s inherent within liminality (and airports too).

Liminality was first popularized by Arnold van Gennep in 1909. He did a lot of interesting work but all you really need to know about liminality is that it’s painful because it’s supposed to be. The first studied examples of liminality came from rites of passage in tribal societies.

For many tribes, the way to mark the passage of time from childhood into adulthood was through a twilight of suffering. Today we give our 16-year-old a cake and a new car, but in our tribal past, we celebrated their birthday by sending them into the wilderness to kill or be killed.

The gap between the old and the new might follow a few more safety regulations today than tribal societies did, but the threshold between construction and destruction remains.

The uncertainty and risk of failure that comes with moving from one existence into a new state of being isn’t just an obstacle to growth—it’s the prerequisite.

Within the in-between state of liminality, we forgo the rules and reality we once knew, opening ourselves up to new understandings and new selves, but also to new risks. The world is meant to change through periods of destabilization and restabilization just like your individual life is. Those moments of destabilization are inherently vulnerable, like a mother and child during the moment they exist on the threshold between life and death, existence and non-existence.

While our tribal societies had rigidly organized rites of passage carried out by elders who themselves traveled over that threshold, there are liminal spaces in which no guide can help us.

In these moments of liminality that can exist both for the individual and the society as a whole, the outcome is unknown to all. No human can predict what the other side of a threshold they haven’t traveled will be, but selling certainty in an inherently and necessarily uncertain space is big business—whether for the fortune tellers, politicians, priests, or simply the power-hungry.

When we break things down to build them anew, the blueprint we choose is crucial.

Learning to embrace the unknowingness and uncomfortable nature of liminality is to accept the work of our world without searching for a cheat code for success.

The sense of being lost, of losing the self you knew, and of being faced with destruction are only dangers if you fail to find the other side of the threshold.

Refusing to cross the threshold or never seeking it out are akin to the child rejecting adulthood. You may think your life will remain unchanged, but the person who runs from the inevitable liminality in our lives is doomed to wear the corpse of their earlier self.

Humans have long known that life faces us with crossroads that require a choice. It may be painful to change, but the alternative is living life in an unending emotional airport—the modern equivalent of purgatory.

Finding the Meditator, 2020 - Tomás Sánchez

I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.

I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.