Haven’t we all uttered the line “If only I had more time” or “If only things weren’t so hectic” when justifying not accomplishing our goals? You would think that this sudden increase in time on our hands would grant us the long-awaited respite we desired in this rat race. One would imagine a certain feeling of relief or even gratitude for the chance to remodel the way we used to operate.
But why doesn’t this sudden time alone with ourselves come as a consolation then? Despite the fact that this free period comes at the expense of being forcibly quarantined in our own homes by an invisible virus – outside this physical reality we are experiencing – it feels like there is more to this anxiety. It seems like there is a more insidious disease plaguing us: one that is instead slowly gnawing at our souls.
I am surrounded by Nothing
Due to the extreme circumstances brought about by the pandemic – one that has essentially dissolved any semblance of our daily practices – I believe we are gradually experiencing an exacerbated version of what German philosopher Martin Heidegger called encounters with “dasnichts” or “the nothing.”
For those familiar with Heidegger’s work, you’ll know that he was keenly insightful but was immensely confusing as well. To put it in simpler terms, what Heidegger referred to are instances where we are confronted with the strangeness or even absurdity of everything. We begin to ask questions like: why are things in this manner? Or why are we here rather than there? (READ: [OPINION] Anxiety and introversion in the time of the coronavirus)
It is in these odd moments – maybe a late night where you can’t fall asleep but nothing specific is on your mind, or when you’ve fallen ill and you’re all alone and bedridden – when we are made aware of the uncanniness of existence. Heidegger pointed out that we usually run away from these encounters because they are obviously uncomfortable, but with the limitations we’re facing because of the virus, escapism isn’t as easy to come by these days.
All beings are united
With these increased confrontations with absurdity, we also realize our interconnectedness with other beings. Who would have predicted that a tiny novel coronavirus originating in China would effectively put to halt the workings of the entire globe? There is no escaping the fact that all of us beings that inhabit this world are inextricably linked to one another. This pandemic is successfully tearing down our sense of separateness from the rest of the world, because we see how the virus not only affects a certain group of people, but all humans and possibly animals.
If you are like many of us who are stuck alone at home, you have probably felt this deep urge to reconnect with loved ones and friends. Our need to fulfill our social dimension as human beings is highlighted now more than ever. We can feel a sharp longing for this reconnection.
What I see unfolding is the revelation of what Heidegger termed as “the unity of being” – wherein the epiphany of realizing our commonality of “being,” that fundamental bond that we share with all of existence – is slowly being ingrained in our psyche. Often we are tempted to view others – the environment or other people – simply as means and not as ends in themselves. Most of the time (when there isn’t a global pandemic) our daily routines and jobs usually keep our line of focus narrowly to ourselves, but as Heidegger noted, these moments of awareness of our common “being” with everything allow us to pivot away from this and provide a more expansive view of our world.
Death is the most certain possibility
We experience daily bombardments of newly infected toll updates; it is no surprise that our minds are restless during these precarious times. Because of the nature of this virus and how it spreads, there is a constant sense that death is somehow all around us; it is both imminent but still distant.
This is something that Heidegger kept alluding to in his seminal work Being and Time. He said, “Death reveals itself as that possibility which is one’s ownmost, which is non-relational, and which is not to be outstripped.” Underneath the heavy jargon is a simple but supremely essential understanding that our death is something inevitable and that only we will experience this on our own. He cautioned against a disposition of merely accepting death as a “fact” – what this meant was that in our “expectation” of our death merely as an event, there is a temptation not to actively prepare for it. We adopt this resignation that the end will come eventually for all of us and this dulls any sense of urgency to live deliberately. (READ: [OPINION] Embracing grief, avoiding toxic positivity)
This is where the distinction of “anticipation” from mere “expectation” is crucial. “Anticipation” for Heidegger is the proper disposition to adopt because it reveals our “lostness in the they-self, and brings it face-to-face with the possibility of being itself.” It makes us attentive to the idea that it is possible that in the course of our life, we have not been living in the manner that we have properly discerned. It is possible that we have been merely operating in a default, socialized, and superficial mode of being – something Heidegger termed “they-self” – instead of “our-selves.”
It is this radical awareness of our finitude that pushes us to live in what Heidegger refers to as “eigentlichkeit” or “authenticity.” For Heidegger, we usually fail at this endeavor because we succumb to our “throwness,” the social context and zeitgeist that we are all born into. The philosopher suggested that to counter this affliction that society suffers, we need to have an appropriately sharp focus on our own upcoming end.
Freedom towards death
What I believe is happening is a combination of the 3 things I mentioned above: our prolonged exposure to “the nothing” because of our isolation, the smashing of our sense of separateness from the rest of existence, and this feeling of the proximity with the possibility of death – all constituting the catalyst that is causing this state of anxiety. For Heidegger, this anxiety is good, or at least the anxiety that he defined as one that makes you aware of your “potentiality-of-Being.” This agitation is bringing to our awareness the fragility of our existence, specifically to our capacity of being our most “authentic” selves. The fear of death itself is not what is crippling us during this time, it is the fear of not being who we truly are.
Ultimately, Heidegger’s wise words come to encourage us especially during this time of crisis, because they tell us to remember to live immediately for the sake of our own true “being.” Because of the virus, conventional notions of social structures such as work, education, and health care are collapsing. “The Chatter” (das Gerede) of the world is dissipating and we are afforded an opportune time in history to recognize our “lostness” in the world and to act upon making sure our lives are lived in “authenticity.”
For Heidegger, this deep awareness of our own death is in turn an invitation for all of us to become more compassionate and generous. It is a call to overcome the alienation and egoism that we are all embedded in. He wanted all of us to experience “freedom towards death,” a freedom to fully grasp that we all have to face “dasnichts.” But before that happens, let us live deeply and authentically as a proper form of appreciation for the brief time we all have until that day arrives. – Rappler.com
John Cheng is a businessman and former International Baccalaureate economics instructor. His interests include philosophy, streetwear, and searching for the perfect slice of pizza.