“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Nelson Mandela
What comes after Donald Trump? How can we overcome the current division within the U.S. and the world? Sooner or later, we will have to answer these questions. Lessons from relationships and existentialist philosophy can help create more harmonious societies and a more peaceful world. Those with destructive political ideas ignore these lessons, and honoring them is the autopilot for constructive ideas. Existentialism can be our guide to tolerance.
Why is existentialism important to harmonious societies and relationships?
“To forgive is the highest, most beautiful form of love. In return, you will receive untold peace and happiness.” Robert Muller
The tool that can best support us in the creation of harmonious societies is existentialism. Existentialist philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, and Nietzsche draw our attention to a simple but often neglected aspect of the human condition: life is difficult. Every day, we make infinitely complex decisions while lacking the knowledge, experience, and information to get them right. There are millions of options and almost no hope to pick the best one. Failure is the most likely outcome, complete success is almost impossible.
This thought is best expressed by a quote from Søren Kierkegaard in his book Either/Or. He wrote:
“Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both. Believe a woman, you will regret it; believe her not, you will also regret it… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.”
Existentialists are often misunderstood as wanting us to have a dark, gloomy outlook on life. In truth, however, they want to prepare us for the difficulties of life and the human condition. When things go wrong, existentialism helps us be less angry and depressed about our misfortune.
- Existentialism helps us be kind to ourselves. When we mess up, existentialism helps us to understand that our failures are a result of the normal human condition and not a sign of a deep fault within. Compared to what it would take to get everything right 24/7, we know nothing. Messing up and failing are normal parts of life. Of course we are idiots. We all are.
- Existentialism helps us be kind to others. When other people act in ways that hurt us, we often react angrily and with hurt feelings. Existentialism relieves these feelings by helping us understand that others will always mess up through no fault of their own. They are simply overwhelmed by the infinite complexity of life. Of course our partners, friends, and family are idiots – we all are. But how could we blame them when we are just the same?
Seeing a world full of lost, overwhelmed, and struggling people helps us be kinder to ourselves and those around us. Stoic philosophers argued that an angry person is an optimist in disguise. Because they believe to live in a world without traffic jams, where things don’t break, and where others get everything right all the time, life’s daily frustrations are quick to anger them.
This optimism is understandable. Over the millennia, humanity has thought of many ways to help us mess up less – philosophy, psychology, religion, etc. While all of these tools do work and we should use them to do the best we can, we must avoid misinterpreting them as paths to perfection. When we believe that we could be perfect and other people could spare us our daily frustrations if they only read the right books or went to therapy, these well-intended tools only add to our frustration.
Existentialism is the necessary antidote to unrealistic expectations of self-improvement. Regardless of how much we read, pray, or analyze ourselves, we will always remain imperfect. No psychotherapist and no philosopher can cure the human condition of being hopelessly disadvantaged when making decisions.
Existentialism relieves frustration. By alerting us to the difficulties of everyday life, it prepares us for their inevitability. We will mess up, and so will those around us. There is no sense in being angry or frustrated. Our shared struggles are our great unifying characteristic, one of the few things we all have in common. We all try our best, and when someone messes up, we should show them the same sympathy and understanding that we would wish for ourselves.
We all know these things, but existentialism helps us to feel and understand them. These lessons can be disenchanting at first, but they shape a more realistic outlook on life that improves our relationships and creates more harmonious societies. Let’s start with the more relatable topic, relationships, to lay the groundwork for how we can create better societies.
What can successful relationships tell us about harmonious societies?
“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” Martin Luther King Jr.
Relationships are great examples of the usefulness of existentialist realism when dealing with others.
When we expect our partners to always understand us, never disagree with us, and to anticipate our every wish, we will be disappointed. We are all a bit neurotic, scared, and difficult to deal with at times. We sometimes forget things, get things wrong, and fail to recognize the most important messages our partners send us, but we are far from broken. We are simply doing the best we can to handle the infinitely complex task of dealing with another person.
Of course, our partners get some things wrong. They make us mad sometimes and let us down. But it is impossible for them to do any better. There are a million things to take into account and they are bound to make a mess of at least a few. They probably try hard to consider our needs and wishes, but they simply never understood that we needed more space or how important it was to us that they spent more time with us at that party. They do a good job with most other things, but nobody can reasonably be expected to get everything right. There is no need to be mad at them; we should explain ourselves, find a compromise, and help them get it right next time. With a different partner, we would have the same issues, but they might not be trying as hard.
Of course our partners are idiots, and of course they will let us down sometimes. There is no use in being outraged by their imperfections because they are not at fault. Being overwhelmed by life is the essential human condition, and all we can ask for are partners who try their best to deal with it as well as possible. Their willingness to add our infinitely complex problems to their own is the greatest sign of love we can receive.
As Kierkegaard pointed out, this task requires humor. The only thing that stops us from blowing our tops in the face of life’s difficulties is smiling at them. Kierkegaard wrote:
“When I was young, I forgot how to laugh (…); when I was older, I opened my eyes and beheld reality, at which I began to laugh, and since then, I have not stopped laughing.”
When we take things too seriously, we overreact. We might end relationships without giving our partners the chance to explain and make the changes we seek, we might accuse them of ignoring our feelings while ignoring theirs. We deny them the things we fear they could deny us and become the offenders of the crimes of which we consider ourselves victims.
Psychologists call this dynamic the victim-offender perversion. The best example of the victim-offender perversion is the story about the man who needs a hammer. He wants to ask his neighbor, but the last time he saw him, the neighbor had a strange look on his face. So the man convinces himself that the neighbor hates him. After he has thought back on their last interactions and gathered all signs of dislike, the man is so sure that the neighbor would never lend him the hammer that he walks over to his house and yells, “Keep your stupid hammer, you schmuck!” The neighbor probably has no idea what just happened to him and would have happily lent the man the hammer. The man committed the very offense that he convinced himself his neighbor would commit against him.
Relationships based on unrealistic expectations often suffer from the victim-offender perversion. We interpret our partners’ shortcomings as malicious intent or deep inner flaws and react with malicious intent towards them. This is how arguments develop. A benign statement causes one partner to consider themselves a victim and commit the offense of which they are afraid. The other partner reacts with a little more fear and retaliation until the argument escalates and one partner says something they might not be able to take back.
Existentialism cures unrealistic expectations and allows us to feel compassion and sympathy instead of anger. We can laugh about ourselves and our partners. It’s okay if we mess up. Our partners’ mess is our mess. We’ll fix it, and then we move on – together. Of course you’re an idiot, but you are my idiot – societies and humanity itself can profit from a similarly forgiving approach.
How can we create more harmonious societies?
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” Martin Luther King Jr.
An existentialist approach to politics cures the two most significant factors that contribute to the rise of destructive ideas:
- Unrealistically high expectations, and
- The victim-offender perversion.
Let’s take a closer look at each factor.
How can existentialism help us overcome unrealistic expectations?
Destructive political ideas are often birthed by high hopes, unrealistic expectations, and dreams of perfection. We want everyone to have work, and no one to complain. When reality fails to live up to our expectations, we are frustrated and become vulnerable to destructive ideas. We believe that something has to change, and since all constructive ideas advocated only small adjustments, we sympathize with destructive alternatives.
Advocates of destructive ideas appeal to this dynamic. Just like Donald Trump, a billionaire who lives in a golden penthouse, accused the establishment or the elites of having lost touch with the people, Adolf Hitler and the socialist GDR leaders criticized parliamentarian debates, religious freedom, and free trade as fantasies of people who had lost touch with the real world. All destructive ideas try to focus our attention on small problems to distract from the fact that they would significantly hurt us in much more relevant areas.
Existentialism alerts us to the fact there can never be a perfect political system or a perfect society. Politicians and voters suffer from the human condition, facing endlessly complex decisions with too little information. Of course they mess up sometimes, and of course there are some problems. But as long as our quality of life increases by the decade, there is no need to support destructive ideas. Existentialism helps us accept small problems such as ridiculous parliamentary debates as irrelevant side effects and focus on the big picture. The goal can only be to do the best we can.
None of this is to say that we should be indifferent to politics.
- We should complain about every little problem because democracies need an alert public to keep the politicians honest. But these complaints should never drive us into the arms of advocates of destructive ideas.
- When we meet people of a different opinion, we should discuss it – as long as they want to. But we must remember that we all wrestle with the same problems. It is impossible to know whether we are right, and even if we are completely sure that people of a certain political opinion are wrong, we should apply the lessons of existentialism.
In this way, existentialism can destroy the breeding ground of destructive political ideas.
How can existentialism help us overcome the victim-offender perversion?
Destructive political ideas suffer from their own form of the victim-offender perversion.
- The Nazis were convinced that the Jews conspired against them, which led them to commit the same crimes of which they feared to become victims.
- The GDR and other socialist countries were convinced that capitalists wanted to exploit and suppress the people, which is why they created a social order that exploited and suppressed the people.
- In many countries, all sides of the political debate consider all other sides as evil. These conflicts can escalate quickly and hold tremendous destructive potential.
Believers in destructive ideas think they are victims of an infinitely evil threat. To fight this alleged threat, they want to use the same tools they believe the threat uses to fight them. Consequently, they commit the crimes of which they accuse others and become the offender while believing to be the victim.
This dynamic is dangerous because it can motivate good people to do bad things. It slowly erodes the political culture and gradually intensifies the conflicts between people of different political opinions. The victim-offender perversion causes us to always consider the other side a little more evil than it truly is and tempts us to commit the crimes against them we think they want to commit against us. The other side will overestimate our ability to threaten and carry out these threats against us. Step by step, the conflict intensifies until it reaches the point of no return and forms destructive ideas.
To create harmonious societies, we must avoid the victim-offender perversion. Existentialism can help us with this task by alerting us to the difficulty of making good political decisions. We are all struggling to find good political causes to support, but this struggle is driven by the same basic values – love, kindness, and empathy. Even the Nazis laid claim to these values to support their purportedly just cause.
Aside from a very few mentally ill people, we all share the same values; we just adapt them to the political process differently. Understanding this shared basis resolves the division into irreconcilable groups, the appeal to a higher wisdom, and the binary argument that is behind destructive ideas – it reduces the moral quantity of our argument.
Of course they are wrong. It is incredibly difficult to make good political decisions. We are evolutionarily trained to deal with issues in small groups, but our societies require us to consider problems that affect millions and billions of people. It is amazing that we can get at least some of them right. How can we blame anyone for occasionally getting them wrong? It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just who we are.
Whenever we find ourselves in a situation that resembles the victim-offender perversion, it is time to pause and reflect. We should take a step back and ask ourselves whether we are truly doing the right thing or have fallen for a destructive idea. Often this step is enough to prevent destructive results.
How do these lessons apply to Donald Trump and his supporters?
“True forgiveness is not an action after the fact, it is an attitude with which you enter each moment.” David Ridge
The Theory of Moral Duality helps us understand that supporters of destructive ideas, including Trump supporters, usually have good intentions. They want to keep their country safe and create a good future for their children – just like everyone else. They simply got caught up in a destructive idea. That could happen to any of us.
We all vote for a complete idiot in at least half of the elections. Not because we are idiots ourselves and not because we are evil, but simply because the task of picking a good candidate without even talking to them in person is very, very hard.
Supporters of destructive ideas and the rest of us are not irreconcilable groups, nor does any group possess a higher wisdom, nor is there a clear line between both groups that would allow for a binary argument. The inevitability of sharing a society forces us to deal more kindly with one another. Just like the fact that we are in a relationship with someone requires us to be forgiving and understanding, the fact that we live in the same society and on the same planet with someone requires us to be just as forgiving and understanding.
Regardless of what we think of Donald Trump, the people who voted for him are far from being broken or evil. They suffer from the same human condition as the rest of us, and the only way to create a harmonious society when Trump is no longer in office is to welcome them back with open arms. There is no sense in saying that we want nothing to do with them or would never employ them.
Kierkegaard would have said, “Vote for Trump, you will regret it. Vote for Clinton, you will regret it. Don’t vote, you will regret that, too.” And then he would have laughed. Granted, there are nuances to this statement, and if I had been in the position I would have spent all day discussing politics with Trump supporters. But once the damage is done, this understanding of politics can help us create more harmonious societies than saying, “I told you so. You are evil for not listening to me.”
Is this vision realistic?
Admittedly, we will never live in societies where everyone thinks about politics through the lens of existential philosophy. However, this realization fails to free us from the responsibility of doing the right thing.
Applying existential philosophy to how we treat those of different political opinions is the first step to creating more harmonious societies – no more, no less. All we can do is focus on ourselves, do the best we can, and hope that our example will motivate others.
This might sound underwhelming, but any idea that promises more is on its way to being destructive. Within the framework of constructive ideas – without appealing to a higher wisdom, dividing the world into irreconcilable groups, and forcing a binary argument – this is the best we can do. This means it is the best we can do in general – everything else is a pipe dream.
Luckily, history provides many examples where this attitude towards understanding and forgiveness motivated governments and unified societies.
- When Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South America after decades of segregation, he implored his followers to surrender all dreams of revenge. He wanted people of all skin colors to live together in harmony, even if that meant to forgive people that had done great harm.
- When Mahatma Gandhi led India in the fight against the British colonialists, he remained committed to peaceful protest and resistance, even going in hunger strike to enforce peace. Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
- When America experienced civil unrest in the 1960s, Martin Luther King, one of the leaders of the movement, advocated peaceful protest and forgiveness, saying, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Simply put, neither Adolf Hitler nor Josef Stalin advocated forgiveness, but Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King did. On whose side would you rather be?
- Existentialism alerts us to the simple fact that life is hard. When we make decisions, we always lack information, knowledge, and experience. Failure is an inevitably, which is why there is no sense in getting angry at ourselves or others when we mess up.
- Since we are all flawed, forgiveness, understanding, and the willingness to explain ourselves are essential parts of relationships and any human interaction. Of course we are idiots – we all are.
- By applying the lessons of existentialism to how we treat those of different political opinions, we can play our part in creating more harmonious societies. Those who disagree with us struggle with the same difficulties and are no infinitely evil threat. They deserve our kindness and understanding.