themes in literature and film appear in the form of characters experiencing
an "existential crisis" of some type. These themes go way back, all
the way back, to the earliest stories -- Gilgamesh when Enkidu dies;
Achilles when he faces his own impending death; Hamlet when his father dies,
his mother remarries, and he, himself, is denied the throne -- but they are
even more prevalent in contemporary literature, and you'll quickly learn to
see the influence in all kinds of pop culture, such as the darker versions
of Batman, Daniel Craig's 007...anywhere, it would seem, where the
protagonist is stripped of his or her most basic assumptions, faces the
absurdity of existence, and asks "what's it all about?"
Most of us don't walk around every day asking these questions -- we just go
about our day, simply existing -- but for
nearly all of us, we'll confront times in
our lives when the surface meaning is stripped away, usually by some tragedy,
separation from those we love or our daily routines, from our normal
"identities" or by confronting "the destroyer": death.
The word "existential" combines the two words "existence" and
"essence" ("exist-ential"), and this etymology tells us what
an "existential question" is: a question concerning the
essence of what it means to be alive, such as:
What is the meaning of life? = What is the meaning (essence) of existence?
Who am I (essentially)? What is my true nature/essence?
What is my true identity?
What is my greater purpose? How should I live my life?
What is death? What happens when we die?
Is there a god, and, if so, what is her
In a world of moral ambiguity, a world of "gray" areas
instead of moral black and whites, good vs. evil etc., how do I make moral
choices? How do I choose between two competing bad choices? Or
how do I choose between two competing good choices?
At the point of absolute crisis, the protagonist realizes he or she has no
one to turn to for answers...but him or herself. We, alone, must choose:
Existential Choice And Action