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What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards…

Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

I wrote an essay recently about being referred to as an Online Panhandler. I expressed that I don’t know whether I fit the definition of Panhandler, but I see nothing wrong in being one.

The essay is here, in case you would like to read it.

A good friend of mine left this comment.

…Regarding panhandling, “there, but for the grace of god, go I”. (Could substitute “rank good fortune” for “god”.) There too, but for the grace (of) god, goes your friend who passed judgment on you. You seem to feel the pain of the world and you don’t question the only sane response, which is compassion. You seem to share what little you have with others, and want to do more. You seem to draw your circle of inclusion far beyond your immediate environment. Your friend draws his/her circle of inclusion very close to himself, hoarding what he/she has, and condemning those who by choice, necessity, or circumstance find themselves in a very different place. On more than one occasion I believe that I have told you I think, although you and I have never met, that you are a good man (not perfect, but a good man). May I suggest that you write an essay/analysis of MY “judgment” of you? I think it might be a more challenging exercise, but one that might be quite illuminating. You don’t even need to post it, but by posting it you might get feedback that might also be illuminating for you. Take care Fred. I still think you are a good man.

Ross hardwick

To answer him requires a bit of philosophy. Not too much. Don’t worry.

I was first exposed to the idea of Existentialism when I was 15 years old. I had returned from Iowa, where I came perilously close to becoming a confirmed Lutheran, and my father, a confirmed atheist and Professor of Philosophy of Education, had me audit his class. I wasn’t old enough to get credit for it, but I paid attention. And, while Dad rejected Existentialism, as did one of my heroes, Charles Frankel, I found it seductive. Frankel called it cosmic despair. I suppose he was right, but I found much in it that I loved, not the least of which were most of Monty Python, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, and The Graduate. I also loved Sartre’s The Wall. (Long before Pink Floyd had any ideas on the subject.)

While there is much to reject in Existentialism, such as the idea that there can be no certainty, and, therefore every choice is a Leap in the Dark, (it’s really not… yes, anything can happen, but one has experiences upon which to rely for making choices. It’s possible the Sun won’t set tonight, but I’m proceeding on the assumption it will, and not to do so is foolish.), there is also one part that has stayed with me into my old age.

When you choose, you choose for Every Man.

When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all.

Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a humanism

When I make a choice, for myself, I try to ask what I would want anyone to do in my position. If I choose Cruelty, I am endorsing it. If I choose Kindness, I’m advocating we all make that choice. To say I believe in Kindness is meaningless if it doesn’t influence my behavior.

My irritation with many Christians is that the best of their beliefs do nothing to guide their behavior. They use the bible as a weapon, and a cause for hatred. I don’t really believe that was Jesus’s intention. To quote from Harper Lee, “You are too young to understand it … but sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of – oh, of your father.” – Miss Maudie

I know Christians whose beliefs guide them toward Love, Compassion, and Kindness. These are people I like. I may disagree with the path they chose to arrive there, but I like where they’re standing, and that’s what really matters.

So, what does it mean to be Fred, from the point of view of someone outside of Fred, like my friend, Ross, who is quoted above? He observes my penchant for Kindness and Compassion, and he finds them admirable. I see them as the only reasonable default position. I try to be what I think all men should be, but I have no doubt I fail from time to time.

I openly discuss both my Kindness and my Poverty. They are parts of who I am. They are parts over which I feel no shame.

I don’t generally discuss the parts of my character of which I’m ashamed. Do you? But, I suppose it’s important to be as honest about my flaws as I am my shining palace built upon the sand. What are they?

  • I should bathe more often than I do. A shower is out of the question for me, because it’s not a question of if, but when, I am going to fall and hurt myself. So, I take baths when it’s essential, but not with nearly the frequency I should. If you saw me when I was sitting at the computer writing, I would look mostly homeless. I could change this about myself, but the advantage of being alone is that I have no need to concern myself with the opinions of others about this. The fact is you can’t see me. My lack of hygiene is doing nothing to hurt you.
  • I think many things about which I’m not proud. I have all sorts of ideas and fantasies and dreams that are entirely inappropriate. On the other hand, those are mine, and, as it turns out, I may think what I wish. You’re not allowed to attack me for my thoughts. My words and actions are open for discussion. My thoughts are my own.
  • Though I believe Trust is the basis of every relationship, I lie sometimes. I loathe that in myself. And, sometimes, it is beyond my ability to control. That, however, doesn’t excuse it. I’m endorsing lying in everyone, and I’m eroding the Trust that makes society work. I haven’t decided, yet, what to do about it.
  • I rely too much on the Kindness of Relative Strangers. I should be able to support myself, now, but if I were on my own, I would be done. I don’t make enough to live alone. I have no retirement left, so I will work for what remains of my life. I’m not proud of my inability to support myself, but it’s a part of who I am, and to deny it is to lose a part of my identity.

That pretty much makes up my faults. I’m sure others find me arrogant, or think that I’m too much of a Grammar Nazi, or that I am selfish. I’m sure others could add hundreds of items to the list. Those, however, are the ones of which I’m most acutely aware.

But those who see me as Kind and Compassionate are seeing the parts of me I like best, and that I try to make my defining characteristics. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, but you’d be surprised how few people have read all 44 of my posts. So, it bears repeating.

When I was in High School, my AP English teacher debated Shakespeare with me. She was wrong, and I was right, but that’s beside the point. (I’m kidding. She was brilliant, even if she didn’t love Hamlet enough.) One of the things we discussed in her class was Marc Antony’s words about Brutus.

This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man.”

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

I’ve always been slightly suicidal. I loved the way Brutus died. “Great Caesar, now be still. I killed not thee with half so good a will.” Beautiful!

And from the time Mrs. Julien brought it up to me, I decided I wanted Marc Antony to be able to visit me, in the final five minutes of my life, and say about me what he said about Brutus. He has to know everything I’ve done from the moment I was a fertilized egg up until his arrival, and he has to see the elements mixed in me such that he could say, honestly and without equivocation, This was a man.

I would like to be Atticus Finch. I’d like to be Hemingway’s Santiago. I’d like to be Capt. Kirk. I’d like to be my Father, who was a mixture of all those men. He would be pissed about the Capt. Kirk, but that’s all right. He had Kirk’s ability to reason morally. He had Kirk’s courage.

I can’t be any of those men. I have to be me. And when you’re old, diabetic as hell, broken, broke, and more than normally unattractive, you would be a fool to reject someone for being different from you. I will reject someone for behaviors I can’t tolerate: Cruelty, Insensitivity, and Unwarranted Selfishness are on the list. For an explanation of Unwarranted Selfishness, you can read this…

But someone who is a good person is a good person even if their beliefs differ from mine. She’s still a good person if her sexuality differs from mine, or if his politics differ from mine, or if his taste in music is so different from mine that he doesn’t even like The Beatles. (Although, to be fair, I’m going to have to have a LONG conversation to figure out what’s wrong with him!) If you’re a good person, I’m proud to call you my friend. How you got there is irrelevant to me.

And now I think of Kermit.

He tells me it’s not easy being green. And, I understand. I’m much like him. I don’t stand out. I’m not colorful. I’m not attractive. I’m not wealthy. I’m not strong. I’m not capable of a lot of things. But… this is who I am. And I’m okay with being this guy. I think the world still needs a Fred. I can handle that part.

I suspect the world needs you, too, but I don’t know, yet, exactly why. I hope you can find out and tell the rest of us.