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Guest column | Jerry Cowling

Column: Ignorant of being an existentialist

Here I've reached the age of 66, and I don't know what existentialism is.

Teachers talked about it. Those French writers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about it. Even movies are made about existentialism. Supposedly Taxi Driver and Annie Hall were about it but you couldn't prove it by me. One was very violent, and the other was very funny.

I like to write stuff. Some of it is violent and some funny. What if I were an existentialist and didn't even know it?

I have looked the word up in the dictionary, and what was there didn't explain it to me. I even went to other dictionaries and they didn't help either. You'd think that someplace on the internet some one could come up with clear definition, but no.

For a long time, like 40 years, I have faked being smart. I call it the old smile and nod. No matter what the conversation is about. This is particularly helpful when the topic is religion or politics. No one can get mad at you if you give them the old smile and nod. I'm also a little hard of hearing. In the case of not understanding what was being said, I add in the knowing chuckle with the smile and nod. I don't know if I actually fooled anyone. Most of them had the decency not to expose my ignorance.

Once I got up the courage to ask my wife what existentialism meant. She has a master's degree in criminal justice and spent a career observing people and writing reports to judges about whether to send someone to prison. That's a very serious job so I figured she must understand existentialism.

"I don't know, and I don't care," she replied and went back to one of her books about biblical archeology or the theory of the black Athena.

When you reach the age of 66 you realize that you don't have to fake anything anymore because most of the people you were afraid of disappointing with your ignorance have probably passed on. And who cares what the people younger than you think. They don't sign my paycheck. That's mostly because I don't get a paycheck anymore.

Recently, I asked three of my smarter friends about existentialism at our weekly breakfast where we solved all the world's problems over bacon and eggs. All of them have highly cogent observations on the condition of mankind, but none of them knew what existentialism was. It was such a relief.

Perhaps it is enough that I have made it through most of my life without inflicting major discomfort on anyone within reasonable distance of my space. If I have not made a fortune, at least I have never taken food or shelter away from anyone else. If I have not done anything to save the world, at least I have given people a smile along the way.

I don't know what existentialism is.

It is what it is.

I am what I am.

That is enough.

Jerry Cowling is a freelance writer living in Brooksville.

Column: Ignorant of being an existentialist 11/29/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 29, 2013 3:49pm]
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