The Existentialists Survival Guide

By Gordon Marino

"Personal meaning is the bull's eye of existentialist investigation," writes Gordon Marino in The Existentialist's Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age. Marino's text was, for me, a reading and thinking treat. 

Gordon Marino is a veteran boxing trainer, an award-winning boxing writer for the Wall Street Journal, an author, and professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College. He is also a Kierkegaard scholar. Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), the Danish philosopher, was also a Lutheran theologian, poet, and leader (father?) of the group of philosophers known as existentialists. 

Marino will march a number of existentialists across his stage (Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Camus, Sarte, Heidegger), but Kierkegaard is the star of this show. Why? 

Kierkegaard prodded us to think about life from a first-person, inside-out vantage point. On his reckoning, philosophers from Plato to Hegel in their ex-cogitations were guilty of living in theory, of "forgetting their existence." (Page 94)

A frequent chord is The Existentialist's Survival Guide is that our feelings are one thing, the way we relate to them another. Existentialists are, therefore, "riveted to the idea of unifying thought and action." (157) They are, like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, "apostles of self-honesty, courage, and boundless passion." (179)

There is so much to appreciate in these pages. Here are a few of my reflections/notations:

1. The historical and philosophical lessons: If Kierkegaard is a name you know, but a person whose writings and thoughts are foreign, pick up this book. That will change. I have both print and audible versions. Between Marino's prose and Joe Knezevich's narration, I was introduced to and became better acquainted with this man now 150 years in the grave.

2. The difference between feelings and "earnestness." Marino writes, "[T]he moods that sweep over us, no matter how powerful, are not to be confused with earnestness, that is, with a profound, personal concern about the sort of human being we are becoming." (Page 98) Working out that idea, I identified with Marino when he spoke of students who grapple with vocation, i.e. what they will do for a living, but not about what kind of human being they want to become. (181-182)

3. Camus' line, "In order to be, never try to seem." Oh, that's good!

4. Grappling with anxiety in a society that wants to medicalize it:"Anxiety is not simply a disrupting affect accompanied by sweaty palms and an increased pulse rate. It is a feeling with a message, one with an important cognitive component." As such, wrestling with and through anxiety (to be anxious about the right issues in the right way), rather than simply medicating it, is a path "to learn the ultimate lesson in life." (Pages 230-31).

5. The introduction to many existentialists works, Either/Or, The Sickness unto Death, and others as well as affiliated works, such as Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man which he puts in their philosophical context thereby making them more sensible for the average reader like me.

My final word: "Thank you, Dr. Marino." You may be, by your own admission, "a doubly doubting Thomas" and a "not-so-holy fool," but it is your honest back-and-forth wrestle with the reality of life that is a living embodiment of the Kierkegaardian ideas you propose. 

You made me think, helped me to trudge past knowledge and theories to the deeper issue of Kierkegaard's earnestness. You navigated Kierkegaard's ecclesiastical frustrations with the Danish Lutheran Church of his day and his theocentric focus, while still leaving space for the atheist and agnostic to grapple with the implications of S.K.'s thinking for their lives (see for example, page 119 under "Authenticity"). 

As a Jesus follower of the sort that receives both puzzlement and praise in your pages, in some ways, you reminded me of King Agrippa who said to the Apostle Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” That is, you seemed poised to take that Kierkegaardian leap of faith . . . . but settle for "becoming an authentic human being." 105 

I wonder, is that authenticity possible in a third self, Kierkegaardian way, apart from "rest[ing] transparently in God" ? cf 119