Bad-faith, or inauthenticity, is living a lie that we dont have freedom to choose in the face of situations and realities that we encounter in life. Existentialists, Sartre in particular says that as human beings we are condemned to be free. Our fundamental nature, he says, is to be a free transcendence of our facticity, for which we are required to willingly take responsibility.
In a previous blog post I have shared ways in which one can slip into bad-faith. More recently, I have also shared about an inquiry that I indulge in as to whether bad-faith directed at another, is my own bad-faith or not. In this post, I want to explore anxiety & commitment and how some amount of bad-faith is healthy and even necessary to live in this world.
I want to make a distinction between “typical anxiety” and “existential anxiety”. While the former is anxiety that stems from external events, the latter stems from the limitless freedom that one has. This distinction is best explained with the help of an example.
For instance, I go through anxiety every time our Finance Minister announces the budget. Each budget seems to introduce new regulations, taxes & cesses which impacts my personal financial budgets. Rumours leading up to the budget session in the parliament do a good job of brewing a sense of worry that culminates as anxiety one day before the actual budget session. This is an example of “typical anxiety”. It is the kind of anxiety that stems from external events.
Existential anxiety is very different. Its the kind of anxiety that stems from the awareness of our unlimited freedom. For instance, there is nothing stopping me from buying that fancy and expensive gadget, which can impact my finances a lot more than the budget can. I worry about the off chance that my future-self can make such choices, because truly nothing can stop my future-self from doing so. That’s a very different sort of anxiety.
Another example: I have recently started on a diet and fitness program. I have gotten into it out of my own choice. For the last 3 weeks – I have been eating right and working out right, every single day. I am not starving myself or eating less, I am simply eating the right kind of food in the right proportion. Next week, I will be attending a wedding in the family and as with most Indian weddings, the spread of food on offer will be awesome. It will contain several varieties of tasty food that I have committed myself to avoid eating. I dont know if I can hold back from eating those and wisely choose eating the right kind of food, in the right proportion when I go to the wedding. So, I am a bit worried about what choices my future-self-in-the-wedding will make. This anxiety is what I refer to as “existential anxiety”.
It stems from the worry I have about the choices my future-self can make that can prove disastrous. The fact that I am free to choose any which way and not necessarily in alignment with my honest intentions, give rise to a sense of anxiety in me. Thats “existential anxiety” for you. People who are working really hard to quit an addiction (drugs, cigarette, anger, sex and so on) will go through existential anxiety.
Commitment is a word, a promise that is nothing in-itself. Commitment, truly speaking, is a recurring choice of transcendence that people can make when faced with their facticity.
For instance, suppose that I commit myself to running for 30 minutes every morning. The very next morning, when I wake up, I am facing facticity that, as anyone can imagine, poses difficulties, obstacles, heaviness and body sensations. In the face of that facticity, I choose to get up and go run. Thats my choice of transcendence for that day. However, that doesn’t leave me being a morning-runner-in-itself. I must make a choice once again the next morning, in the face of similar or different facticity. Since I can never become a morning-runner-in-itself, I have to choose to run every single morning. But then there is nothing stopping me from not running on any given morning.
Since I cannot be a morning-runner as an in-itself, I have to keep making that choice each day. If I have been running each morning for the past 6 months, I still cannot consider myself to be a morning-runner, because that would be bad-faith. Even after 6 months, I am not a morning-runner (in-itself) just as a rock is a rock. At no point can I live my life as if who I am is my choice of transcendence, that would be bad-faith.
Strictly speaking, commitment (or being committed) is inauthentic. But then it is totally authentic to choose the same kind transcendence over and over again, keeping in awareness the total and unlimited freedom one has. As a human being, we are doomed to be a free transcendence of our facticity. It is therefore totally legit to repeat our choice of transcendence, as long as we are fully aware of our freedom to choose the same (or otherwise) and the fact that we should take total responsibility for our choices.
This means that the statement – “I am a husband” is a lie. I am not a husband-thing, like rock is a rock. I am choosing to be a husband over and over again, knowing fully that I can choose otherwise.
As you can see, commitment requires practice.
Healthy dose of bad-faith
A lot of human realities that we take for granted is inauthentic from an existentialist’s point of view. For instance, a person born and living in India is not an Indian, like an Indian-thing. A man is not a father-thing to his child or a husband-thing to his wife. A person born to a hindu family is not a hindu-thing.
So far, we have been using the word thing to mean an in-itself. If we give a parallel meaning to the word thing as a for-itself with the training and capacity for making a consistent choice of transcendence each and every moment, then constructing oneself as a thing is useful, sometimes even necessary. This is what I mean by healthy dose of bad-faith.
As a husband if I develop the habit of choosing-to-be-a-husband each and every moment, it is very useful. It makes way for a nurturing relationship with my wife. As inauthentic as it is to say that I am a husband (as if I were this husband-object), it is better to be a husband-thing than to be an indeterminate and ambiguous individual who is a constant source of stress and worry for his wife.
It is far better to trick myself into believing that I am an Indian-thing, than to go through an elaborate process of choosing to be an Indian each and every moment. Being an Indian is a wide-open abstract idea that, if I had choose knowingly, would require me to know the entire Indian constitution, cultural background, history, geography and so on. It is far better to simply be like an Indian-thing and honour its meanings & obligations as and when I discover them.
As an existentialist, while I strive to achieve authenticity – I also overlook my healthy dose of bad-faith (or inauthenticity), just to maintain sanity.
At one level, human beings can be understood as biological machines. Our biological machinery offers a range of facticity for which we are responsible. In the sense that we have to willingly choose our machinery and our biology. The biological machine that a human being is didn’t have to be in this particular form, it could have been in any other form. In other words, the machinery is contingent. There is no divine reason for the biological machinery of a human being to be in this particular way. However, given that we are handed over this machinery, we have no choice but to willingly own it up as our facticity.
Just a small detour at this point:
When I took up Vipassana meditation last year, I had an opportunity to get in touch with my body very deeply. Over the last 1 year, I have come to see how much my “body thinks.” I am sometimes able to trace a physical sensation in my elbow to a emotional experience of worry. I am similarly able to trace several other emotional and intellectual experiences to actual physical sensations in my body.
All of this leads me to believe that thinking is not just a brain activity, it is the activity of the entire body (brain included). Think about these:
- Have you noticed that you may find yourself with an expanded capacity to think right after you finished a workout OR right after you finished taking a hot-water bath?
- Have you noticed that when people are hungry they are more likely to get angry or make unproductive decisions?
- Have you noticed that a husband or wife may feel a sense of abandonment from each other if they are not having sex?
- Does your thinking & feeling happen with (or via) your muscle also?
One aspect of our biological machinery is this thing called “muscle memory.” If we repeatedly indulge ourselves in a course of action, it builds something called muscle memory. Once we build a muscle memory, we begin to find ourselves “unconsciously” engaging in that course of action. Here, I use the term muscle to mean both muscle around our bones and the gray matter in our head (aka brain). For instance:
- Some people choose to utilise every small break during their day as an excuse to go out and smoke. During the initial days, they had to willingly be attentive to breaks, choose to go out, pull out a cigarrette, light it and smoke. Over a period of time, the body seems to be able to do it all by itself.
- Remember how driving a car was so difficult when you were learning it? Once learned, it became part of your muscle memory (or muscle intelligence)
- Typing on a computer was arduous in the beginning. With practise, most of us find ourselves being able to type at the speed of thought.
- These days I notice how I have cultivated muscle memory (or muscle intelligene) of driving from my home to my parents home. If I get into my car with an intention to go to my parents home, I can basically zone out for the rest of the drive – my body seems to automatically drive me there.
- When we embark on a long distance running program, for the first few weeks we will have to willingly get up, wear shoes with intentionality and force ourselves to go out and run. After about a month’s practise, we may notice that the effort needed to get up, go out and run is drastically less.
- Last year, I was gifted a coffee maker. The very first day, I made cappuccino and had it. I loved the taste. For a few days after that I willingly prepared cappuccino the first thing in the morning and had it. Over the last few months, I find that I am simply unable to bootstrap my day without a cup of cappuccino.
Muscle memory is an inescapable aspect of our biological machinery for which we have to be totally responsible. Said in other words, as an human being who is deeply interested in living an authentic life – I must willingly own my facticity, which facticity includes my body and therefore its capacity for muscle memory.
Many times we may not even realise that muscle memory is in play. For instance:
- A lot of men find themselves with a strong physical attraction to women who wear particular kinds of dresses. The physical attraction they feel is so strong that they may find themselves compelled to express it somehow, sometimes even at the cost of being totally inappropriate. As much as they claim that their attraction to such women is automatic and that they are helpless; they have to be responsible for the fact that their response is something they built into their muscle memory.
- Competition is a mindset that a lot of people burn into their muscle memory right from their school days. As adults they can’t seem to hold themselves from being competitive at work. Sometimes even with their spouses.
- I know a lot of people who cant help but buy the latest iPhone each year. They offer a lot of justification for it; instead of simply acknowledging that they have constructed their muscle memory to generate a want for the latest and greatest iPhones each year.
I am sure you can see the pattern in both yourselves and others by now.
Muscle memory (or muscle intelligence) is an aspect of being human that offers irresistible temptation to slip into bad-faith by assuming that one is simply a thing whose choices are given entirely by their muscle memory.
Reminding oneself that one is responsible for having put together that muscle memory could perhaps be a good first step. That way, one can start gathering awareness about one’s muscle memory. In the beginning one may choose to unleash their muscle memory out of choice (out of willingness), even though it may seem like they have no other choice. Simply declaring that one is responsible for their muscle memory starts a chain of events which over a period of time creates space to generate new responses.
Muscle memory is an important aspect of one’s facticity that one must take full ownership of. Infact, one can leverage it to effectively deal with existential anxiety and in keeping committments. In other words, one can choose to leverage muscle memory to consciously develop a healthy dose of bad-faith for living a sane life in society.