Of Our Existence, Encounters, and Definition
“Existence precedes essence. Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world, and defines himself afterwards,” Jean Paul Sartre once declared in his Existentialism Is a Humanism lecture. For centuries humans have fiercely sought for the metaphysical principle of existence, reaching beyond into the obscure realms of recognition and self-definition in the hopes of genuinely encountering oneself. Among the inquisitive works reflecting this passion were English cleric John Donne’s “Meditation XVII” and “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” from the Gospel of Luke which deliberated existential questions through convoluted considerations of religion and humanity’s integration.
While the former delved into the catholicity of religion and recognition of death, the latter established mankind’s unconditional love and ability to forgive an enlightened being. Yet with unprecedented proliferation of social media and omnipresent technology prevailing in modern society, the fast-paced lifestyle of a high-tech era belittles such human integration to mere trivialities. In response, the two pieces merge to propose existence and self-definition as plausible solutions to contemporary communal isolation. Recognition and humanity’s unification through religion were what Donne proposed in “Meditation XVII” to combat isolation. Converted to an Anglican priest in his later days, he blew life into the concept of perception through observing and learning from fellow mankind’s precedents, utilizing metaphorical terms to claim “the bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth….
he is united to God.” He also emphasized that affliction prepares you for connection with humanity and that “no man hath affliction enough, that is nor matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction,” indicating the catholicity of religion which broadly encompasses all mankind and derives wisdom alone from suffering. By associating self-recognition and religion with his lifelong desire for humanity’s interconnectedness, Donne sought to provide a practical answer to the metaphysical conundrum concerning our existence. On the other hand, “The Parable of The Prodigal Son” depicts family relationships, reconciliation, and unconditional love between humans as the moral for the modern man. After living a sinful and lustful life entangled in the grasps of Mammonism, the younger son eventually comes to realization and self-definition after relinquishing youthful stupidity when he exclaims “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee” (18). Even as he evidently portrays the ignorance and prudence of the lost soul, the father, contrary to expectations, embraces his son with welcoming arms.
“Let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found,” God’s symbolic figure rejoiced, reinforcing the importance of self-recognition and forgiveness as the pure essence of human connection (23~24). The Gospel of Luke’s lessons thereby encourage social integration through unconditional love and forgiveness in an era deprived of collective attachment. Be that as it may, the vital natures of human interconnectedness in modern society are disparaged more and more as the infiltration of smartphones, advanced technology, and anti-social gadgets proliferate the “Alone Together” concept proclaimed in Sherry Turkle’s book doubting the authenticity of online relationships and conversations. As of this year, the smartphone user penetration is expected to be over a third of the world population according to the Statistics Portal , with South Korea leading the highest smartphone adoption rate of 88% in the world . Therefore, it is not surprising to see consequential phenomena of social severance rampant throughout contemporary community with limited conversation and isolation becoming an increasingly spreading social pandemic. Naturally, the harsh reality is that dominating trends of racism, materialism, and lust for superiority are emerging victorious over the humanitarian values of social bonds and unification that Donne and the Gospel of Luke sought hundreds of years ago.
Our world appears to defy traditional virtues that had once deeply entrenched their roots in our lives and alter them to tear apart human relationships in an era where, ironically enough, instantaneous messaging and ubiquitous connection has never been easier. This reverse of customary social norms is evidently exemplified in the recent elections of national leaders around the globe who serve asreflective projections of egoistical and selfish beings in society. Undoubtedly, something is amiss: we once used to be sociotropic rather than pocketbook beings, pursing the general pleasure of the entire community and committing ourselves to what was best for society. Contrary to what Jean Paul Sartre has claimed, we seem to be living in a world where selfish gain precedes human interconnectedness and we fail to encounter and define ourselves. Blindly existing in isolation without defining and recognizing oneself denies the fundamental principles civilization has prospered upon, poisoning everyday relationships and the path up to mankind’s unification. Our society is still on the lookout for the treasure we have lost, the route that will guide us in the right direction.
The trail lies not in pursuing an ever more dynamic and monumental leap in technology for the future, but in the recollection of long-established humanitarian values lying under the pages of “Meditation XVII” and “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” in the past. Only then, only when we learn the future from the past, will we restore faith in humanity and reach our long- lost destination.