Self? Help! Eli Finkel’s Existential Crisis — Transcript
Eli Finkel: I’m intrigued to see what you do.
Terence Mickey: Welcome to Self? Help! The podcast for anyone who thought who am I? What in God’s name am I doing? How did they get here of all places? And then to figure it all out, you turned to a book because you are that kind of person, and thankfully so am I. I’m Terence Mickey, your host, and I do not judge from where you seek your guidance. It might be from Saint Augustine. It might be from Stephen King. I only care about how the book helped you because I’m a firm believer that we cannot get enough help on our journey.
This show is all about books that change people’s lives, and the story behind why that book was so important to them.
You’re listening to the bonus episode for Season 1, and if you have a book that changed your life, you, yes you dear listener, can be a part of Season 2. Please ping me on Twitter @terence_mickey or Instagram @terence.p.mickey.
Because your book recommendation and story could be exactly what someone needs to help themselves.
Eli: My guess is that when you developed this idea for a podcast you were not thinking of existentialist philosophy.
Terence: Au contraire. When am I NOT thinking of existentialist philosophy. My guest is Eli Finkel, the best-selling author of The All or Nothing Marriage: How The Best Marriages Work. And while he was writing his book, he had a crisis.
Eli is a psychology professor, and while researching contemporary marriage, he observed a curious trend.
Eli: At least in the US, marriage has changed in ways that have made the best marriages better than before and the average marriage worse than before. And I was trying to figure out what is it that’s led to this divergence?
Terence: To find an answer, he studied the role of marriage in our lives over the years.
Eli: And one of the things I learned is that marriage in the US has loosely speaking been through three general eras.
Terence: The good news is that these three general eras get mildly LESS depressing over the years, starting with the colonial times and what Eli calls the Institutional Era, when marriage was all about our basic survival needs.
Eli: Most people didn’t say in that era like, you know, “Jennifer she’s completely lovely, but I don’t really feel the pitter-patter, so I’m not going to marry her.” That would have gotten you laughed out of your colonial hamlet. Marriage wasn’t about love and it wasn’t even about the personal fulfillment of the individuals. Marriage was essential for survival. The things you would look for in a spouse were things that were oriented literally toward food, clothing, shelter, the very basics. I mean if you wanted light that meant that you made the candle.
Terence: In the second era, the Companionate Era, you could save yourself an afternoon of hard labor by picking up a candle at the store, which freed you up to search for true love in the big city.
Eli: So with the rise of the factory work, urban centers in the US serve as magnets for people from rural areas and from other countries and for the first time ever anywhere, you have a new social system where young men and women are geographically and economically independent of their parents. And for the first time ever anywhere, they start to have more of a say about what they’re going to prioritize in a marriage and they want to marry for personal fulfillment and in particular they want to marry for love. This was the dominant idea.
Terence: And this dominant idea went south in the late 50’s and early 60’s, when people realized it came with soul-crushing and prescriptive gender roles.
Eli: They discovered that it left them flat. Women were supposed to be nurturing but not assertive. Men were supposed to be assertive but not nurturing. They had split the psyche in half in ways that weren’t really true historically.
Terence: And then came the 1960’s and all hell broke loose.
Eli: The pill, Vietnam protests, and civil rights legislation and on and on. Tuning in, turning on and dropping out.
Terence: The 60’s started the third era, the Self-Expressive Era, where we still find ourselves today.
Eli: You get a sense that yes people still want love from their marriage. They really care.
Terence: Yes, love is not dead. But there is a catch.
Love is no longer sufficient. These days you might say I love the person but I’m not growing and what people increasingly want is to live an authentic life. They want a spouse, or a significant romantic partner, to bring out the best in them and they would like to do that for the partner as well.
Terence: When Eli saw how we’ve progressed from working the land with our spouses to expecting them to help us work on our soul, he saw a connection to a familiar psychological model:
Eli: I remembered Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Terence: Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist and his hierarchy of needs is like the food-group pyramid for our mental health. It prioritises our basic psychological needs. At the bottom of the pyramid is our need for safety, which connects to the Institutional Era of marriage. In the middle is our need for love and belonging, which connects to the second era of marriage, the Companionate Era. And at the top is our need for self-actualisation, which connects to the Self-Expressive Era.
After Eli mashed up Maslow’s hierarchy with the different eras of marriage, he discovered an explanation for why bad marriages were sucking hard and good marriages were rocking it.
Eli: And I realized that this transition that we have made in how we think about marriage in the US from the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy had interesting implications.
The most important of which being meeting those higher-level needs is actually harder. It requires more deep insight into each other’s essences and unconscious blockages and all those sorts of things than meeting the earlier needs and therefore more marriages are falling short of our expectations. And therefore more marriages are a little bit more disappointing than in the past. But that those marriages that succeed at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy are able to achieve a level of richness and fulfilment that had been unavailable in earlier decades.
Terence: Eli was thrilled to connect the dots between Maslow’s hierarchy and the three eras of marriage, but his insight left him with a nagging question.
Eli: But then I was left a little bit hanging in ways that I didn’t anticipate when I thought well what is authenticity. What is self-actualization? And if we adopt Maslow’s version of it everything fits together nicely.
Terence: But for Eli, everything didn’t fit together nicely.
Eli: But I became disconcerted by the idea that there is this “core essence.” I became doubtful of it really for the first time as I was working on the book and that was what really it really blocked me for a while and that and I put the book down for a while and then picked up a bunch of other books…
Terence: During his break from writing, Eli turned away from the psychology books. He wanted to know If we’re all working toward an ideal self – what exactly is the ideal self?
Eli: One of the major challenges that I came to when I realized that many of us these days are expecting marriage to facilitate our voyage of self-discovery, our voyage of personal growth, is trying to figure out what is this thing. What is the self? What is the ideal self?
Terence: Now before all of this, Eli had a neat and tidy metaphor to explain the ideal self. He’d use it at wedding toasts. And he’d picked it up from his advisor in Graduate School.
Eli: You know, she had developed this idea that the ideal self is akin to a sculpture nested within a block of stone and she got this idea from Michelangelo himself from the great Renaissance sculptor.
Terence: So the way Michelangelo looked at a block of marble, and he could see a statue yearning to be freed with the help of a chisel, we ourselves could also be considered blocks of marble.
Eli: All of us have an actual self and that is who we currently are. You can think of that as the raw uncut block.
Terence: And within this block we have a statue craving to be freed.
Eli: But we also have an ideal self, an optimal version of ourselves, a more patient, a more giving, a more ambitious, whatever it is, a version of ourself and that is akin to the the beautiful form that’s sort of slumbering within the rock, or trapped within the rock.
Terence: And in Eli’s metaphor, our partner can be a Michelangelo.
Eli: And so we, as relationship partners, spouses for example, can play a major role in helping to bring out the version of ourselves that sort of embedded within.
Terence: We can be the chisel for each other to uncover our ideal and authentic selves. It’s a nice metaphor.
Eli: And I had always accepted that that metaphor at face value and it has been influential in my life and my own research and also in my personal life. But I started to wonder the extent to which there actually is a deep essential self embedded within a block of stone, whether that’s the right metaphor, or there’s an alternative possibility, which is that there may not be some essential self, a foundational, raw, sort of inborn sense of identity of who we really are, and that we create it.
Terence: And here comes the crisis.
Eli: It’s a rather significant shift to say, “Huh? What if that isn’t a thing?” What if there isn’t a sculpture, a statue nested within the rock yearning for freedom, but rather that it is incumbent upon us to develop, to create a sense of self?”
Terence: So Eli had gone from believing we each had an essence that needed to be revealed, to pondering, well maybe there is no essence, no ideal self but it’s our responsibility to create our ideal self, one decision and one moment at a time. Which is one of the ideas at the heart of existentialism.
Eli: And it was really at that moment that I decided I needed to take a detour away from you know social science and psychology in particular toward more philosophical investigations.
Terence: Eli turned to Sarah Bakewell’s book, At The Existentialist Cafe.
Eli: Just luckily for me, Sarah Bakewell – this was 2016 – had written At the Existentialist Cafe, and it got this glowing review in the New York Times and was listed as one of the New York Times 10 best books of the year. This Bakewell book provided the roadmap that I needed in order to make sense of some of the issues that were plaguing me, to try to try to think more deeply and more precisely about the nature of the self and the nature of authenticity and she does it in a way that is not only a delight to read but situates it within historical context where the stakes are so massive.
Terence: And the stakes were indeed massive. At The Existentialist Cafe, focuses on Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir as a couple who were the architects of Existentialism. And they were faced with the waning influence of religion, the rise of Naziism, and the outbreak of World War II.
Eli: It used to be that the good book told you everything you needed to know? We used to be very very religious. And if you’re very very religious, then you sort of do what the Bible says. You adhere to the rules of the Torah and the Mishnah or the New Testament or some combination of the above, the Qu’ran, and that is the recipe like nobody has to go out in pursuit of the development of the self or find ways to imbue your life with meaning.
There was a rulebook there that said to live a purposeful meaningful life do the following. So it was really with the decline of the power, the influence, of major religions that led to the sorts of concerns in the 1800’s in the 1900s and up until today that the existentialists were so concerned with.
In some sense without a foundation, without a moral foundation for its existence, because all those good books that guided us for you know, certainly centuries and millennia, were suddenly doubted by larger and larger proportions of the population and even among the religious people today. They are on average less religious than the religious people of earlier generations. And so that’s when we confront a very very sobering reality which is: Why am I here? Like, what is the purpose of my life? Those were new sorts of questions because you weren’t born into a universe that just made that make sense. And your sense.
You’re left with what Soren Kierkegaard has called a sense of thrownness – right? Like here I am. I’m this little speck in this infinite universe and why and what does it all mean? And how can I do something that has meaning and purpose and so existentialist philosophy is a new form of philosophy that really only emerged with the decline of religious belief.
Terence: Here’s a good example of how existentialism confronted a lack of moral foundation.
One day a former student approached Sartre for advice. The student’s brother had been killed in battle, before the French surrender, and then his father turned collaborator and left the family, leaving the former student as the sole caregiver of his mother.
But he longed to sneak across the border and join the Free French Forces in exile and fight the Nazis. Fighting on the battlefield would avenge his brother’s death, defy his father, and help liberate his country. Except he also didn’t want to abandon his mother. He didn’t want to leave her alone during a time when it was hard to even find food. And his desertion could put her in trouble with the Germans. So he wanted to know: should he protect his mother and benefit her alone, or should he join the Free French Forces and benefit many?
This is an old philosophical dilemma. But Sartre didn’t approach it with a traditional moral calculus. As Sarah Bakewell points out, “he led his audience to think about it more personally. What is it like to be faced with such a choice? How exactly does a confused young man go about dealing with such a decision about how to act? Who can help him, and how?”
After listening to the student’s problem, Sartre finally said: “‘You are free, therefore choose – that is to say, invent.’ No signs are given in this world. None of the old authorities can relieve you of the burden of freedom. You can weigh up moral or practical considerations as carefully as you like, but ultimately you must take the plunge and do something, and it’s up to you what that something is.”
Sartre never provided an end to the story, whether his words were helpful to the student or not, but his response did help Eli.
Eli: You have freedom! And yes, of course that fills you with terror, with a sense of existential dread, because there are no rules, there are no boundaries, there’s no guidebook telling you how to live a worthwhile life! You have to figure all of that out. But what’s so empowering about the philosophy, especially as it’s conveyed in Sarah Bakewell’s book, is how amazing is this opportunity that we have to build a meaningful life, and as you know people like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, they ended up being enormously influential authors and journalists and activists, and they developed a worldview that required them to try to live in accord with that worldview.
They were just immensely of this world. They were immensely attuned to the circumstances around them. And what were those circumstances? The rise of Nazism, World War II, the post-war era, when they became bona fide international celebrities because they worked to build a coherent, internal worldview. They weren’t always successful, but they worked to do it. And then live a big titanic life, each of them tried to build a big Titanic life that was consistent with that worldview. So, yeah, when I read that book, I’m not left with this sense that, “Oh, you know what there’s no meaning or purpose.” I’m left with this sense of yes, it’s terrifying to try to develop your own sense of meaning and purpose when there are no ground rules, but what an opportunity to live just a huge, interesting, important life.
Terence: So Eli had gone from believing we each had an essence that needed to be excavated, to pondering, well maybe there is no essence, no ideal self, but it’s our responsibility to create an ideal self, one decision, and one moment at a time, which is one of the ideas at the heart of existentialism. And while this philosophy offers no easy answers, somehow Eli still found it to be practical.
Eli: it’s practical and a very abstract way. It’s enormously practical and in particular its practical as a tap on the shoulder that says hey, man, hey woman, here you are. You’re on this Earth for some amount of time, an unknowable amount of time. And what is it that you’re going to do with that time? How are you going to live your life? And I think one of the easiest things to do is to sort of glide through life, right?
We have some sense of the expectations as they’re laid out for us. But just because something comes prepackaged just because you can find it at Walmart doesn’t mean that it’s the life that actually makes sense for you. And and one day we’re going to have an opportunity probably to reflect back on the life that we’ve lived and I think that tap on the shoulder, that existential- existentialism gives us is despite giving us no direction whatsoever, and being immensely impractical in that sense is in another sense the most practical thing the most important or applied thing we can imagine because it’s a reminder you get a certain amount of time and, and the best thing you can do with that time is to figure out what really matters who you really are and try to live a life that, that aligns with, with the thought you were able to develop after you got that tap on the shoulder.
Terence: Thank you for listening! Today’s episode was produced and edited by yours truly. If you’re excited to read Eli’s book or Bakewell’s book, our sponsor has a treat for you.
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