The twentieth century was arguably one of the most defining period in the history of man. Not only it was the period where technology dawned its domination towards society, but it also was an era where the fifty-nine year-old Frenchman who won the Nobel Prize in Literature nonetheless shocked his people. Why? Because he declined to accept the award.
Yes, I’m talking about no other figure that modeled that indifference, than the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.
Sartre wrote a gloomy novel, that not only sold out itself towards the people, but also expressed his battle within his inner life. The novel was translated into English and known as Nausea. The title alone offers us the general picture of what Sartre wants us to anticipate in between the two opposite covers.
Nausea is a story of a french writer Antoine Roquentin, who was passionate about writing, yet was also totally horrified concerning his own appearance. Which not only disappoints him, but which also dragged him down to pen these terrifying words:
The faces of others have some sense, some direction. Not mine. I cannot even decide whether it is handsome or ugly. I think it is ugly because I have been told so.
But not only that, he made his way down to the extremes, by rethinking even his own significant existence:
My existence was beginning to cause me some concern. Was I a mere figment of the imagination?
Poor passionate writer Roquentin. He has made his world revolving around to that which he cannot accept – his appearance.
The gloomy atmosphere of the story never changed. Roquentin then had an acquaintance named Ogier P., who was referred by the majority as the “the self-taught man,” whom he was invited to accompany for a lunch with. Unfortunately, he then later wrote, “I had much desire to eat with him as I had to hang myself.”
Although the story is quite lengthy for this article, yet the shock Roquentin had encountered towards the end, was no other than, that his acquaintance Ogier was revealed to be a paedophile.
The anxiety Sartre exposes in that story arguably led him to publish his magnum opus eight years later, entitled Existentialism Is a Humanism. It was a reaction of the pressure he had in finding his worth and meaning in life. Popular in that book was the phrase “existence precedes essence.” That means you have the right to define your own meaning, worth, and value in this lifetime.
Although that sounds very elevating to human autonomy, yet it is still a bankrupt motivation. Because near earlier than the book was published, Sartre wrote a story that expresses a similar theme, saying that we are just bubbles floating in the sea of nothingness.
Why the sad story?
Because that’s precisely what will happen when we don’t allow God’s Word to define us.
For the most existentialists, they would argue that the existence of God eliminates freedom. But the last time I check, I don’t have the freedom to play basketball without the rules – I just can’t create my own rules (and so do you!). For if the rules will be eliminated, the game would no longer qualify as a basketball. Hence, it will be another ball game, if not, a ball war – balls floating in the sea of disagreements.
Only when we recognize and remind ourselves that we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), we will be liberated from the lie of the aesthetic competition that the world (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, etc.) is shouting to us every day with. As God says through the prophet Isaiah,
Everyone. . .is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made (Isa. 43:7, ESV).
This is the reason why Martin Luther King Jr., and English liberator William Wilberforce fought passionately and actively against slavery. It is because of their biblical conviction of the value of man, not defined by anything or anyone – but by God alone. As the apostle Paul, writing his letter towards the people in Ephesus, emphatically proclaimed:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10, ESV).
All this proves is that walking in light of the knowledge that our value rests in the handiwork of the Greatest Designer, is nevertheless a good work. Worthy to be grateful to.
And by the way, the word workmanship in that verse was from the Greek word poiema, in which we get the English word for poem.
So thou shall not walk with low self-esteem!