The famous philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that we are “condemned to freedom”. For Sartre this meant that we are responsible beings. However we are not merely responsible for the decisions we make. In addition to this he drew out how we are also responsible for the decisions we postpone or fail to act on.
This means that we are not only responsible for what we do, but also for what we don’t do. Like a poker player in the middle of a tournament, even doing nothing is an act that will help decide the direction of the game. In this way we are constantly waging on our existence. Every move, and every failure to move, closes down an infinite range of possible worlds while opening up an entirely new range.
There is then no way to escape the feeling of regret except through fully embracing this experience of freedom. For if we don’t act on something we can regret not doing so, if we delay an act we can regret not acting sooner and if we act straight away we can regret that too. Decide on something, or not, act or don’t, speak or stay silent: we are responsible for them all.
For Sartre it is common for us to try and escape the weight of this responsibility. In describing how this happens he once related a small incident he witnessed while watching a couple sitting across from one another. As he glanced over he noticed the man reach across the table and take hold of the woman’s hand (a sign of his desires). In return the woman neither pulled her hand away (that would send a clear sign that she was not interested in his advances), nor did she grip his hand (which would have signaled her acceptance of the advance). Instead she allowed her hand to lie limp in his.
For Sartre this little moment can help us understand what the attempt to abdicate our responsibility looks like. He called this desire to become passive passengers in life “bad faith.” Bad faith being the attempt to flee our responsibility in the hope that we might not have to bare the yoke of our freedom.
Yet Sartre’s point is that this attempt to flee freedom is just another manifestation of freedom. It is simply a futile attempt to deny it.
Instead of the impotent and impossible attempt to flee our freedom Sartre encouraged us to face it, embrace it and make resolute decisions in light of it.
The choice for him was not between taking responsibility or not, but rather between acknowledging our inherent responsibility or attempting to deny it.
So what do our current actions or inactions say about our relation to freedom? And what might we do differently if we were to fully embrace our responsibility and make decisions in the full knowledge that there are no guarantees and no way of going in every direction we would like?