by Dr. Norris Frederick
Philosophy offers us new ways of seeing the world and living in the world, thus helping us live and enriching our consciousness. At first these new insights create a rupture in our thinking and feeling and an unpleasant sense of dizziness or confusion. However, if we learn to persist in integrating new ways of thinking and being into our lives, we also come to experience feeling excited at the possibilities offered by philosophical challenges and we broaden our understanding of reality.
One of those insights is that of “thrown-ness,” first named and elucidated by the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), author of Being and Time. What’s it like to be a human being? Are there characteristics of experience that all humans share? Heidegger thought so. We ordinarily are engaged in activities and tasks in ways in which we use the objects and tools around us. I type these thoughts but as I do so I’m not focused on the keyboard. We dig with a shovel but we’re not focused on the shovel but rather on the topsoil we’re blending into the garden. We live with a family with whom we prepare meals and clean the house. We’re engaged in what we do.
But then one day the handle snaps off the blade of the shovel, or a grandmother dies. Suddenly my attention shifts from the task at hand to the presence of the shovel I was barely aware of before and to the missing presence of the grandmother. I am jerked from my ordinary pursuits into a disorienting sense of looking at beings in a strange way. My grandmother was just here, solid and real and fully being, and now she is gone.
I was 13 when my grandmother died, and her death led to a series of reflections in my consciousness. There were the comforting reflections from family and friends (“she’s now with grandpa in heaven”), but simultaneously there was also the unpleasant experience that people can be here one moment and gone the next. As we get older we get used to death in most cases as we go about our daily tasks, but there is always an opening in which we can sense the presence of death, the absence of a loved one, in a way akin to vertigo. (I think of Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo spinning round and round as he goes down, down, down).
For me, these reflections led to my first experience of “thrown-ness,” although of course I didn’t know this strange word. After the shock and after the funeral of this kind woman with whom my family lived, I began to have a related sense of vertigo that began one day as I sat on our porch after school, trying to catch a breeze in that hot Carolina September. I thought about and looked at my parents, sisters, and brother: who ARE these people? In my altered state, I now had an alien strangeness about them. Previously I was engaged in everyday life with them and never thought anything about it – they’re my family– but now I wondered WHY am I in this family? Couldn’t I have been living with some other family? And would I have been someone else? WHY was I born into this family, with these people?
For a teenage boy whose main interest was baseball and who was just beginning an interest in girls, it was a strange and disorienting feeling. So strange that I never told anyone about the experience for years. I was experiencing “thrown-ness”: we are thrown into the world in a way not of our choosing. We don’t choose our family, the century we’re born, nor the country and culture of our birth. While I was well aware of making choices (“Shall we play baseball this morning?”), the reality of the “thrown-ness” of life hit me like a fastball straight to the pit of my stomach. Worse, just when I thought this feeling had gone away, it returned at unexpected times like when we were all sitting down to watch “Gunsmoke” on Saturday night. Who ARE these people? And who am I?
Not only is the existence of shovels and people contingent on circumstances, but our relationships and thus who we are is contingent in ways in which many of us are not aware in everyday life. The idea of thrown-ness expands and deepens our understanding of reality. The idea of thrown-ness also offers to us the reality that we are not alone in this contingency. My teenage experience of thrown-ness resulted from my new awareness of death and my family. At the time I felt that something was strange and wrong with me to even feel this sense of alienation, but now when I read Heidegger’s thoughts about thrown-ness, I no longer feel estranged but companioned.