28 November 2012
Existence Precedes Essence
Man does not have a predetermined essence. Instead, it is defined through consciousness. It is up to the individual to determine a meaning for his or her life. As philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre states, "Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” Mitch Albom’s novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, demonstrates this exact principle through the main character, Eddie. Eddie is an everyday war veteran who feels trapped by what he believes is a meaningless life of fixing rides at an amusement park. His days are a dull routine of work, loneliness, and regret. Only after his death does Eddie learn the meaning of his life. Throughout his journey in heaven, Eddie is exposed to the reality of his existence on earth, thus finally being able to define his true essence. He discovers how others affect him, how he affects others, and the substantial difference that he makes in the world. Family, friends, and even strangers have a significant impact on Eddie’s life. In heaven, he is presented with the idea of interconnectedness of man, which ultimately leads to his understanding of his own essence. This is first demonstrated when Eddie finds out that his military commander sacrifices his own life in order to save Eddie’s. “[The Captain] would check the path ahead… the path was clear. He waved to his men… It was at that moment…that a small click sounded beneath his right foot. The land mine exploded instantly… It blew the Captain 20 feet into the air and split him into pieces” (Albom 90). Eddie only learns of this information upon entering heaven. When he expresses his guilt to the captain, he is told, “When you sacrifice something precious, you’re not really losing it, you’re just passing it on to someone else” (94). This is Eddie’s introduction to the interconnectedness of man. He learns the importance of sacrifice in order to live a fulfilling life. Although Eddie never meets Ruby and her husband Emile on earth, they also have a profound impact on his existence. Ruby explains, “If not for Emile, I would have no husband. If not for our marriage, there would be no [Ruby] pier. If there’d be no pier, you wouldn’t have ended up working there” (123). Eddie’s existence is centered around Ruby pier: he grows up there, works there throughout his life, and dies there. While he realizes that the site has a profound impact on his life, he never stops to consider how it came to be. Ruby, the woman who Eddie only meets on his journey in heaven, teaches him that, “things that happen before you are born still affect you” (123). This broadens Eddie’s understanding of man’s interconnectedness—which is essential to his understanding of essence. Ruby’s effect on Eddie is further demonstrated through the death of Eddie’s father. He jumps off the pier, into the water, to save a friend from drowning. Ruby explains, “That was how he took ill, of course. He lay there on the beach for hours, soaking and exhausted, before he had the strength to travel home…the ocean had left him vulnerable, pneumonia took hold of him, and in time, he died” (138). Eddie’s father dies at the age of fifty-six. Had Ruby not met Emile, the pier would not have existed, and Eddie’s father would not have jumped off it. This supports Maurice Mereau-Ponty’s existential philosophy: “The world shapes the individual in terms of its pre-established meanings and structures” (Boileau). The meanings and structures throughout Eddie’s life shape who he is, and in turn, help him define his essence. In heaven, Eddie is shown how his military leader, and complete strangers make an impact on his life. Since one’s existence only becomes meaningful through interaction with, and in relation to others, this is the first step towards Eddie learning his purpose in life. Later on his journey, Eddie is shown how his actions on earth impact others, including...
Cited: Albom, Mitch. The Five People You Meet in Heaven. New York: Hyperion, 2003. Print.
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