Written by: Maria Dima
Note from Shanti Chu: At the end of the semester, my students write a blog post connecting their lived experiences to a philosophical movement we studied in our class. Maria wrote this moving and creative blog post connecting the loss of her mother to existentialism. She made an authentic connection between the principles of existentialism and applying it to this uncontrollable life situation while also immersing herself in the physical space of her homeland, Greece. Her blog post is an example of how we can live and breathe philosophy as we grapple with loss.
Sea. Sky. Breeze. Seagulls. Sun on my skin. Greece. I close my eyes and I see blue. I open them. I am blinded by the light. Light everywhere around that penetrates every bit of my soul. Slowly my eyes get adjusted and I see a pallet of blue. The blue that I grew up in. The sea in front of me, unlimited. The summer breeze kisses my cheeks and tangles my hair. I can taste salt in the air. Is this heaven?
It's the middle of June. Recently, I lost a strong person. My person. I am frustrated. I am disappointed. Yet, I cannot cry. My eyes are dry and I even find myself laughing at times. Cancer, tumor, illness, death. The words swirl around in my mind in a loop. My mother did not deserve this. I am angry. I yell at the sky not knowing where else to direct my anger. It had been four years since she was diagnosed and fought through depression and brain tumors. Her entire life was about giving. She did not get anything in return. I feel lost with no purpose.
I ask for an escape. I feel like doing something out of the ordinary, even risky. I pack some things, count the money I have been saving for the last couple of months, and just leave the house only knowing that I cannot keep letting days go without doing anything. I need to leave, to walk, to see. Nature, I thought, can offer an escape to the soul and mind, a connection with the self and the world. What I was seeking, while exiting the front door, was some hope to hang on to, something that would give me reasons to go on. I go straight to the bus station and look at the different destinations. “Temple of Poseidon, Sounion.” That’s it!
An hour and a half later I am there. I hop off the bus. The sun is directly above me. The small city of Sounio looks welcoming but I need to walk to the top of the hill, where my final destination is. I remember the last time I was here. She was holding my hand, I must have been only five or six years old. My mom was telling me “Look at this blue, you can only find it here. Close your eyes, smell the wind, listen to the waves. This is Greece and life is waves.” One foot in front of the other. I can see the ancient Temple of Poseidon get bigger and bigger as I approach the top of the hill. I am in awe.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s book, Existentialism Is A Humanism is an attempt to combat accusations against existentialism. He manages to explain many existentialist concepts and clarify more of them. According to the book, a man’s existence comes before his essence. Sartre calls this “subjectivity” and he writes, “Man is not only that which he conceives himself to be, and since he conceives himself after he exists, just as he wills himself to be after being thrown into existence, man is nothing other than what he makes of himself” (Sartre 22). In other words, we first exist by coming into this world, and then through our actions, for which we are responsible, we determine what we want to be.
My mom built an amazing and admirable life. Four children, wife to a successful athlete, happiness towards everything she would touch. She built all that for herself through decisions she made. She chose her path. She could have never chosen to leave that early though. That day, at the temple of Poseidon, I had to come to terms with the loss of my mom, her absence that would be there from that moment on, and decide what that would mean for me. Losing a person can bring you to the realization that we will all, at some point, cease to exist. That can either frighten people, or make them think how futile everything is. I was not scared, death never scared me. It made me think that there is no point in anything. My mother had built an admirable life and one day to the next everything was wiped away. How could I come to terms with such a thing? How could I choose my own path and make my own decisions without her guidance?
The sun reflects the white ruins of the ancient temple. The olive tree is exactly where I remember it to be. That is where we sat back then with my mom. She had cut a leaf and handed it to me. “This is Greece,” she had said. I walk to the edge of the cliff and look down. I am so high above the sea, the sea that spreads everywhere the eyes can see. This is Greece. I look up to the sky once again. It is bright, light blue. Birds are dancing with the wind. My eyes become watery. Is it because of the bright sun above me, because of the loss of my mother, because of the awe I am filled with? I still do not know. My mom back then tried to introduce me to my country - to the idea that the simplicity of Greece’s nature is what makes the place ideal to find yourself and appreciate life with its ups and downs. This second time I visited the Temple of Poseidon I went over the same thoughts and ideas I had been introduced that day and felt closer to my mother. Walking around the ruins, standing, sitting, observing, I was constantly finding objects and feelings that triggered memories from the past.
Every decision you make is based on what you think is right and wrong. According to Sartre, you have the free will to do anything you want but in reality, you will do what you think is right. Thus, what you will make of yourself will possibly be right for you, since it will be the result of your actions. My mother taught me to love my country and my origins. She gave me love and showed me the importance of it. She showed me how being determined to what you want can help you win your fights. Now it was my turn to decide whether or not all these teachings were what spoke to me. How could any of what she said have any meaning at that time? She was gone and her thoughts and ideas were gone with her. On the other hand, it is my choice to follow her principles. My chest felt so heavy. Overwhelmed with the beauty surrounding me and with my thoughts, I decided to sit down.
Another idea Sartre presents is that when you make a decision and act upon it, at the same time you are making a decision about the rest of the society. He writes, “A man who commits himself and who realizes that he is not the only individual that he chooses to be, but also a legislator choosing at the same time what humanity as a whole should be, cannot help but be aware of his own and profound responsibility” (Sartre 25). Since your actions are based on what you think is right, then, you are making society better. With the decisions my mom made she also helped me and the rest of my family have a better life. With us having a good life, we could make decisions that could help other people surrounding us. My chest is still heavy but now I see. I decide what is right or wrong for me, but with my choices I help or harm my community. Could that mean that I still have a purpose?
The loss of my mom made me stuck. My trip to the temple of Poseidon was the first thing I pushed myself to do. When everything seems so futile, why do anything? Now I see that I control my actions. I control what I take out of situations, and how I react to them can either help or harm the people around me. By deciding to take action, and therefore be a “hero” in Sartre’s words, I can learn from the memories and the past and adjust my future in such a way that I give meaning to it. By laying around doing nothing I help no one, not myself, not the people around me, and I would just continue to feel sorry for everything that happened. If I look at everything as a possibility, as a lesson from which I can give meaning to my life and my future, everyone benefits.
After my mother passed away I felt lost. Those last four years that she was battling her illness I had to do things kids my age probably never thought of doing. I had to grow up, mature. Growing up, I lost the ability to see the little things and focused solely on the obvious, losing the potential beauty of the world. But that day at Sounio, with the sun on my skin, the taste of saltiness in my mouth, the memories of my childhood, and her words in my mind I felt like a child again. The blue that surrounded me made me feel protected, taken care of. I was again in my mother’s arms listening to her words.
When I was younger and went to the Temple of Poseidon, my mother made me love Greece. In a way that only she could, she explained to the five-year-old me the meaning behind the words of the famous Greek poet, Odysseas Elytis; “If you deconstruct Greece, you will in the end see an olive tree, a grapevine, and a boat remain. That is, with as much, you reconstruct her.” By learning to love the simple things that my country can offer me I can be happy with being in the moment. That moment that I found myself at the Temple of Poseidon, seeing the light reflect the ruins, the water, my skin, feeling, smelling, tasting, letting go, I fell in love with that land, I fell in love with the memories I had connected with it, and felt grateful for that present. The answer I was looking for was in the simplicity of things.
Sartre writes that, “Life itself is nothing until it is lived, it is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing than the value that we give it” (Sartre 51). Life can be amazing, and beautiful, and full of meaning. The meaning that you give to it through your actions, no matter how small or big. Misfortunes are part of life and they are hard to deal with. That day, at the Temple of Poseidon, I decided to not leave memories and pain behind, but think of all the possibilities that they open up for me. Possibilities to be happy, to better myself, to learn new things, and gain new skills and experiences.
The sun is already setting. The sky is changing colors every second that passes turning the sea underneath it from clear, to light blue, to light green, to dark blue. Arriving at the Temple of Poseidon I did not know what to expect. I did not even know what led me there. Looking at the old ruins behind me with the blue background I am in awe. Seagulls can be heard from below. I can see the lights of the houses of Sounio far from where I am. The sky is turning dark and the moon is coming up. It seems as if it is in front of me, big and bright. It gives different lightning to everything around me, changing again the colors of the stones, the leaves, the sea. It is reflecting on the water and looks as if a painter decided to leave a silver touch with his paintbrush. It gives me the opportunity to observe things from a different perspective. I no longer feel blue but rather live in the shades of blue. The stars are bright and warm. I do not need much more than that. I am grateful.