Messy Issues | Condemned to be Free

Many of us devote a ton of energy to finding meaning in our lives. But what gives our life meaning? Love? Work? Money? Sex? Whatever the case, no one can fault me for wanting my life to have meaning. A sense of meaning is something I crave – maybe even need.

Way back in ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle put forth the idea that everything and everyone has an ‘essence’: a set of core properties that are essential for a thing to be what it is. They believed our essence existed in us before we were born, and that part of what it meant to be a good human was to adhere to your essence. Central to this way of thinking is that your essence gives you a purpose because you were born to be a certain thing.

Whilst this philosophy, known as essentialism, mainly believes that this pre-appointed essence is given to us by God, it begs to be compared to how society plays a decisive role in designating our lives with purpose. At least, it appears to do so with our heterosexual counterparts. Study hard. Excel in your career. Get married. Buy a house. Raise children. As a gay man, I have never felt that society holds me accountable for achieving the same. I have never known those heteronormative expectations, neither explicit nor implied. Before coming out, perhaps, but any potential I was destined for was made redundant as soon as I did. As a gay man, it would appear then, that my existence is existentialist by nature. Born into a universe where I, my world and my actions lack any inherent importance.

The philosophy of existentialism, made popular by Jean-Paul Sartre after the horrors of WWII, challenges the idea that we are imbued with any essence. He asked the question, “What if we are not born with any hard-wired purpose, but instead it’s up to us to figure out our own essence? What if there was no set path for us to follow?” However, Sartre proposed that the most agonising aspect of existentialism, one that I would argue is most prevalent in the lives of queer people, is not the world’s lack of meaning but the terrifying abundance of freedom.

Without the expectations of my parents and peers, or operating under the watchful eye of society, I have been left to my own devices – essentially free to live my life however I want. And I have. And for the most part, it’s been great. I chose to study acting at a young age because it brought me happiness rather than a promise of financial stability. I chose to spontaneously upend my steady (albeit mundane) life in Birmingham and move to Amsterdam to pursue new adventures. I even chose to break up with my partner of four years because at that moment in time, we were better people to each other as best friends. So rather than sticking to a relationship for the sake of ‘settling down.

While this abundance of freedom may look exhilarating to some (myself included at times), it can sometimes seem bleak to others. I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I wonder if my life would be better off, had it been given the same set of guidelines straight people are given to follow. Perhaps I’d have a great career by now. A mortgage on a place of my own. Proud parents and a partner to share my life with. This ‘search for answers in an answerless world’ is what existentialists call the absurd. And whilst they don’t use that word to mean ‘silly’ or ‘preposterous’, the definition might still hold. Perhaps, it is silly of me to be craving society to give my life meaning when what I should be doing instead, is living authentically – accepting the total weight of my freedom in light of the absurd.

So, if you’re with me, and sometimes feel as lost as I do; let’s keep in mind that being queer doesn’t mean our lives cannot have meaning. Rather, any meaning our lives do have is given to them by us. By this logic, no one can tell us that our lives aren’t worth anything if, say, we don’t have children or don’t choose to follow a lucrative career path, or don’t achieve whatever standards our parents would hold us to, had we been straight. If the world is inherently devoid of purpose, we can choose to imbue it with whatever purpose we want.

In an effort of building a community and a network of support, I would love to hear from you guys if you share a similar experience. So please feel free to reach out to me on Instagram @TheClarkCullen and send me a message.

 Clark Cullen is a 25-year-old Irish man living in Amsterdam. He is currently studying a Bachelor of Communication Sciences and is a self-proclaimed lover of daddies and dogs. Especially daddies with dogs. Go check out his previous ‘Messy Issues’ columns and other articles at