In his novel Nausea, Sartre’s protagonist Antoine Roquentin experiences a series of revelations that unmask the senselessness and arbitrariness of life. Roquentin describes the source of his malaise:
The essential point is contingency. I mean that by definition existence is not necessary. To exist is simply to be there; existences appear, let themselves be encountered, but you can never deduce them. Some people, I think, have understood this. Only they tried to overcome this contingency by inventing a being that was necessary and self-caused. But no necessary being can explain existence: contingency is not a delusion, an appearance which can be dissipated; it is the absolute and, therefore, perfectly gratuitous. Everything is gratuitous, this park, this city, and myself.
The problem lies in the possibility that things might have been other than they are. To admit as much is tantamount to denying Providence a hand in the orchestration of our lives, for if things could just as easily have been different—if you could have been born in India and not North America, and vice versa—then even the most important aspects of our identities and circumstances are accidents. Accidents aren’t the sorts of things we normally place much hope in; they are chance occurrences, not the product of design, and therefore do not offer assurance that the world operates according to a grand scheme aimed at securing our contentment.
If the universe is contingent and accidental, then nothing guarantees that the relationships and events comprising our lives reflect an orderly or purposefully arrangement and the whole of existence becomes chaotic and arbitrary. Roquentin feels an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness in his encounters with everyday objects that refuse to conform to a pattern or fit neatly into rational hierarchies. The world’s obstinacy, its reluctance to yield the source of its haphazard development and perpetual alteration, nauseates him.
We are comfortable admitting a certain degree of contingency in our lives. Trivial incidents upset our schedules and thwart our plans, and we concede their accidental natures. But we maintain faith in the efficacy of our major decisions—we exercise our free will in cases of critical importance and believe our choices trigger predictable consequences. The world is basically orderly and mechanized like a watch, we think, and our actions turn the gears and release the springs of our self-styled destinies.
To admit that even our cherished decisions amount to no more than accidental permutations of an unpredictable universe would crush us. We believe in destiny because we cannot tolerate the idea of fate. Destiny clears obstacles from our path and imbues our actions with inexorable potency, while fate hinders the hero and stymies victory. Granting contingency too great a role would rob us of ownership in the momentous occasions defining our lives.
And yet we too willingly cede ground to contingency in the most sacred of choices. Take our romantic elections, for instance. These we neglect with reckless indifference. For if we truly believed our choice of partners indicated something essential about our identities, something necessary about our distinctive way of occupying the universe, would we move so blithely from person to person, allowing chance to lead us aimlessly from one to the next? How can a task so mindlessly pursued mean anything? We forget too readily that our devotion was already apportioned and, once bestowed, requires time to reclaim. In no other arena of our lives do we demonstrate so little discernment, gleefully ushering in contingency’s profane randomness precisely where it should offend us most. No other endeavor reveals more poignantly the intensity of our striving and longing for happiness. If impulsive carelessness can claim this victory, then all hope is lost for resisting contingency.
Perhaps we shirk the responsibility of so solemn a decision because we fear making an error and instead allow the duty fall to contingency. But letting chance intervene where deliberate action should reign sovereign reduces the outcome to an accident. True, purposefully choosing one partner at the exclusion of all others means living with the consequences, maybe even a lifetime of sorrow. Exercising the full scope of our will in defiance of chance might force us into miserable predicaments where our love goes unanswered. Isn’t even that unfortunate destiny, one of our own making, better than the chaos of fate? For a decision to matter it must be free and binding, even when it costs us everything.