At a time when everything seems uncertain and questions are being shouted into the void, I feel like the time for existentialism is now. Existentialism is “a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the nature of existence by emphasizing experience of the human subject — not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual.” I think as we determine how we want to live and further exist in this world, we need to get in touch with who we are as people — what we need emotionally, mentally and physically in order to make humanity better as a whole. With the rise of COVID-19, we have nothing to do but sit in our homes and worry about the future, but this also means the world can slow down and think about bigger questions. I like to tackle these huge “what ifs” on how we could and should be living our lives better, and apparently so does Leena Norms (although she does it way better than I do).
Leena Norms is a British BookTuber (YouTuber who talks about books), poet and part-time publisher who lives in London. Her videos include titles like “School Lies to Unlearn in Your Twenties,” which tackles ideas such as how “homework teaches us about labor exchange and work life balance,” and “Why You Shouldn’t Leave the Arts,” which breaks down the play and movie “Billy Elliot” and their connection to the arts in a post-pandemic world.
Leena does not identify as an existentialist, but she does like to pose large, indefinite questions and tries to explain them with accuracy and passion.
She creates a community that’s based on intuitive thinking as well as social and emotional awareness, which allows people to feel connected when these large abstract questions come up short on answers. Leena promotes positive existential thinking, specifically, “that people are free agents who have control over their choices and actions [and] society should not restrict an individual’s life or actions and that these restrictions inhibit free will and the development of that person’s potential.”
She suggests that you should live your life for yourself and those you care about; however, this can be difficult in a capitalist society — the existential questions can help you to reorient and deal with these difficult emotions.
Your Past Versus Your Present Self
In her video “Are You a Different Person After You Make a Mistake,” Leena discusses how we mentally separate our current selves from our younger selves. A viewer brought up how it’s common to use third-person language to refer to our younger selves as if we’re not growing people, connected to all facets of our identity; Leena agreed.
Leena brings up a few points: first, that we have difficulty separating opinions or beliefs from the actual people themselves, which doesn’t allow people room to grow. As young people, we’re constantly thrust into new spaces with people of varying perspectives, and it’s a pivotal time where we’re not only discovering who we are and who we want to be, but also how the world exists and functions. We aren’t born socially aware, so as we stumble and learn, we become different people, especially as we make mistakes.
We shouldn’t dissociate our past selves with who we are and who we’re still becoming; according to Leena, the embarrassment we feel over past actions is due to a culture that isn’t so forgiving — also known as cancel culture. People are now so obsessed with not wanting to be canceled that they won’t allow themselves to reflect on the times where they were perhaps more politically incorrect, for example, and Leena argues that this creates a distorted sense of time within our lives.
She says, “It makes you feel quite young or less experienced but it [simply] means you’re way more youthful to movements you’re in because you lost all of your old belief systems and have to rebuild them from scratch.”
This is huge to think about as a college student because up until the age we were when we left home, we had been taught what was right and wrong. But as we begin to experience it for ourselves, we have to battle with these older ideas and who we are as people.
Leena says if you accept your past self, you then have to accept other people’s past selves, and that can be hard, but I think we have to value the importance of those who do change their minds. They offer insights into compassion, empathy and understanding of the world as a whole.
I think once we understand and accept those past selves, we can give ourselves credit for how far we’ve come — especially as Gen Zers and millennials who are able to recognize past mistakes and move forward into creating a better world.
Leena Norms and How Social Media Affects You
Leena is asked how to use social media in a way that promotes professionalism and creativity while not giving too much away. It’s such an important question to ask, especially given the way we rely on social media; as students, it’s become a necessity.
Still, it’s hard to discern what type of content should be posted and how it should be posted, even if that’s the culture we grew up with — no other generation has done it before, so we’re all learning at the same time.
It can be hard to understand that your online personality will never be an accurate representation of who you actually are. Leena says that because you are a different person with different people in your life (friends, family, colleagues), realistic social media is unrealistic. Social media puts this pressure to create a universal self that applies to everyone and fits every context, but ultimately, it’s not feasible.
I personally loved this question because when you’re on social media, it’s so important to grant yourself a sense of peace by protecting your privacy. Leena talks about the toxic idea promoted by social media that you need to live up to some sort of ultimate persona online.
This wasn’t the goal of creating your platform in the first place — and realistically, even your closest friends and family will never truly know all parts of who you are, so why should strangers online be able to? Instead, social media is supposed to only show parts of you, so people will want to explore more of you in real life or follow the parts of you that cater to their particular interests.
I think that’s the beautiful side of social media, but pouring your entire person into it isn’t useful. Leena talks about how it’s OK to “curate” yourself. It raises the question, is social media solely for the benefit of other people as much as it is for you? How much are you supposed to expect back before it becomes toxic?
I like the idea that these curated parts of who you are are what you really mean to show the world, which protects those more personal areas so that you can stay true to who you are as a person. Leena says, “It’s OK to still make a thing, even if it’s not everything you are; it can be a fun experiment, a finger painting or a rough draft of you.”
Leena Norms Asks, Do the Arts Hold Value?
In her video “Why you shouldn’t leave the arts,” Leena tackles the general question of disposable bodies working within a capitalist society “and why they’re wrong about art.” Leena presents this topic as a necessity during the pandemic, because questions about art’s worth have always been challenged, but in times of crisis, we see how important it really is.
For one, art improves mental and physical health. When people are home, trying to grapple with the loss of physically participating in extracurricular activities, it’s necessary to maintain mental stability. Not only that, but art lives in the mind and is easy to digitally reproduce.
Leena also brings up the point that people don’t travel to see scientists, for example, but they travel for the arts. She brings up the fields Jane Austen roamed and the bars Charles Dickens frequented and how people flock to the UK to feel the inspiration and to see where their favorite creators lived and breathed.
In her comparison between the experience of watching the movie of “Billy Elliot” versus the play, she says, “It’s in the rejection of his [Billy’s] body as nearly a tool and instead picking his body up as an instrument that Billy transcends his place as a cog in the capitalist apparatus and helps his community reclaim their own bodies in a situation that throws society’s use of body, and therefore identity and income, into chaos.”
She talks about the exploitation of the working class in the story and Billy Elliot’s refusal to become a coal miner like his father in order to pursue dance. This is after his father talks about how he had to submit to this job due to his economic situation.
Leena uses this point to say that the pandemic left those in the highest paying positions secure and able to maintain some semblance of financial security, whereas those with less privilege ended up unemployed at the bottom. Art helps remind us that we are not disposable bodies spinning in a capitalist cog; rather, we are emotional beings that need the arts to keep our humanity alive.
What Does This All Mean?
We might look at these questions and think that they aren’t a big problem. Maybe they’re only meant to plague our mind for a temporary moment. I’ve realized that I don’t have all the answers. However, these questions validate my experiences and my intent to live a full life in the ways I define for myself.
Leena’s answers aren’t the rule, but they do provide insight into the ways young people can look at how to live. Connect your past self with your present self in order to gain a better understanding of the world and make it a better place in the future. Understand that social media is part of our society, but it doesn’t have to embody who you are. Finally, never forget the arts. Whether you’re a creator or a consumer, it’s something that brings us life and, as college students, we have to understand that as a society, the arts need to be preserved as we learn to break down the systems that no longer serve us.
I like that Leena is taking the time to tackle these existential questions during a time when there are so many worries and insecurities in the world; she’s created a tone of normalcy and created a safe space where you can question the bigger life problems you don’t have the answers to. After all, no one really does.