Loss, love, existentialism and Fleabag
the world out there is complicated,
and there are beasts in the night, and delight and pain,
and the only thing that makes it okay, sometimes,
is to reach out a hand in the darkness and find another hand to squeeze,
and not to be alone.
- Neil Gaiman, All I Know About Love
There are few lines from tv-shows that will stick with me for longer than the minutes directly post-viewing. Surprisingly, (or perhaps not) the two separate lines that I’m convinced will never abandon my brain come from the same show. Fleabag. (‘a shabby and unpleasant person or thing.’) (Oxford Languages, n.d.) The acclaimed series portrays a woman named Fleabag who is torn by guilt over the (bizarre) death of her best friend. She’s blunt, sharp-witted and hilarious. Above all, she is ‘like one of those dinghy hotels’ that share her name: on the outside she gives the impression that she is completely in control of her life. Underneath, she’s anything but. (Ross, 2020) The second season of the show focuses on the growing feelings between a rather impossible couple: a charming but deeply lonely and generally problematic woman and a handsome clergyman.
The burden of choice
In a rather dramatic confessional scene (set inside a confessional booth) Fleabag describes her longing for love in a way I believe many people might relate to.
‘I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about.
I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong. I know that scientifically nothing I do makes any difference in the end anyway, but I’m still scared. Why am I still scared? ”
For reasons that I’m assuming are obvious, the relationship doesn’t quite work out. But that confession, more than the sheer ridiculousness of the whole scenario – is memorable beyond most other confession-scenes. More than any past society, our current society offers us an incomprehensible amount of choices.
Choose a job, a house, a partner, a phone, an appearance. Choose religion, cereal, chips and toilet paper. Choose a bunch of hobbies that you can pretend to like on social media and choose which of the hundreds of thousands of shows you want to watch on one of the forty-something streaming services out there. Just trying to wrap your head around all the possibilities is exhausting. So is it really so crazy that sometimes, just sometimes, we want someone (or Someone) to come along and simply say: ‘alright, here’s what you’re going to do.’? I don’t think so.
Naturally, a relationship as theirs would not be an equal one, and therefore not easily defined as love (or healthy, for that matter). But the longing can be understood with ease in the context of the world we’re living in. Sartre, who lived in a world that had slightly less than the mind-boggling amount of options we have today, also acknowledged the heavy weight of freedom. Its burden, its importance: its duality. Especially when it comes to love.
I believe this is why a lot of people are fascinated with Sartre and existentialism in general. The man speaks directly to the burden of having no choice but to choose. He speaks to the terrifying experience of being hounded by the looming shadows of could’ves and should’ves that might’ve defined us, and in their absence still define us. We are our choices, Sartre says. The ones we make and the ones we don’t. (“One is still what one is going to cease to be and already what one is going to become. One lives one’s death, one dies one’s life’) L’existence précède l’essence: we are responsible for what we become in this life. (Sartre, 1946) Only after death will we be free of all this freedom.
Perhaps that’s why it’s easy to love the past and the dead. They’ve been defined, ‘essentified’. Real-life, living people are hard to love. They are unpredictable, uncertain, unfinished.
It’s important to keep in mind that although it arguably makes our lives a lot harder, Sartre would argue that the burden of unlimited choice in the 21st century is not here by some predetermined fate. We chose this. We want this. We wanted capitalism. We wanted as much individual freedom we could possibly squeeze into our little lives. We wanted unlimited access to everything, all the time.
For all this everything, we needed choice. Complete freedom. And as Sartre said: with total freedom comes total responsibility.
If he were alive today, I have a feeing Sartre might’ve been well-acquainted with acronyms such as FOMO and YOLO. I also suspect he might’ve really enjoyed the second season of Fleabag.
Grief and our sense of self
If you want to understand her, you need to know that Fleabag’s identity has been profoundly impacted by a single life-changing choice she made, one that indirectly resulted in the death of her dearest friend. Consequently, she is not sure how to define herself. At some points, it seems she’s ready to give up on trying to do so entirely. The few things she does accept as truths about herself don’t appear to be particularly hope-giving. At one point she describes herself as ‘a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.’ At another point her therapist characterizes her as ‘Just a girl with no friends and an empty heart – by your own description.’ She’s stuck. She can’t trust herself to choose; she knows better than most what a devastating impact personal choices can have. At the same time, she can’t decide not to choose, (we never can). This is where her desire for someone to tell her who to be stems from. As a result, she deflects, giving into bad habits; using hedonistic persuits (sex being the main one), humor and blatant self-sabotage to distract her from the ‘screaming void’ inside her. Anything to not have to confront any truths about her own existence.
There’s a part in the series where Fleabag and her best friend, Boo, are talking after Fleabag’s mother’s funeral:
Fleabag: “I don’t know what to do with it.”
Boo: “With what?”
Fleabag: “With all the love I have for her. I don’t know where to put it now.”
That poignant last line illustrates that like freedom, love too can be a burden. Grief takes a lot from us. It alters our entire world, it alienates us. It makes it so we have to reinvent meaning for everything. For life, for love, for other people and for ourselves. ‘You know,’ Fleabag tells us in the final episode, ‘‘either everyone feels like this a little bit, and they’re just not talking about it, or I am completely fucking alone. Which really isn’t fucking funny.”
At the wedding of Fleabag’s dad and his fiancé, the Priest gives a speech that has the wedding guests looking at each other in stunned confusion.
“Love is awful. It’s awful. It’s painful. It’s frightening. It makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself, distance yourself from the other people in your life. It makes you selfish. It makes you creepy, makes you obsessed with your hair, makes you cruel, makes you say and do things you never thought you would do. It’s all any of us want, and it’s hell when we get there.
So no wonder it’s something we don’t want to do on our own. I was taught if we’re born with love then life is about choosing the right place to put it. People talk about that a lot, it ‘feeling right’, when it feels right it’s easy. But I’m not sure that’s true. It takes strength to know what’s right. And love isn’t something that weak people do.”
The Priest too, talks about how love needs to be ‘put’ somewhere. It needs the right place, knowing what that right place is and having the strength to put it there.
Love thyself, love thy neighbor
Fleabag’s distrust of herself, compounded by a severely damaged self-image, has convinced her that she wants someone to tell her what to want and what to be. But I don’t believe this is truly what she longs for. To elaborate, I’d like to refer to the claim psychologist and social philosopher Erich Fromm made about love. Calvinist and Freudian schools of thinking would have one believe that self-love (often mistakenly labeled as selfishness or arrogance) hinders one from loving others. According to Fromm, however, a distinction must be made between self-love and selfishness. Selfishness shows a selfish attitude. The selfish man cannot give, he can only take. (Fromm, 1956) For him the other is an instrument for realizing his own goals. He who is selfish, says Fromm, does not love others, nor does he love himself. Therefore, selfishness can be regarded as a lack of self-love. Those who love themselves accept themselves and feel responsible for the development of their potential. From this, Fromm draws the conclusion that self-love does not conflict with love for others, but should be regarded as its condition. It takes knowing the self and embracing the self, all it’s tattered parts, all it’s dubious past decisions. It takes loving thyself to love thy neighbor.
If Fleabag could find a way to trust her own judgment again, and to – however unfortunately banal it sounds – invest some of that ‘leftover love’ into herself, her freedom to choose would be just that. Freedom. Not a bad thing, not a good thing. Just an essential thing-in-itself (être-pour-soi). Like water or oxygen. It’s existence is a fact. Yet it has the intrinsic potential to both give life and bring death. The intrinsic potential of freedom is also dualistic in this way. And yes, that potential is realized in the choices we make, but we are not defined purely by our choices. Our choices don’t determine who we are. Rather, who we are determines our choices. Aristotle and other ancient philosophers might say virtue (and the ‘forming of a virtuous self’) can be practiced through habit, and it can be, but it needs more than that. It needs an underlying foundation. One that is not just made up of the decisions we make or don’t make. It needs will. The will to know what is right. To confront and know ourselves. And to love ourselves enough to want to change until who we are is in accordance with what (we believe) is right.
One needs to know and respect the self, all the tattered parts, all the dubious past decisions. Complete embracement, radical acceptance. At the same time, within the realm of this acceptance — exactly because of this acceptance — there needs to be a longing for change, incentive to improve beyond the already-acceptable.
It seems contradictory, but it is truly the only way towards that deep and unconditional kind of self-love that Fleabag lacks and needs. If you love yourself, you want what is best for yourself: and remaining static, perpetually remaining where you are, is not that. This bettering of the self – if done right – will also inevitably lead to critically examining one’s own identity in relation to others and discovering in it areas that could be improved upon.
To summarize: you cannot love without self-love and you cannot practice self-love without practicing self-acceptance. At the same time: you cannot accept yourself without leaving room for change, for a growing future self.
Love and bad faith: a deconstruction
After the wedding (and the memorable speech) the Priest and Fleabag wait for the bus together at a deserted bus stop. Both seem to be preparing the inevitable ending of their tumultuous relationship. Still, Fleabag confesses. “You know the worst thing is,” she says, “I fucking love you.”
In the beginning of this essay I shared that there were two lines from Fleabag that will always stick with me. What the priest says after Fleabag’s confession is that second line, one I also won’t soon forget. He regards her quietly for a moment, reaches out, grabs her hand and nods appeasingly.
Just two words, a whole world of meaning behind them. It’s rejection, that much is undeniable. But it’s not about that. It’s about the how, not the what. This rejection is delivered in the most loving possible way. And sometimes that makes all the difference.
Back to Sartre. Unlike us, Sartre may not have had a favorable view of the Priest and his decisions. In fact, he might categorize the Priests’ rejection as a case of bad faith.
Sartre would argue the following: “The Priest wants Fleabag. It’s so obvious it’s painful. Look, he even says it himself, right after rejecting her!
“I love you too.”
A confession has never been so indisputable! This is a classic example of mauvaise foi. The man is denying his true desires, disowning his innate freedom and, perhaps worst of all, doing all of this for the sake of God (who is ‘dead and doesn’t exist.’) (Existentialism Is a Humanism). It is placing the responsibility for one’s moral judgment and decisions outside the self (in fixed principles and practices). It’s an attempt at evading the responsibility of discovering and understanding one’s authentic self, outside of what is dictated by religious dogmas.”
It is somewhere within the vicinity of this point where I believe Sartre’s bad faith-theory fails. Choosing against his love for Fleabag might be the most loving thing the Priest could possibly do for her. As he says in his speech: ‘It takes strength to know what’s right. And love isn’t something that weak people do.” Sometimes the loving choice is not to love. Or at least not in an active way. Sometimes the loving choice is to let go, to choose integrity (or as Aristotle would put it, virtue). In the Priest’s case, that meant choosing God. In Fleabag’s case, that meant choosing acceptance. Acceptance of the Priests’ choice. Acceptance of the inevitable hurt of being stuck once again with a love that has nowhere to go.
Quotes like: God is the solitude of man and When God is silent, we can make him say what we want him to, give us further indication that the aforementioned interpretation would indeed be Sartre’s judgment of the Priest and his decision. Even though he shares with the Christian school of thought the emphasis put on making the ‘right’ choice (however different that may look in Sartre’s case), Sartre’s philosophy is atheistic in every way. This means that his philosophy would hardly show any coherence if he did believe in God. His thinking is based on the meaninglessness of existence and the absolute aloneness of man. There is no help. There is no love, no God. There is only self-deception. Thus, no matter the effects on the Priests’ or Fleabags’ life, the decision was wrong before it was even made, because it meant putting the eggs in the Holy basket, which is inherently wasteful.
We tend to define things by the way they end. A relationship like this can quickly be put into the ‘fail’ category. After all, there is a breakup, both parties are sad and any hope of a shared future is definitively thrown out the window. There even seems to be an implication that the profound, life-altering feelings we develop for others are just temporary inconveniences, a blip in the Cosmos. But that would not be doing justice to the love that was shared here. What Fleabag and the Priest had was – although admittedly very inconvenient and painfully complicated – a good thing. The two of them did a lot of good for one another. There’s value in that.
For the first time, Fleabag is seen, truly seen, as is showcased by the Priests’ perception of her breaking the fourth wall. She becomes finally unalone. Without her, the Priests’ decision to choose God would be less well-informed, less formed by hardship and a deep sense of self-knowledge and respect. Without him, Fleabag might not have learned to find ways to define herself beyond the guilt and grief of losing her friend. At the same time, the ending of their relationship is fundamentally good too. The conversation is had with great intimacy, care and wisdom. It is within the conclusion of their relationship – however difficult for both parties – that their love really reached its full potential. What would their relationship have been if it had required the priest to give up his faith? What would their relationship have meant if Fleabag was still using her lovers as a way to deflect from her deeply damaged sense of self? It would be a betrayal of love.
As the Priest said: love is ‘choosing the right place to put it’. If Fleabag’s (terminated) relationship with the Priest has one take-away it is this: to love is not choosing that which is lovely, but that which is right.
Fromm, E. (2006). The Art of Loving (Anniversary ed.). Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Oxford Languages. (n.d.). Fleabag. In Oxford Languages. https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/
Ross, C. (2020, April 14). Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge explains meaning behind the show’s name. Digital Spy. https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/a32141761/fleabag-phoebe-waller-bridge-meaning-show-name/
UKEssays. (November 2018). Existentialism is Humanism. Retrieved from https://www.ukessays.com/essays/philosophy/existentialism-is-a-humanism-philosophy-essay.php?vref=1
5-minute compilation video that includes all of the scenes discussed https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=kcgthNkAub4