23 Mar Life is Meaningless and Why That’s Beautiful
Realizing Life is Meaningless
Existential crises have been a staple of my life since middle school. Like breathing, regardless of my consciousness of it, it was always there in the back of my mind–existing, waiting. Then, in moments of silence, when all I could hear was my soft breathing in bed at night or the soft hum of my car as I drove home from work, it would rear its head and stare me in the eyes. Why?
Throughout high school, finding solutions to these existential problems became one of my primary interests. Whether it be hours debating with friends (mainly one) about religion and the existence of God, scavenging through YouTube videos from experts in the field, or a local college class I took called The philosophy of religion, I explored the topic as much as I could. While I am still by no means an expert in the field, at every turn, I found myself coming up short on answers that would fill the hollow feeling in my chest.
This conclusion wasn’t always reached through some logical argument; often, it came from a feeling. Sometimes it comes at night on the lucky occasion I go stargazing. Underneath a dome of stars, looking out at the expansive universe, I would reach out to find something– anything, but my hopes came back squished by the unfathomable weight of the universe. Other times, as I read a book, I realize that the random squiggles that I am reading (that you are reading) don’t really mean anything. There is no universal law dictating that this squiggle ‘a’ should represent a specific sound or idea. Just like there is no universal law that Subway needs to sell footlongs for five dollars. All of the fundamental structures holding up society and our lives are man-made and only continue to exist because we continue to believe in them. The realization felt like the ground that I had stood on for my entire life had shattered, leaving me falling endlessly. Even in high school, the place where people go to find meaning and fulfillment in their lives, I never really managed to escape this nagging feeling. As I sat through biology class, I couldn’t ignore the idea that we are just randomly evolved apes who, thankfully, chose to wear random pieces of fabric over our naked bodies and not fling our feces at each other.
No matter how often I grappled with the question of why? I never managed to reach a satisfying answer, which forced me to face an unsatisfying possibility: life is meaningless. To clarify, I mean that life is meaningless in the universal or cosmic context, not to be confused with the meaningfulness of the love your mommy gives you (personal meaning).
Eventually, on my search for some type of universal meaning, I stumbled across podcasts and books about Albert Camus and his philosophy: absurdism. After many years of listening to others explain his philosophy, I recently sat down and read The Myth of Sisyphus myself. In his essays, I found something that resonated deeply with me and brought me to my feet in sheer excitement.
Camus describes the existential hollowness I’d always felt as the absurd:
“He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”Camus 28
To Camus, it is a part of the human condition to seek meaning and order in the universe; however, the desperate pleas and requests we make to the universe are always met with silence. The tension between these two things is known as the absurd.
“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it…And these two certainties–my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle–I also know that I can not reconcile them.” Camus 51
Camus also reached the conclusion that the universe is functionally devoid of any cosmic or teleological meaning, but he didn’t treat it as a conclusion. He treated it as another question, possibly the most interesting question we can ask, if the universe is meaningless, what do we do? Famously, Camus begins The Myth of Sisyphus with,
“There is but one truly serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.”Camus 1
This encompasses the central questions of the essay. Camus tries to explore first, if the world is meaningless, should you commit suicide (spoiler, you should not), and then, if one should not commit suicide, how should one live in the face of the absurd.
Preservation of Consciousness and the Absurd
Camus described the moments above where I become aware of the absurd as moments of becoming conscious or lucid. To be conscious is to be aware that the world that we have so far accepted rests upon nothing other than our acceptance of man-made systems and structures and that nowhere in this world do we find signs of our teleological meaning. To Camus, consciousness becomes the most important part of dealing with the absurd.
“For everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.” Camus 13
“What I believe to be true I must therefore preserve. What seems to me so obvious, even against me, I must support. And what constitutes the basis of that conflict, of that break between the world and my mind, but the awareness of it? If therefore I want to preserve it, I can through constant awareness, ever received, ever alert. This is what, for the moment, I must remember.”Camus 52
Before answering the question of whether or not one should commit physical suicide, Camus looked into religions and other existential answers to his questions. Wherever Camus looked, he found that all answers that allowed him to reconcile with the absurd required a leap of faith; however, Camus refused to take this leap of faith. He believed that in taking that leap one would be committing “philosophical suicide”.
In order to be at peace with the universe and find meaning in it, Camus realized that man would need to give up the thing that made man so unique–consciousness. Taking the leap of faith requires one to forgo their own lucidity–to ignore the realization and feeling that they are in a universe that is too silent and unreasonable for their liking. Camus does not disagree that man might feel better taking this leap, seeking to find comfort in an eternal being that they will never know or be able to experience, but he refuses to give up that which he knows for fulfilling delusions.
“Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable. If in order to elude the anxious question: ‘What would life be?’ one must, like the donkey, feed on the roses of illusion, then the absurd mind, rather than resigning itself to falsehood, prefers to adopt fearlessly Kierkegaard’s reply: ‘despair.’” Camus 41
Camus extends the same line of reasoning for why one should not commit “philosophical suicide” to physical suicide. To commit suicide is to give up consciousness and run away from the problem in the same way. The most important thing to Camus is to preserve the absurd, and the one must be alive in order to preserve it.
Living An Absurd Life
After reaching the conclusion that one should stay alive, another question brings itself to the forefront of our minds: what do we do with our absurd lives? Camus urges us to look at Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure. Sisyphus was a man who cheated Death, and as a punishment from Zeus, he was sentenced to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill, only for the boulder to roll down again. In this classical Greek figure, Camus finds the struggle of the absurd man. Like man, Sisyphus is forced to do a task to which there is seemingly no meaning. Taken on the surface, it elicits an eerie and empty image of human life, but Camus does not see it that way.
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Camus 123
Camus urges humanity to imagine that Sisyphus, who strains his body to move a boulder up a hill that will inevitably roll back down, is happy. In this character, Camus finds a hero–an absurd hero. As we live with the absurd in mind, we are able to take pleasure in our meaningless exertion of strength and effort in a world that refuses to give us meaning. In a universe where there is no God and desperate pleas of meaning are met with silence, Camus finds himself smiling. He is free.
If God exists, all depends on him and we can do nothing against his will. If he does not exist, everything depends on us…to kill God is to become god oneself: it is to realize on this earth the eternal life of which the Gospel speaks…if you feel that, you are a tsar and, far from killing yourself, you will live covered with glory.” Camus 108
Camus’ answer to the absurd is to become God. Create the world you would want in heaven here on Earth. This freedom that Camus finds in the absurd is liberating. If there is no God, nothing is left up to fate. Man can create the life that he desires. To answer the question: what do we do with our absurd lives? Camus would say whatever it is that you desire. Take pride and be earnest in the life that you have because it is solely yours to live and mold. With endless freedom comes a heavy responsibility, your life, but with that responsibility comes pride, honor, joy.
It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men. All of Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing.” Camus 122-123
Before you leave this blog post with a newfound God complex, a quick reminder, this endless freedom and responsibility should always be humbled by the constant awareness of the absurd. No matter how much one strives or struggles, life will never be eternal. It will never have a purpose in the cosmic sense. Whether or not we become the God of our own life, the universe continues to be indifferent to the conscious specs of dust populating one of its infinite worlds.
Beauty of An Absurd Life
To live an absurd life is scary and overwhelming; however, in its endless freedom and doomed end, there lies a beauty only accessible to those who have embraced the absurd.
To a conscious man in which eternal salvation is simply an attractive delusion, life on Earth takes on a certain color and vigor that it never held before. Every experience in this life, the brief window of years in which we are conscious of a universe whose meaning eludes us, becomes a moment worth living for. To be alive is to be able to experience the things that you will never be able to experience again. With the absurd in mind, every bite of Graeter’s Cotton Candy Ice Cream, every Wichita sunset, every smile from that enchantingly intelligent girl, every lecture from our mothers, every moment of stomach-cramping laughter becomes an event worth living for. It is only in the certain finality of our deaths that the everyday experiences that color our lives become divine.
“…the purest of joys, which is feeling, and feeling on this earth. The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man.” Camus 62-64
Becoming An Absurd Hero
There are moments that we experience, whether it be through personal experience, books, or movies, that elicit visceral feelings in our bodies. We can’t always explain why we feel these feelings, but we always do. One moment that I continually think about, that I have found repeated throughout culture is the moment of man facing an enemy he has no hope of beating. Bearing witness to such moments, I feel my heart reach out in support of man, shouting its fruitless cheers. These men are heroes.
These heroes come in all shapes and sizes, but they all share the courage that it takes to stand up to an immovable object and push anyways. From Captain America in Avengers: Endgame staring down an entire galactic army alone, to Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird fighting with dogged determination for justice in a time defined by racial injustice, to a small man holding his grocery bags before a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. We do not see these men as heroes because we know that they will not be defeated. It is in the moments in which we know that defeat is inevitable yet see them standing there that we know they are heroes. In this fruitless defiance lies the beauty of humanity–their worthless dignity and honor.
“That revolt gives life its value. …To a man devoid of blinders, there is no finer sight than that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it. The sight of human pride is unequaled. No disparagement is of any use. That discipline that the mind imposes on itself, that will conjure up out of nothing, that face-to-face struggle have something exceptional about them.” Camus 55
Some days, in moments of stillness, when I am done dancing spasmodically to my favorite song, when I finish my writing for the day, or when I drive alone at night, the full weight of an absurd life hits me. I can feel it in all of my fingers and my toes. It feels like I am looking down from a building that is infinitely tall towards the ground. On the other side is nothing. No consciousness. No happiness. No suffering. My heart beats faster. My legs begin to tingle. My chest feels like it is caving in. I want to run, but there is nowhere to run to. I am alone, facing a monster that has no form, no consciousness, no end. Standing there, feeling darkness surround me on all sides, creeping towards me at a second per second, I can’t help but smile.