Meaning of Life and the Absurd

A common reaction people give me when I tell them I do not believe in the Mormon church anymore, nor do I believe in God, in the typical sense, is this, “Well then, what is your purpose in life? I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t believe.” This reaction comes in various forms:

  • What could possibly give you meaning if there is no God?
  • Why even wake up in the morning?
  • Why should you strive to do anything good if in the end this is it?
  • What keeps you from committing adultery or becoming a drug addict?

I understand this point of view. I felt the weight of it as my worldview of 31 years came crashing down a little over a year ago. However, there are often times that I am offended that people would think of me as someone that would lack a basic moral compass without Mormonism. But I have to say the scarier reaction to this is how light and feathery are the morals of the individual, or what extreme lack of self-respect these people have, that think without Mormonism (or any religious framework) they would be out whoring and drinking every night giving no thought for family or consequence. That is just one of the many problems with religion. It creates a sort of battered wife syndrome, “without me you would be nothing; I beat you because I love you.” This is especially true in Mormonism.

But not to worry, I will not be discussing the morals or lack thereof in a religious context. Moreover, in the void of meaning or life purpose, that meaning that is otherwise thrust upon you by your childhood religion, what should one do? Upon that note I’ve been thinking much about the meaning of life. I have been rewatching some of my favorite YouTube videos and re-reading in some of my stoicism books. One of my favorites came from this video on Rick and Morty & Finding Meaning in Life

We are constantly reminded that our existence is fragile, short lived, and at times unbearably boring. The video presented the idea from the philosopher Albert Camus of the Absurdity of life. I soon found myself deep diving into Camus and existentialism.

Camus posits that life is absurd. Absurd in the literal sense. Absurd is defined as “wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate.” Or, “arousing amusement or derision; ridiculous.” As in, Life is wildly illogical, without reason, and is just plain silly. There is a sort of unresolvable tension in life, between the lack of inherent purpose given to us from the universe and the inherent condition of humans to endlessly search for meaning and order. Absurdity rears its ugly head in the realization that there is no objective purpose, that it is impossible to acquire what humans so desire. The universe is completely indifferent to you.

Camus lived from 1913 – 1960 in France and sparked the existential movement with Jean-Paul Sartre. His philosophical treatise involved contemplating the “confrontation between the human need for meaning and the unreasonable silence of the world.” His ideology could be best bucketed in the existentialism camp (however Camus explicitly denied he belonged to any camp based partially on the principle of never objectifying a camp). He most likely would be a self-described Absurdist.

Camus is possibly most famous for this line:

There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide

A fundamental philosophical question that has been debated for millennia is, “is life worth living?” In the framework of the Absurd, Camus has three remedies. Physical suicide, philosophical suicide and third (the one he advocates) is to not demand meaning and go beyond the limits of the universe and pursue that which is impossible, doing so would only bring needless suffering. He urges us to “live without escape but with integrity, in revolt and defiance, maintaining the tension intrinsic to human life.” He warns us to avoid false solutions, or objectifying a meaning into one’s own life, thus committing the second remedy, philosophical suicide. Philosophical suicide, which has been known as a ‘leap of faith’, is choosing to follow a defined belief system religious or otherwise. This choice is to adopt a supernatural solution and forego reason which, in Camus’ view, would be as fatal and self-destructive as physical suicide.

The first remedy to the absurd is physical suicide. It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment that people opt for death over life. But many struggle with ideation and fleeting what-ifs. Obviously there are a variety of reasons for taking your own life. On the subject Camus said:

Suicide is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of the habit of living, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of the daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.

Simone de Beavoir was a contemporary french existentialist and intellectual whose books touched on the issue of suicide. In her novel, The Mandarins, the main character Anne finds herself contemplating suicide but stops short and says, “my death does not belong to me, because it’s the others who would live my death.” Or as Jordan Peterson put it as he answered an audience members question on why he shouldn’t commit suicide, “Don’t be so sure your life is yours to take. You don’t own yourself the way you own an object. If you’re religious, maybe your life belongs to a higher power. Or if you’re not religious, maybe it belongs to your loved ones or some greater cause.”

My ideas on suicide evolved as I read Simone and Peterson’s point of view. My death does not belong to me. If I were to commit suicide it would be the people around me that would live my death, not me. It would perpetuate the suffering I would be attempting to escape. I often think about the idea of how much I would give to be able to talk to my mom (who died in 2012). To talk to her about anything, even the weather. How awesome it would be to pick up the phone and just call her. I hold onto this emotion and think of my own children. How much suffering would I cause if they weren’t able to talk to me whenever they wanted to because I bowed out on living. In this way, I know my kids give my life purpose.

Beyond the first two remedies, which Camus would call evasive at their core, is his response to the Absurd. Camus challenges us to live in “full consciousness, avoiding false solutions such as religion, refusing to submit, and carrying on with vitality and intensity.” This does not give us hope in an ultimate meaning but we are accepting the strain of the absurd. In doing this we are also rejecting despair. But what of happiness? “Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable,” Camus put it. It is not that discovering the absurd leads necessarily to happiness, but rather that acknowledging the absurd means also accepting human frailty, an awareness of our limitations, and the fact that we cannot help wishing to go beyond what is possible. These are all pieces of being fully alive. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” We should fully embrace the absurd and enjoy the journey in a pure act of defiance. He says we should “die unreconciled.” He wants us to be acutely conscious to the absurdity of life and choose to rebel against it nobly. In this rebellion, we reclaim control and decide for ourselves our own destiny. It this way it is quite Viktor Frankl-esque.

Camus was unapologetically frank of his dismissal of religion. Religion often provides a moral framework in which it grants purpose to our lives. It gives us answers to the meaning of life, and how to maximize it from it’s perspective. Living a life devoted to a religion offers promises of profound happiness in this life and eternal happiness in a heaven after death. This, to the religious is incredibly comforting and motivating. This is exactly how I felt about it until recently. What could be wrong with this? If not with religion, where then does wisdom lie? Camus’ answer is:

Wisdom lies with the “conscious certainty of a death without hope” and in refusing to hide from the fact that we are going to die. For Camus “there is no superhuman happiness, no eternity outside of the curve of the days. There is nothing but this world, this life, the immediacy of the present.”

If this is the only life we are going to get then do we have a duty to consciously choose (free will not withstanding) our path without hope of an afterlife? Hope is the error Camus wishes us to avoid. He endorsed the Nietzschean ideas found in Pandora’s Box in Human, All Too Human. In the book Nietzsche tells a story in which all the evils of humankind, including plagues and disease, have been let loose on the world by Zeus, but the remaining evil, hope, is kept hidden away in the box and treasured. But why, we may ask, is hope an evil? Nietzsche explains that humans have come to see hope as their greatest good, while Zeus, knowing better, has meant it as the greatest source of trouble. It is, after all, the reason why humans let themselves be tormented, because they anticipate an ultimate reward. For Camus, following this reading of Nietzsche closely, the conventional solution is in fact the problem: hope is disastrous for humans inasmuch as it leads them to minimize the value of this life except as preparation for a life beyond.1

The idea of hope has carried me during difficult moments in my life. The hope of the atonement of Jesus Christ purifying me of my sins. The hope that I will live forever in heaven with my family. The hope that the suffering in this life has a divine purpose and will be worth it in the end. If religion is not True then religious hope is categorically a false hope. Worse, because it teaches us to look away from life toward something to come afterwards, such religious hope kills a part of us. But what then is the appropriate path? Camus advocates precisely what most religions fundamentally object to: living a life of the senses, intensely, here and now, in the present. This entails, first, abandoning all hope for an afterlife. As Camus put it, “I do not want to believe that death is the gateway to another life. For me it is a closed door”.

The way I see it, only in accepting death and in being “stripped of all hope” does one most intensely appreciate life. You are able to see the importance of maximizing the well-being of those around you. You more intensely love your children and proactively make choices that benefit them in this life in the here and now. You fully and more deeply mourn for the dead and accept the frailty of life. Life, Camus says, can “be lived all the better if it has no meaning.”


Favorite Quotes

The Stranger: There is not love of life without despair about life

Plague: I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends for the moment I know this, there are sick people and they need curing

Myth of Sisyphus: The struggle towards heights is enough to fill a man’s heart

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion


References

  1. Aronson, Ronald, “Albert Camus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/camus/>.
  2. Crowell, Steven, “Existentialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/existentialism/>.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Camus
  4. https://iainews.iai.tv/articles/should-i-kill-myself-or-have-a-cup-of-coffee-the-stoics-and-existentialists-agree-on-the-answer-auid-924?access=ALL?utmsource=Reddit4

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