Let me take you back to that time when you studied Greek Mythology in high school or maybe you read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus in your college philosophy class.
I know. But you must allow me to nerd-out once in a while. Plus, it’s Election Day and I could use a good distraction.
Sisyphus, you may recall, was punished for all of eternity to roll a boulder up a mountain. Except it gets worse. Just before he gets that rock to the top, the weight of it becomes too much for him, it comes crashing back down to the bottom, and he’s forced to start all over again.
That’s right. Because he offended the gods, Sisyphus was sentenced to live out the rest of his days struggling perpetually to perform a perfectly futile action. Ah, Sisyphys, the O.G. Phil Connors (cue the obscure Groundhog Day reference, which is probably somewhat less obscure in these pandemic times).
If you’re feeling particularly cynical (or you took Camus’ lesson to heart), you might have immediately recognized that Sisyphus’ life in Hades IS your life. And I’m not comparing rolling a boulder up a mountain for all of eternity to living through a pandemic or the 2020 U.S. Presidential election cycle — I’m not sure what we did to offend the gods, but it must have been really bad.
No. Sisyphus’ absurd struggle is a metaphor for the human condition, pandemic or no pandemic.
The Paradox of Life
If you’re less cynical and the revelation that your life is nothing more than an absurd exercise in futility strikes you as highly depressing or obviously false, great! You’re paying attention!
When we first encounter the possibility that our lives don’t make sense, it weighs on our conscience, even if just for a moment. “What is the meaning of life?,” we ask. This is a fundamental question for human beings and it definitely feels like a problem if we can’t find an answer.
The reason the possible absurdity of life eats at us is that it’s profoundly difficult to prove — using logic anyway — that our lives have meaning.
Here are the two horns of the dilemma we face:
- From the perspective of the universe, our lives are but a tiny fraction of the whole (meaningless).
- From the perspective of the individual, our lives occupy the entirety of what we think about (meaningful).
The paradox of life is that we can’t help but hold both of these beliefs simultaneously and yet, they contradict each other. We can’t help but feel the tension between these beliefs and yet, we can’t disprove either one. It’s a classic paradox.
Most of us instinctively take refuge in one of two extreme beliefs:
- We embrace the meaninglessness and give in to the irrationality (nihilism)
- Or we embrace the meaningfulness and become dogmatic in imposing our own ideas on the world (leap of faith)
But neither of these options solves the dilemma or makes life any less absurd. The nihilist, as long as he doesn’t choose to end it all, still has hopes, dreams, and goals. The person of blind faith, whether it’s faith in a divine presence or faith in her own abilities, still trembles with fear when contemplating her own insignificance.
Fortunately, Camus says there’s a third option: acceptance of the absurdity. Yep. All we have to do is “BOTH…AND” the universe and we’re living on Easy Street. Phew!
“What is the Meaning of Life?” is the Wrong Question
Okay, okay. So maybe we can accept the absurdity. After all, as human beings, we live with absurdity a lot of the time. Wave-particle duality, for example, seems pretty absurd to me. But how does accepting absurdity disappear the ‘meaning of life’ question?
I’m sure Sisyphus doesn’t need much convincing to see the absurdity of his boulder-rolling life. What Sisyphus and what we really want to know is why this absurd life is worth living.
For Camus, accepting the absurdity is about more than recognizing it. What gives our lives meaning is that we persist in spite of the absurdity.
“Nevertheless, she persisted…”
This is what makes Sisyphus the ultimate absurd hero. At least our lives have a facade of goals and projects that seem to culminate in completion. But if, like Sisyphus, we can see our lives as BOTH nothing more than absurd struggle AND keep on keeping on, then that’s meaning.
Camus says, “What is the meaning of life?” is the wrong question to ask. Or rather, we’ve already answered our own question. We are perhaps the only beings who can shake our fists at the irrationality of it all and keep on keeping on.
What if this is all there is to it? What if the meaning of life just is the absurdity of it? What if we truly accepted the futility of our lives? What if we actually embraced the absurdity of it all? Camus says, then — and only then — can we begin to live honestly.
Camus’ Invitation to Reinvent Success
The practical lesson for those of us who want to use this stuff beyond playing an absurd philosophical game is that Camus is inviting us to reinvent success. It bears noting that Camus wrote the Myth of Sisyphus during the Nazi invasion of France. So, clearly it was more than an absurd philosophical game for him.
The practical takeaway can be summed up like this:
“Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.”
Instead of thinking that success means landing that dream job, climbing that corporate ladder, or making more money this year than you made last year every year until you die, what if success means accepting the absurdity of all these arbitrary measurements of success and plugging along anyway?
This is the real meaning of the idea that “happiness is an inside job.” It’s not the cloyingly sweet greeting card version that makes my cynical side cringe. It’s the Stoic version of real acceptance that “none of us is getting out of here alive.” This isn’t something to fear or something to feel depressed about. It’s something to accept and something to see as a guiding principle.
How would your life change if you accepted your most deeply held commitments and beliefs as absurd? You might think you’d stop making commitments and stop believing in anything at all. But you wouldn’t. Thanks to the paradox of life, nihilism isn’t a live option.
You might think, instead, that radical freedom is the answer. If the commitments and beliefs you inherit from society are absurd, then why not quit that job and start that business you’ve been dreaming about? Great! Go for it! But remember, the commitments and beliefs you inherit from inside your own head aren’t any less absurd or arbitrary. Taking a leap of faith is just what we need sometimes, but it can’t define success.
Too often, we believe that we’d just be happy if we had a different job, if our kids were different (or if we didn’t have kids — it’s okay, you can admit it), if our spouse were different, if we didn’t have a spouse (it’s okay, you can admit it), if we had a spouse…
But the thing is circumstances change all the time. We get what we want or not, then what? We want something else. That’s the nature of the human condition.
We will never find contentment by achieving conditional success. When we reach enlightenment (if that’s a thing), we won’t even get to experience it. It’s not the kind of thing human beings with our unlimited supply of wants and desires get to experience.
What we can experience is a slice of heaven right here and now. We can choose to reinvent success as BOTH accepting that our lives are absurd AND persisting in spite of that absurdity.
And since our lives are absurd, why not spend a little time taking my Writer Profile quiz? At least then you’ll have a clear direction for your persistence when it comes to writing. How’s that for a segue?
Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks. She loves helping experts who are long on ideas, but short on time write business books.