What is the meaning of life? Or rather, what is the point of being alive? It is a question that many people ask and many more ignore. For the latter, there is no issue because they are happy to continue existing without asking the question. For the former the question yields answers which either led them to religion or some other abstract structure or it leads them to despair and possibly even suicide.
Perhaps one of the only philosophers to meet this issue head on was Albert Camus. In fact his main purpose of The Myth of Sisyphus was to present a direct challenge to those intending to end their life due to their conclusion that life is pointless. On a personal level, I spent many years after leaving behind the God of my upbringing, looking for something to replace it. It is an experience that a notable handful of people go through; the sudden and immediate sense that the presence of God is no longer there. The platform of meaning that had been ever present is suddenly wrenched from underneath a sure footing. I am positive that this experience is not exclusive to the religious. It may occur after any traumatic loss of a loved one or loss of conviction about the life structure that one once lived by. Either way it is, I would argue, a direct experience of what Camus called the absurd.
Camus never really defines the absurd; choosing, instead, to provide numerous pictures and examples so that we may get a sense of it. The absurd is not a philosophical proposition; rather it is a state of affairs. It is in light of this that I am reluctant to provide a definition. The sideways glance is sometimes the clearest view. However, the essential idea behind the absurd is the contradiction between our craving to find meaning and purpose and finding it impossible to do so.
That unfortunately is not absurdism in a nutshell. One might also say that it is the contradiction that arises from adopting the rational in order to improve clarity of view on life only to find we have a better view of our restrictions and limitations. It is the clear view of just how blind we are. It is the loss of hope.
Well that is as far as I am going to take defining the absurd. Camus does it very well in The Myth of Sisyphus. What I wish to focus on however are little aspects of the absurd which may help us to focus on living life a little fuller.
One might argue that this notion of the absurd is no cure for those finding everything pointless. I can appreciate that because I felt the same way when first reading up about this; however it is only on the rejection of its opposite that we get a real sense of freedom deriving from the absurd. Camus mentions that the absurd exists between the existence of the human and the world. The absurd does not exist solely in either the human or the world alone. The opposite of the absurd is the leap to faith in God or anything else that puts definitions into play in our lives without proof. The submission required to display devotion to God is to choose to define everything within the confines of doctrine. This is complete submission which in itself negates the point of true spirituality. If one begins their spiritual career feeling they are completely wretched and restricted and inherently sinful, then one can forget about even approaching the boundaries of their limits. It is a life avoiding a realistic view of what holds us back. To seek spiritual fulfilment by submitting our humanity to something we can only define in human terms is a negation of the spiritual journey.
Camus says that the remedy to the absurd is not the leap of faith. It is revolt. Absurdism is our friend by inspiring us to make it our enemy. It instils in us the characteristic of the conqueror. I would like to therefore concentrate on the aspects which are relevant to what we have discussed.
Believe it or not, resistance is the light that guides us through the matrix of our universe. Basic knowledge of physiology tells us that we sense things when we touch them, when our skin meets resistance from another object. We possess vision when light is resisted by the objects before us. We hear when sound fails to penetrate an object and returns or diverts to our ears. To take it further, a kiss is not submission but the resistance between two lovers or rather a submission to that resistance. Friendship survives not through submission to one another but by submission to the constant collision of hopes and expectations. Those two true friends will fail to know each other if one or more is a complete submissive. If one projects more of themselves, then neither can see the true shape of the other.
I have used this analogy before but to make the invisible man visible one needs to cover him with paint or cloth or something that will resist his light. It is only by resisting that we learn what our true limitations are; and it is only when we see what our limitations are, that we can see our true potential as humans; our true shape.
Imagine a hot air balloon. They are possibly a little dated now compared to say a typhoon fighter jet, but at one point in the past, some one will have looked above at a balloon for the first time and thought that humanity had truly transcended his limitations and restrictions. Whilst this might have appeared to be the case, what has actually happened is that the inventor, knowing fully the nature of his restrictions, resistance in his materials and the elements, has managed to subpoena those very things to give him flight.
When airborne, the hot air balloon is free in the sense of the opportunities that arise within the margins of its limits. It is subject to numerous forces which will either make it plummet to the ground or travel its airspace in a commanding manner. The pilot knows that adapting the height of the balloon will change its direction. Only by understanding those finite but numerous forces can they be used to the advantage of getting that balloon to go where the pilot desires. This is the acceptance that restrictions exist not to help us see what is over the wall but to maximise the experience of what is inside it. Our sense of infinity will not give us a view of the infinite but rather a sense of the finite.
Likewise it is only by revolting against our boundaries that we can really begin to visualise ourselves clearly. This may sound strange but if we really think about it, our view of ourselves is nearly always dependent on how we react to others reacting or not reacting to us. Our view of ourselves is so very often balanced by the media and those around us rather than balanced by ourselves. Whilst some may prefer this, I am sure that to many, this is where the sense of pointlessness stems.
Depression is the condition where most people suffering from it, at some point will convey the desire to no longer be here or that they should be better off dead. Some may have a sound philosophical argument as to why they are depressed but actually this does not make sense. A philosophical premise should really not make one depressed. More often than not, the philosophical idea that life is pointless is born from the depression which is caused by something else. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy recognises that there are five aspects of life experience which affect how we feel and these are thoughts, moods, behaviours, physical reactions all under the umbrella of our environment. What becomes apparent, when we think further, is that all these things are subject to manipulation. These things are like the wind which will push our hot air balloon in certain directions. As the example shows, we are not masters of these factors; we cannot command many of them. What we can do is navigate ourselves through them in either a negative or positive way in directions of our choosing.
On a personal level, now that I am beginning to embrace my restrictions fully, now that I am fully embracing the life that the absurd leads us towards, I find that the original question of “what is the meaning of life?” is an irrelevance. It is a question that is use to divert us towards the leap towards what Camus calls the irrational. It is the wrong question. Once we embrace the absurd as the marriage between the two lovers that is the human and the world, we are inspired to ask a question we know we can answer through living our lives fully. That question is “How can I live my life with meaning and purpose.”