‘If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn't matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.’--Thomas Nagel.
Life is absurd---and I will hear nothing to the contrary.
The Christian, as well as others with religious faith of one kind or another, will tell you that life, although at times unfair or seemingly unfair, is ultimately just and meaningful because, so they assert, there is a Supreme Being in charge who will, so it goes, ensure that all things are ‘squared up’ in the fulness of time. Thus, it is said that those who appear to have suffered unfairly in this lifetime will be compensated in the supposed life-to-come, and those who appear to get away with their wrongdoings in this life will be punished in the life-to-come.
Well, that is a nice myth, and quite comforting to some. I must say that I derived some comfort from it for many years. I no longer do. The myth ‘died’ on me not so much when I came to the view that there were not only no good reasons for believing in the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God but also good reasons for not believing in the existence of such a Being. No, the myth really died on me when I saw, in all its horror, the presence everywhere of what is known as gratuitous evil and suffering. Evil or suffering is gratuitous (that is, pointless or unnecessary) if, in the view of reasonable persons, the world would be improved by its absence and when no greater good can result from its existence as opposed to non-existence. True, some people do appear to be ennobled by suffering but I hardly think that makes the suffering right or necessary. You see, all too often too high a price is paid for the experience, and all too often the experience happens at the terrible expense of the innocent, the helpless and the powerless such as children or mere bystanders.
Actually, it is virtually impossible to provide a totally satisfactory definition of gratuitous evil and suffering. Many Christian theologians seize upon that in an attempt to show that there really is no such thing as gratuitous evil and suffering. They will stop at nothing to avoid blaming or otherwise implicating God for or as respects the existence of evil and suffering of whatever kind. As I see it, the difficulties encountered by reasonable persons only serve to highlight the absurdity and irrationality of the phenomenon --- as well as its terribleness and unacceptability.
Here’s just one example of the phenomenon of gratuitous evil and suffering. I could give you many. A cousin of mine died at the age of ten from incurable brain cancer. That is as good an example of gratuitous evil and suffering as any. What did my cousin do to ‘deserve’ that? Now, I know that question is perhaps not the ‘right’ one to ask, and maybe not even a ‘good’ question to ask. For starters, the question implies that disease or suffering is the result of wrongoing on the part of the sufferer. However, the very fact that we ask such a question, as most if not all of us will do at some point or other in our lives, points to the very existence of ‘the absurd.’ We ask the question---but we get no satisfactory answer at all. None whatsoever. No 'voice' answers back. Not even the voice of reason. There is just a huge void before us. (The Christian theologian's 'answer', namely, that God suffers in and with His creation, is far from satisfying. That may satisfy some but, I suspect, not most people.)
The philosophy of absurdism, together with its first cousin existentialism, is closely associated with the writings of the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus. His writings have played an important part in the development of my own philosophy of life. Camus wrote that, on the one hand, we have this insatiable yearning for life to make sense, that is, have purpose and meaning, yet on the other hand we find, if we are rigorously honest with ourselves, that life does not have any innate or intrinsic purpose or meaning. ‘The absurd,’ wrote Camus, ‘is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.’
We must be careful here. The human being is not absurd, nor is life itself absurd if we see it as it really is---the natural and inevitable outworking of a sometimes orderly but at other times quite disorderly and even chaotic interplay of forces and events most of which are outside our conscious or personal control. Life is what it is. Terrible though it is, children dying of brain or bone cancer is precisely what one would expect to find in a world that has no innate or intrinsic meaning or purpose. However, when we place our desire for meaning and purpose and all our other hopes and expectations alongside this world which is totally oblivious to all our desires and even to our very existence, well, that’s when we get the absurd. Says Camus, ‘The absurd is not in man or in the world but in their presence together … it is the bond uniting them.’
Camus’ answer to the existence of the absurd is this---rebellion … revolt. Yes, we must rebel, even revolt, against the absurd. That will not make the absurd go away but we must live as if there were meaning in our every act, thought and word. Yes, we will ultimately die and in a very real sense all that we did will come to naught, but we can invest life with a certain meaning and purpose if we live fully, are true to ourselves, and commit ourselves to some noble cause beyond ourselves. ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy,’ Camus wrote in his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. (Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology, was condemned to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill, only to have to watch it roll back down again. Camus compared what he saw as the absurdity of our lives here on earth with the fate of Sisyphus.) We must open ourselves to ‘the gentle indifference of the world’ (Camus' words) and be able to say, as did Meursault, the anti-hero in Camus' great philosophical novel The Stranger, near the very end of his life, ‘I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.’
We do have choices in life. Perhaps they are not ‘real’ choices, for I think there is much to be said for the view that the choices that we make are necessarily determined by matters (eg our genes) that are beyond our personal or conscious control. Even our seemingly 'free' choices are largely determined by our temperament, our likes and dislikes, and the choices we've made previously. Be that as it may, we can still choose to be happy---no matter what. We can still choose to live mindfully. And we can still choose to make every moment of our finite existence here on earth count.
Yes, living mindfully, one moment at a time, is the 'answer'---in the sense of being the most appropriate response in all the circumstances---to the existence of the absurd. No, mindfulness cannot make the absurd disappear. Nothing can accomplish that feat. However, living mindfully can invest every moment of our wakeful and at times fitful existence with purpose and meaning. The purpose and meaning is in the doing, that is, in the living of our days … mindfully.
The great Persian philosopher, astronomer and poet Omar Khayyam wrote, ‘Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.’ How true that is! This present moment, which as I write those words has become the next moment and the one after that, is all that we have. Our life here on earth is a succession of life-moments each one of which is an instant of time in which we live, move and have our being. The choice which is yours and mine is this---will we choose to live each life-moment mindfully or mindlessly?
Rebel against the absurd. Revolt. Choose to be happy. Act as if your every act, thought and word had meaning and purpose. Embrace the delicious irony that in the overall scheme of things nothing truly matters at all in the sense of having any eternal lasting significance. But I urge you to do more---live nobly and, above all, mindfully … in the face of an otherwise meaningless and indifferent world.
Note. This article first appeared as a post on the author’s own blog on August 24, 2015.