No matter what, life is always worth living.
Painting of Sisyphus to whom was banished by the gods to forever be condemned to carrying a boulder up a hill just to see it fall back down (via Wikimedia Commons)
At the beginning of his book The Myth of Sisyphus the French philosopher, Albert Camus, greets the reader with this bold beginning:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards.”
This stark introduction preludes Camus’ fundamental argument that life has no meaning. Such a claim asserts itself to be an extremity at first, but such a claim rests alongside the existential conclusions drawn by similar, deep philosophical thinkers that we’ve come to praise from Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, all the way to Jean-Paul Sartre.
The idea that there is simply no pre-ordained meaning to life. That we humans are nothing more than biological matter spinning senselessly on a rock suspended in space absent of the hands of an all-powerful deity. There exists no bigger point to life and there is no reason to believe so. Life, in essence, lies in our hands and in our hands alone.
This may appear to be an extraordinarily grim reality to face — and not to mention a large burden to bear — but it’s that hopelessness that Camus aims to enlighten and absurdly provide hopefulness to within the philosophy that he lays out.
He instead proclaims that although life is absurd — riddled with violence, aggression, corruptness, vice, tragedy, and an ultimate end that will cause us to be forgotten and our actions to be considered futile within the greater scheme of things — that we must endure nonetheless. We must be Sisyphus.
Discover a World in Your Night-Filled Mountain
Sisyphus is the epitome portrayal of a life riddled with utter meaninglessness. It was said that he was condemned by the gods in hell to roll a boulder up a hill, to have it roll back down inches from the peak, just to roll it back up again, whereupon it would fall back down, and so on in an eternal loop. Clearly, a life lived as such can bear no sustenance, right?
Yet, Camus takes a rather unique perspective of this story by writing:
“But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
To imagine Sisyphus happy amidst such futility is, dare I say, absurd. But it’s within that absurdity that Camus’ lays out his perennial philosophy, Absurdism.
The boulder that Camus’ Sisyphus is burdened with possesses two relational components to life: 1) the bottomless pit of futile tasks that riddle our daily lives and 2) life itself. Therefore, it is to say that every moment of our lives metaphorically consists of the boulders that we push, and to cease to push them is to not live at all — either as a cause of death or stagnation.
We all have our own burdens to carry, goals to reach, and lives to live. We get lost within the rhythm of our daily routine that repeats itself over and over again without much change, just to later find ourselves years later asking ourselves, “What’s the point of all this?” — existential crisis personified.
As human beings, our lives parallel that of Sisyphus, and yet, many of us struggle to find solace and happiness within the absurdity of our lives. Reaching out in search of external answers for the meaning and purpose of life just to be answered by the universe with silence.
But rarely does one tell themselves, “well maybe there isn’t any meaning” and “maybe an answer to that question is not what I need.”
With Sisyphus, it can be made clear that one doesn’t need to be driven by some overarching meaning of life to have a fulfilled and happy life. Rather we should focus on what we do have possession and control of — the ability to think. Sisyphus has the power to choose to love life for the simple privilege of living it. To focus on what’s in front of him and what he can experience instead of being worried about the qualms of his punishment. Such a perspective is a powerful one to adopt. It teaches us a very important lesson:
In a hopeless world that’s void of meaning, we alone have the power to give it meaning. Accept reality as it is and make the intentional choice to make the most of it.
Constrained to a harrowing fate, Sisyphus understands that no amount of effort that he exudes will lead to anything better in the future. Therefore, instead of wallowing in his own despair, he recognizes that the only possibility of happiness is by finding content in the act itself.
He chooses to assign meaning to his existence by simply recognizing the privilege he maintains to be alive, perceive, and think. He forms an entire world within every grain of rubble that shrouds him.
The heroic nature of Sisyphus’s character is defined by the rebelliousness of discovering joy within what was supposed to be his punishment. You must refuse to bow down to the misery that life throws at you and instead choose to find peace within that despair.
Like all things, this is much easier said than done. Therefore, the true question is, how can you practically define such meaning for yourself?
A Life Rich with Purpose and Meaning
The key is to rebel. You must own up to the meaningless of it all and decide at once to keep living life well and fully.
Camus’ extends the notion that the acceptance of a meaningless life is paradoxically a means to provide us with a life full of freedom and reason to live. With the absence of meaning, we stop looking for some guiding principle paving the roadmap of our lives. And when one stops looking for the bigger point of life, life begins to fall into your own hands and the world starts opening up. As Camus writes:
“There is no longer a single idea explaining everything, but an infinite number of essences giving a meaning to an infinite number of objects. The world comes to a stop, but also lights up.”
In essence, there is beauty to be found in every corner of existence that makes life well worth enduring. Instead of a singular meaning that gives breath to life, life becomes saturated with many different meanings that make it fulfilling and joyful.
Without a singular guiding principle, you have the freedom to define values of your own. You can think for yourself and draw your own conclusions about life. You can define for yourself what exactly it is that makes you happy. You can choose to appreciate life for every single thing that it has privileged you with. You gain control and harness your ability to think in accordance with your beliefs and yours alone — not that which was pushed unto you through culture, family, or friends.
To better grasp the fruits of this philosophy, you must look no further than Camus’ own life. Polar to the existentialists mentioned earlier who several of which lived rather dim lives, Camus lived a life of extravagance.
His idea of the absurd compelled him to become intensely committed to and deeply serious about the pleasures of ordinary life. He loved sports and even went on to write heavily about his deep appreciation for sunny beaches, women, and the many pleasures he came to love.
When reflecting on his life and what his philosophy has done for him, he writes:
“it sums itself up for me as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.”
Therefore, to create a life rich with meaning and full of purpose, you simply need to let go of the pursuit of meaning altogether. Instead, give yourself a chance to learn to love the process of living. It’s not the destination that fills your heart, but it’s the journey.
Hopefully, with such a detachment from meaning, you can foster a purpose and reason for existence that can take form in a plethora of ways.
It could be gratitude for simply have the chance to breathe and see another day. Maybe an appreciation for the constantly shifting nature of reality. Perhaps an undying thirst for exploration and the mere pleasure of activity. Or possibly just possessing the opportunity to support and love those near and dear to you.
In many ways, I see the fruits of Absurdism paralleling the primary concepts of Taoism in the sense that what you’re really trying to do is just accept life for what it is and move forward effortlessly — entranced entirely by the moment and a love for everything within each moment. With that, I’ll leave you with this timeless quote from Lao Tzu:
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”