As the title suggests I wish to recall a story – the story of how I grew to stop worrying about and subsequently fighting with the nature of my existence and embrace the happiness of the absurd.
I first read Camus’ seminal work “The Outsider'(or ‘The Stranger’ as it known in more civilized countries) when I was 14 – and as is the case for most 14 year old boys who read that book I fell instantly in love with Meursault. Oh how his brooding disinterest and rampant melancholy resonated with my own difficulty in feeling much of anything for the world. I was hooked from the very first page all the way through to the last, ravenously I ate that book up in a single sitting. I sat for weeks after trying to piece together what Camus had been trying to tell me – I settled upon a meaning that satisfied my angsty teenage view of the world and this acted as my ‘gateway drug’ into the wide world of existentialist philosophy.
Over the next few years I took in Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky – I remember once as a rather more petulant man trying to argue a far too literal case of the aphorism ‘Perception Is reality’ with a teacher; A memory that still brings a scarlet hue to my cheek to this day. Needless to say I had fallen hard for these dead men and their vastly pessimitic vantage on the world.
There is only one problem with a child growing up an existentialist – most of them are miserable bastards. Necessarily when confronted with the vast precipice of human possibility anxiety emerged as a key theme within the thought of the existentialists and a certain degree of pessimism about one’s ability to ever overcome or resolve this anxiety. When I think about ‘mature themes’ I actually think it is these types of thoughts rather than sex or violence or drug use that should receive cautionary listing at the beginning or on the covers of media to which they can be attributed. They certainly played havoc with my mind for a great many years. This is not a havoc I regret as I still count myself to be a firm existential to this day; however I must acknowledge the shortcoming of my past if I wish to grow into the future.
I spent years advocating a kind of indirect existentialist strength of character through expending energy trying to solve my issues with reason and practical thought – as I thought must have been the intent of my philosophical brethren, for was not their philosophy a reasoned and measured response to their own problems with life? In this state I was forced to seek a rational answer for every problem I was presented with – this caused me the greatest degree of angst imaginable – for as many readers will be aware, this is an entirely futile exercise.
It wasn’t until i was possessed, after attaining a tertiary qualification and some nouse at the ability to research, with a desire to conduct a comprehensive and chronological reading of the historical evolution of existentialist thought that a number of key facts I’d missed as an adolescent emerged to me.
First and foremost – That I had entirely misunderstood Camus as an author. Instead of mirroring the Nihilism or angst that came to characterize so many of his forebears Camus advocated a much more practical and upbeat response to the problem of existentialist anxiety. Happiness. Instead of resigning himself to Kierkegaardian anxiety upon realizing that when faced with the entirety of human possibility it was impossible to possess any great deal of surety or rational sense of meaning; Camus advocated living a life that was in and of itself a justification for living. He advocated a love of the human body and of the smaller pedestrian joys of life – finding joy in the unlikely and absurd nature of one’s existence and happiness in the natural beauty that surrounds us. It was not until I could really grasp the joy of Camus’ absurdism that I really began to understand, after years of pessimistic existential dread, the aphorism “We must imagine Sisyphus happy”.
It is in this acceptance of the abstract nature of our lives – in the ways our lives fail to mirror the very rational and trackable progress that the modern world teaches us to expect through: Video games, fitness wearables and loyalty rewards schemes that I found happiness. It is in the almost Orwellian doublethink of the adage that ‘practice makes perfect’and the rejection of this truth that happiness can be found. The modern world allows us to make anything of ourselves given enough effort, but this will not guarantee us happiness. So I have learnt to let go and Camus showed me the way. Not the type of ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ kind of letting go that some achieve when they assign this same absurd to the deific, as I feel this defeats Camus’ message in it’s own crucial way – more on that some other time, but rather the acceptance that no choice can be made with the type of surety we are trained to expect. There are no ‘risk mitigation strategies’ or progress bars for the meaningful pursuits in life – happiness is achieved by accepting one’s own uniquely fallible position within the vast and unfeeling world and seeing the small beauties in everything despite knowing that nothing you can do has any degree of certainty or ability to affect this.
It is for this happiness that I fell in love with Camus all over again as an adult for the beauty that he captures with his words and the joy he expresses in the mundane and the absurd.
So that is the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love the absurd.