Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Laughing Buddha

“It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.” – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

We like to meet with our friend Bomstein at a local bar, which we’ve dubbed Absurd HQ. We go there and talk about the absurd, muse on the writings of Camus and how good the wood-grilled bratwursts are with the black & tan. We have met there so often here, we just feel more absurd when we walk in the door.

One of us is reading Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus again. We admit that it can be tough reading sometimes. On our first go-round, we were not sure what Camus meant about half the time. But keep going and there are wonderful turns of phrase, memorable observations and, certainly, a great argument that builds to a powerful conclusion. It is the kind of thing you can read more than once and get more out of it each time.

Camus inspires us to live life in full recognition that it has no meaning. The absurd man, Camus writes, “can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself.” Live life to the fullest, challenge the world anew every second, seize awareness at all times. “Living is keeping the absurd alive. Keeping it alive is, above all, contemplating it.”

The great thing about the absurd is just being aware. Just sitting there in the bar and knowing our small place in the world and how it has no meaning at all. It allows us to just be. Worries melt away.

We find the absurd is great in this respect. Think of its practical aspects. Beautiful women you might not otherwise approach without stumbling all over yourself suddenly become easy encounters. Bosses who used to induce terror and stress become the ridiculous defecating animals they are. That guy who cut you off on the way over here – forgotten!

The hard part in the beginning is reminding yourself of the absurd. Here we would offer some practical wisdom that has worked for us. Get yourself a laughing Buddha. In fact, get several.

We have them all over the house and they serve, for us, as reminders of the absurd. The Buddha laughs at the world’s troubles. We have one by our nightstand that laughs at us when we get up every morning. And we laugh with it. We have a bigger one right by our laptop in our office. It’s a nice carved Buddha we picked up in China. But any Buddha will do. Any reminder will do, really.

A physical reminder will help you cultivate constant awareness of the absurd. And you, too, will laugh with the Buddha.

Childish concerns

The other day, our six-year old son asked us what is required to become a grown-up. (Yes, you can be absurd and have children...) Bemused by the question, we asked exactly what he meant. "Well," he said, "how does a kid turn into a grown-up?" We explained there was no particular set of rules, but of course this did not suffice.

After thinking for a moment, he proposed that perhaps one should be required to get all your grown-up teeth (with which we wholeheartedly agreed), but obviously this was not enough. Finally, he suggested perhaps giving up one's preference for cake would do the trick. After all, he explained, liking cake is "not really important," something grown-ups apparently understand better than kids.

The exchange put us in mind of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince," the classic and timeless tale of a man who comes in contact with a child prince and learns that adults have the world essentially backwards, worrying about all the wrong things.

Now, regular readers will know we believe all worry is misplaced, so isn't this simply a matter of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic? Not exactly. As we have explained, we believe embracing the absurdity of life frees one to truly live, however one chooses to define that. But we will also go out on a limb and say that the percentage of people who actually enjoy eating a piece of cake is significantly higher than that of people who enjoy (to pick a current "grown-up concern") debating the role government should play in the health-care system.

This does not, by the way, mean we think either is more meaningful from a broad perspective (as discussed here). Rather, we think most adults shortchange themselves by spending far too much time thinking about, discussing, and worrying about the wrong things. For example, one reason we love sports is that people accept it is absurd (well, most people, anyway), and thus do not get all worked up about it. We, therefore, much prefer discussing sports to talking about politics, as the fact that people believe politics "matter" causes them to get angry, say hurtful things, and generally act in a manner that creates conflict.

What we eventually told our son was that "important" things could be whatever he wanted. (To clarify, we were not endorsing the concept of "meaning," but merely simplifying for a six-year old.) He, of course, was having none of it.

"Well," he said with a devious smirk, "then I guess I'll decide family isn't important."

Perhaps absurdity is genetic after all...

Monday, July 27, 2009

The great problem is facing death

The great problem is facing death. We are conscious of it. We know we will die. And while we know death in a way that rats and rabbits don’t, we still cope in similar ways: we narrow down the world to something we can handle.

We don’t think about the vast indifferent universe and our tiny part in it all. We instead focus on getting the groceries and mowing the lawn. In other words, we develop a certain obliviousness to the great unfathomable terrors of our existence. If we didn’t cope in some way, it might be hard to get out of bed in the morning.

And so, most of us put all kinds of meaning in things and people in our lives. We infuse our consciousness with a sense of self. We layer on this grand illusion all kinds of ambitions and hopes and dreams. We keep our eye on small problems, like what we will have for lunch or whether or not we will get a raise.

In this way, we build some self-protection for ourselves against the reality of our existence. Ensconced warmly in this protective illusion, we are free to go about our business and not worry about the meaningless nature of our existence and the absolute futility of the struggle.

In short, we bite off what we can chew and no more. We forget about the rest. Society would judge this normal behavior. A man so embalmed in the fluid of his fantasies, society would dub “well-adjusted.”

A neurotic, by contrast, is someone who refuses to live the illusion and suffers from it. As the Otto Rank, the Austrian psychoanalyst put it:

“If man is the more normal, healthy and happy, the more he can successfully repress, displace, deny, rationalize, dramaticize himself and deceive others, then it follows that the suffering of the neurotic comes from painful truth… He is much nearer to the actual truth psychologically than the others and it is just that from which he suffers.”

In other words, a neurotic is robbed of that ability or instinct which gives him the power to believe his own illusions.

And here, we come to the absurd man…

The absurd man is somewhere between the two. He, too, does not believe the illusions, but he chooses not to, whereas the psychotic does not exercise such control.

Unlike the neurotic, the absurd man does not suffer from an inability to believe his illusions. Instead, the absurd man is grateful he has seen past them. He faces death and a meaningless existence cheerfully. It does not terrify him. In fact, he celebrates this reality and finds it liberating.

A man who truly drinks in the idea that he will die, and his life has no meaning or purpose, is a man who is free from the petty concerns of this life. He is free to just be. And he is happy.

The ultimate answer key

When we were younger, we used to lie awake at night thinking wistfully of the day when we would have true "security." Not that we had it all that well defined, mind you--it was more a vague notion of a life in order, with plenty of money to do whatever we chose; in short, a life free from worry.

However, a curious thing happened on our way to the promised land. Instead of finding that more money, things, and even friends made us happier, we often found the opposite. Whereas, for example, we used to be perfectly happy with a $10 bottle of wine, we suddenly found such wine unacceptable compared to the $20 wine we could now afford; meanwhile, we salivated at someday being able to enjoy even pricier bottles.

Interestingly, it was not that the end was not in sight at any given point, but rather that the finish line kept receding. If that $20 bottle tasted good, imagine how much enjoyment we would find in a $50 bottle!

We suspect we are not alone in this; indeed, the human desire for security is extraordinarily powerful, perhaps more so than anything besides sex. Yet the untold secret is that true security can be found only by abandoning your search for it. Mortal creatures being, well, mortal, will never find security in the things of the physical world.

Indeed, the more we search for security, the more elusive it becomes. If you believe a bigger salary, more extravagant house, or better-looking girlfriend is the "answer," you will eventually be disappointed. Moreover, the more stock you put in any particular thing, event, or person to "make your life complete," the bigger the disappointment when they inevitably fail to do so.

This is true even for things typically thought of as "really mattering" such as one's health, family, friendships, etc. We are often bemused when we discuss the absurd with people who tell us they are on board except for whatever they believe is "truly important."

The truth is that to assert one's family "matters" is no different from believing a huge house will provide the answer. All are part of the same mirage; some are simply more socially acceptable than others. Consider why family should be more important than (for example) a large house (or, for that matter, your neighbor's family). Why should we care more about those to whom we are genetically related than other people, or things such as houses? Is there some rational and objective reason to do so?

The answer, of course, is there is not, but we have been conditioned to believe such things through countless millennia of natural selection. Further, since the vast majority of people feel this way, there are enormous societal pressures to conform to such norms. Indeed, when we explain our vision of the absurd to others we are often met with blank stares and questions along the lines of "But how can you live that way?"

We ask the opposite question - once you have seen the absurd (taken the red pill, if you will), how could you not live that way?

It is hard to overstate the wondrously liberating feeling we experienced when we first grasped the significance of the absurd. In essence, the answer to the question we had been asking for as long as we could remember had been sitting there, unobserved, all along. Moreover, imagine our surprise at discovering that, in our frantic efforts to escape from uncertainty and worry, we had been unwittingly binding ourselves in ever-tighter chains.

True security lies only in accepting (and embracing) our ultimate and total lack of security.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Accepting the Chaos... and the Smallness of Man

We came from a recent meeting overseas with investment strategists and thinkers. As we’ve pointed out before, we make our living in the financial markets. It is a wonderful place to be for those who are connoisseurs of the absurd, as we are.

For one thing, “the market” is a bigger and wilder place than most investors seem to want to believe. A participant in the markets must grapple with the fact that little is in his control. Much of what happens over any stretch of time involves a lot of forces interacting and creating cascades of complexity that are hard to wrap one’s brain around. In the absence of such understanding, much of what happens seems a matter of luck or randomness. Meaningless.

It is, in short, a lot like life.

And yet… The thing that strikes us most among our peers is the earnest and never-ending effort to bring order to this chaos. People go to great lengths to explain small changes in stock prices, for instance, over short stretches of time. They go through great lengths to come up with rational ways to predict prices.

And the models people dream up to explain what they see are inherently ridiculous. For instance, there are a number of so-called “chart readers” in markets, or technicians. They think see patterns in stock charts and ascribe great meaning to certain of these patterns – such as when stock prices break through imaginary support lines or arbitrary moving averages.

To us it seems like reading entrails.

Indeed, it really represents a great futile struggle to give meaning and order to what is inherently unstable and whirling, even contradictory, even aberrant and irrational.

This also applies to life. People are constantly searching for meaning in events, struggling to fit them in some greater order for how the world ought to work. They are reluctant to see how small they are.

Another great allegory for life that makes this clear is the sea. Man is very small next to the powers of the great oceans. The sea makes man’s absurd condition hard to miss.

One of the great absurd novels is Melville’s Moby Dick, as Albert Camus noted. (Camus: “I could, at least in the realm of creation, list some truly absurd works. (Melville's Moby Dick, for instance).”)

The novel is absurd on many levels…. in Ahab’s futile quest, in the great power of sea and the White Whale… the meaningless quest … the feeling of being alone that touches all of the characters… the fine line they walk with suicide… death is always very near…

“If a painter of the Absurd has played a role in my idea of literary art,” Camus wrote, “it is the author of the admirable Moby-Dick, the American Melville.”

“I wonder,” says Stubbs, one of Ahab’s officers, “whether the world is anchored anywhere?”

The absurd man reasons that it isn't and he is not concerned. He knows life has no meaning and, therefore, he is free. He cheerfully accepts this fate, looks down into the abyss with a steady eye and is happy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

More Krishnamurti...

As noted, we find Krishnamurti to be among the most inspiring of individuals. Thus, when we ran across this one-page summary of his teachings, we felt compelled to share it.

The Core of Krishnamurti's Teaching

The core of Krishnamurti's teaching is contained in the statement he made in 1929 when he said: "Truth is a Pathless Land." Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophic knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection. Man has built in himself images as a fence of security--religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, beliefs. The burden of these images dominates man's thinking, his relationships and his daily life. These images are the causes of our problems for they divide man from man. His perception of life is shaped by the concepts already established in his mind. The content of his consciousness is his entire existence. This content is common to all humanity. The individuality is the name, the form and superficial culture he acquires from tradition and environment. The uniqueness of man does not lie in the superficial but in complete freedom from the content of his consciousness, which is common to all mankind. So he is not an individual.

Freedom is not a reaction: freedom is not choice. It is man's pretence that because he has choice he is free. Freedom is pure observation without direction, without fear of punishment and reward. Freedom is without motive; freedom is not at the end of the evolution of man but lies in the first step of his existence. In observation one begins to discover the lack of freedom. Freedom is found in the choiceless awareness of our daily existence and activity.

Thought is time. Thought is born of experience and knowledge which are inseparable from time and the past. Time is the psychological enemy of man. Our action is based on knowledge and therefore time, so man is always a slave to the past. Thought is ever-limited and so we live in constant conflict and struggle. There is no psychological evolution.

When man becomes aware of the movement of his own thoughts he will see the division between the thinker and the thought, the observer and the observed, the experiencer and the experience. He will discover that this division is an illusion. Then only is there pure observation which is insight without any shadow of the past or of time. This timeless insight brings about a deep radical mutation in the mind.

Total negation is the essence of the positive. When there is negation of all those things that thought has brought about psychologically, only then is there love, which is compassion and intelligence.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Embracing the abyss

We have been engaged in a very interesting debate with a reader in recent days. Put simply, he (we assume it is a he) questioned our assertion that given the meaninglessness of existence, it does not "matter" if one's wife has an affair. In his view, we are being too dogmatic about the meaning of "meaning," and not recognizing the (in his words) "tapestry of personal meaning" we all weave around ourselves. Thus, we are failing to recognize the difference between the universal (which is meaningless) and the personal (which is not, even if said meaning only has relevance to each of us individually).

This is an interesting point, and one which seems to have a great deal of validity. After all, as our reader points out, if you take our position to its logical extreme there is absolutely no difference between spending a weekend skiing in Vail with your supermodel girlfriend (for example) and sitting on a park bench staring vacantly into space. In fact, why bother to get out of bed in the morning at all when you know everything you do is futile, doomed to complete and total irrelevance?

Well...why indeed? As we noted in a recent post, the first decision one must make after recognizing the absurd is whether or not to go on living. But a deeper question is whether one should live for certain "things"--be they other people, material possessions, or certain feelings--or for the sake of living itself. We obviously believe the latter, but this is in fact a much more complicated question than it first appears, with (in our opinion) some very dangerous pitfalls.

For example, our reader referenced Douglas Hofstadter's excellent book "I Am a Strange Loop" as support for his position that the personal is meaningful. Indeed, in the book, Hofstadter, who makes a compelling case for the self being nothing more than a grand and incredibly seductive illusion, nevertheless clings to the memory of his wife (who died unexpectedly of a brain tumor) as meaningful to him. Again, this seems fairly straightforward--why must our embrace of meaninglessness on a universal level preclude feelings and self-created meaning on a personal level?

Basically, our reader draws a sharp distinction between reliance on what he terms "externally-imposed" meaning (e.g., what the church or society says "matters") and "self-created" meaning. In his words: "To accept externally imposed meaning is to subject one's self to the whims and machinations of others. But self-created meaning is a wholly different thing. With self-created meaning, I am the one who chooses. There is no ceding of control here. If anything, there is a taking of control... a stepping up to the task...Self-created meaning is a beautiful thing, because one can make of [it] whatever one chooses. One can cut off the left side of the distribution, so to speak, and tailor the contours of your metaphysical existence however one sees fit."

Well, as Lee Corso might say, "Not so fast, my friend!" The error our reader is making is that by embracing meaning (even as he admits the whole thing is a fraud) he invalidates his entire belief structure. Put simply, if your happiness (or perhaps a better word is contentment) is dependent on external things--even if they are things you choose, and even if you recognize the ultimate absurdity of it all--you are indeed ceding control. How could it be otherwise? Can you really control whether your wife has an affair? If you believe family is all that "matters" (and many people do, even as they profess sympathy for the absurd), what happens if your wife and children are killed in a plane crash? What if they are all stricken with cancer?

More importantly, there is no difference whatsoever in external and self-created meaning. Consider someone who believes the teachings of the Catholic church to be meaningful, and who thus models his behavior around church teachings. While our reader would no doubt place such behavior in the "externally imposed" category of meaning, would the church follower agree? We think not. Just as all parents believe they have an enormous impact on their children, and all children believe they are their "own" people, so everyone believes the things that "matter" to them are important because they chose them. The individual in our example would almost certainly claim to believe in church teachings not because someone told him to, but because he has recognized their validity of his own free accord. Indeed, to turn this around, we would argue that the things our reader views as "meaningful" to him are simply products of his genetic makeup and environment. Put a slightly different way, to believe what our reader proposes you must also believe in the existence of a self, and therefore in something that exists beyond the physical. Otherwise, who is the "I" that "chooses" the things that matter?

Consider the original example, that of one's wife having an affair. We recognize that for most people it is jarring to hear us assert such an event does not matter, but ask yourself why. The answer, for those who choose to find it, is that jealousy (along with other human emotions) is nothing more than a biologically advantageous strategy passed down from our ancestors. Thus, men who were more successful at keeping their wives from mating from other men tended to pass down more genes than those who were less successful. It really is that simple, as Richard Dawkins revealed in his groundbreaking work The Selfish Gene. turns out the reason I am jealous if my wife has an affair (and let's be honest - most people would be) is simple biology and evolution.

But the crux of the matter is the false distinction drawn between externally imposed and self-created meaning, which masquerades as truth, but instead creates self-imposed obstacles to achieving true contentment through acceptance of our fate. In short, in his quixotic quest to create meaning in the face of an uncaring universe, our reader unwittingly denies himself the wondrous experience of embracing the abyss.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The absurd is out there...

One of our biggest surprises since discovering the absurd has been just how many people are (and have been) absurd, and how we never noticed until we made the connection ourselves. In today's Washington Post, for example, MIT professor Marcia Bartusiak tells the story of how Edwin Hubble, in an effort to entertain the English poet Edith Sitwell, showed her slides "depicting the many galaxies that cannot be seen with the naked eye. 'How terrifying!' she exclaimed. To which Hubble replied: 'Only at first -- when you are not used to them. Afterwards, they give one comfort. For then you know that there is nothing to worry about -- nothing at all.'"

We couldn't have put it better ourselves.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Bukowski, absurd man

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was a great American writer and poet. His work was also full of the absurd. Put another way: He knew life had no meaning, accepted it and then drank some beer and bet horses and chased women and wrote a boatload of poems. He lived life as it came.

And he had quite a life - an abusive father and difficult childhood, followed by a long stretch of menial day jobs and wandering, living on the edge of poverty. Through it all, his keen eye for the absurd never wavered. He was well into his 40s before his poetry began to pay.

He spent a lot of time around racetracks and bars. Where else to witness the whole spectrum of human absurdities? He was fascinated by man’s hopeless persistence and struggle. Knowledge of death, though, was an anecdote. “Living was easy,” Buk writes, “all you had to do was let go.”

There is a definite thread in Buk’s poems of acceptance of things as they are, another absurd trait… Bukowski accepts and does not moralize. “I’m one of those who doesn’t think there is much difference / between an atomic scientist and a man who cleans the crappers.”

In another poem, he writes about meeting a very old man while Buk was living in New Orleans as a broke 21 year-old. The two take walks together. Buk writes:

“I liked him: he never questioned me about
what I was or wasn’t

he should have been my father, and I liked
best what he said over and
over: “Nothing is worth

Here Buk hits on the illusion of meaning in human pursuits. Nothing matters. The last line also has a double meaning, an optimistic absurd meaning: “Nothing” – the meaningless of it all – is worth it. It’s worth living the absurd life.

Hard to say what to read when it comes to Bukowski. He was incredibly prolific and there are reams of poetry volumes. The later stuff tends to be more absurd, when the poet was older, facing death, looking back on a long life…

I would point to You Get So Alone Sometimes It Just Makes Sense or Last Night of the Earth Poems. Another potential choice is Bone Palace Ballet, which we've not read yet, but which the Library Journal writes is about the acceptance of death and old age: “Bukowski knows he faces death and seeks "the grave to find a more/ comfortable/ position." He realizes that death will be his final act, and he will be "alone but not lonely." Accepting it, he writes with clarity and precision: "I will write the stuff only for myself/ and to myself” and goes on to realize that in death he will "no longer defile these pages/ with my raw and simple/ lines."”

And finally, a last summing up from Buk, reminding us – lest we take on airs of importance – that we are just defecating animals after all:

“You know, we’re monstrosities. If we could really see this, we could love ourselves… realize how ridiculous we are, with our intestines wound around, shit slowly running through as we look each other in the eyes and say ‘I love you,’ our stuff is carbonizing, turning into shit, and we never fart near each other. It all has a comic edge… And then we die.”

Good old Bukowski…

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I'm going to get you anyhow...

We know the world has enormous powers that are far beyond any of us. There are natural powers such as the birth and death of stars, the movement of the earth around the sun, the shifting patterns of the weather and the like.

There are also societal powers. The machinery of government grinds on irrespective of our wishes. Billions of people on this planet pursue whatever goals they have without consulting us. And there is seemingly random the up and down daily action of the stock market.

When we really look at the world, we can’t help but appreciate how little we control. There are a few ways to deal with this. The most popular is to make it seem like we can control things by endowing certain people with powers we seem to lack. Put another way, we trust in the chief.

As we make our living in the world of financial markets, we can’t help but bring in examples from that world. For instance, we are always amazed at how our peers put so much faith in the bankers at the Federal Reserve, as if they have some secret decoder ring that allows them to see what’s really going on. The powers of the Federal Reserve are inflated, because people can’t accept the fact that the market is a wild uncontrollable place, seemingly random in many instances, chaotic, filled with black swans, outliers, mysterious eddies and ripples that throw prices this way and that…

One can’t hope to explain it all or control it or model it. Rather than accept that, people instead invest powers in market gurus and savants, in a class of high-paid economists and chart readers, in central bankers and treasury officials… And these chiefs look to play their roles… In the case of the gurus, they make confident predictions and tell us what to expect, where to invest. In the case of officials, they look to tame the wildness of the world with regulations, laws, fines, policies and plans…

It’s all very ridiculous, but it seems in our nature. Man is a herd animal and he needs to follow a lead steer. Man loves authority. Its appearance makes him squeal in delight like a teenage girl at a Jonas Brothers’ concert. People have deep-seated longings to please authority figures – parents, teachers, bosses, God (or gods). We are like Irish Setters looking to make our masters happy. (Camus: “Ah , mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Hence one must choose a master, God being out of style.)

This strong belief in chiefs holds groups together. It is how thousands willingly go to die for abstract ideas in cold trenches in mud-soaked French battlefields. It is why millions line up like zombies at polling places so they can wear little buttons that say “I voted.”

People look to leaders to give them the illusions they need. They need these illusions because they cannot confront the meaninglessness of their own existence, the smallness of it and lack of control they have over it.

The absurd man, of course, follows no such steers and feels no need to make chiefs. The absurd man does not deny death, he embraces it. The meaningless nature of existence is to him an elixir of freedom, a lifting of a burden; he is free to just be. Remorse, envy, hate – all these are then seen as a waste of energy. These emotions imply their targets matter, or are somehow important. They are not. The smallness of our existence and the lack of control are reasons to be happy. One life is as good as any other. Now is as good a time as any.

The absurd man is the cool cucumber who, faced with death, invites him in for a cigarette and a beer. We recall a poem from the great Charles Bukowski, our favorite poet and an absurd man through and through:

well, death says, as he walks by,
I’m going to get you anyhow
no matter what you’ve been:
writer, cab-driver, pimp, butcher,
sky-diver, I’m going to get

o.k. baby, I tell him.


The absurd is everywhere...

"So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains. And we never even know we have the key."--The Eagles

One of the wondrous things about the absurd is that once you know how to look for it, you tend to find it everywhere--in songs, movies, and even random conversations.

For example, we had a conversation tonight with someone about the absurdity of monogamy. He was adamant that it "mattered" if his wife had an affair, while we wondered why this should have more meaning than, say, his wife sitting in a different chair.

Interestingly, while he was unable to come up with a reason for why this should make him upset (perhaps because there are none...), he nevertheless clung to his initial belief as to a lifeline. He just could not face the reality that there is no reason he should care what his wife does, or does not do. In many ways such beliefs--drilled into us by society--are like religion, in that we accept them wholly and unquestioningly, despite the lack of any logical reason for doing so.

Now, this is not to say we don't sympathize with him. As Inigo pointed out recently, we ourselves do things we cannot explain, thanks to hard-wiring in the brain that is difficult to escape. Would we be upset if our wife had an affair? Perhaps. We would like to think not. But even if we were, we would recognize the absurdity of our reaction, and laugh at what ridiculous creatures we are.

That said, we understand that for many this is a leap too far. As Morpheus said to Neo in The Matrix: "Most people are not ready to be unplugged.
And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it."

It doesn't matter if your wife has an affair. It also doesn't matter if she dies tomorrow, or next week, or 50 years from now. Everything we think we experience is simply an incredibly seductive illusion...and nothing more.

Until next time...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lying is not only saying what isn't true

Albert Camus' The Stranger (or, as it is sometimes translated, The Outsider) is one of our favorite works on the absurd.

In his own afterword to a 1955 edition of the book, Camus wrote:

"A long time ago, I summed up The Outsider in a sentence which I realise is extremely paradoxical. 'In our society, any man who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral is liable to be condemned to death.' I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn't play the game ... He refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what isn't true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels. We all do it, every day, to make life simpler. But Meursault, contrary to appearances, doesn't want to make life simpler. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened. For example, he is asked to say that he regrets his crime, in time-honoured fashion. He replies that he feels more annoyance about it than true regret. And it is this nuance that condemns him."

As we say, it is one of our favorite novels.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Shipwrecked on Strange Shores

Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1995), had the following observation, which has stuck with us since we came across it:

“The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic “ideas” [about his own character and identity] and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. And this is the simple truth – that to live is to feel oneself lost - he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked.”

There are many things that strike us about this passage as absurd – the idea of the absurd being that life has no meaning and the absurd man recognizing this and celebrating the fact as liberating.

The first is the idea that our identities get in the way of the seeing the world for its absurd aspects. People often have very strong identities with groups. Religious people often identify strongly with a faith. Political people identify strongly with a political party or leader. But even on less visible levels, people latch on to all kinds of groups for a sense of meaning and purpose.

We have a friend who wears his Irish bloodlines on his sleeves. Even though he has never been to Ireland and both of his parents were born in the U.S., he somehow manages to work in a reminder somewhere in the conversation that he’s an Irish fellow. (Not that it would make a difference if he was born in Ireland, it’s just added details to heighten the absurdity of it).

And we all know people who wrap themselves up very much in what they do for a living, or what their hobby is, or in their families… even in their choice of music – think of all the fans of Michael Jackson mourning in the streets.

In a way, this sense of identity must be destroyed to see the absurd. You have to break this unthinking web of support. You have to see yourself as a defecating animal. (Try this next time you are nervous upon meeting someone: Imagine that person as a defecating animal. You will find that no matter how intimidating or how boundless is the authority of this person, he or she will be reduced to an ass-wiping clown in your mind’s eye! Works great for when you have speak in front of a group, too. Look at all those defecating animals out there!)

Admitting your “creatureliness” is also to come to grips with the idea that you will die – not just accepting the platitude that we all will die, but to really grasp it with two hands and face the idea fully that our existence here is fleeting.

You then start to see yourself as marooned, or as shipwrecked in Ortega y Gasset’s words. We really like these words… marooned, shipwrecked… they seem to be good analogies for what we face. Those support groups, stripped away, let us see ourselves more clearly as alone on an island.

It seems frightening, and we suspect that many people can’t “go all the way” with the absurd because this sense of being alone, devoid of the meaning and purpose found nominally in groups, is too frightening. These identities and groups all help hide the fact that we are defecating animals that will die one day.

But, as we’ve been pointing out again and again, we find this truth very liberating. It means we can enjoy the spectacle of the world – and it is quite a spectacle – without taking on the anxieties that come with thinking it has any meaning. We can, in other words, play the game cheerfully, because we know the results don’t matter. We can just “be,” enjoying our time as marooned or shipwrecked adventurers, washed up on strange shores…

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Why not end it?

"I used to go [to the coast] alone to watch the sunset and contemplate suicide. I did not, however, commit suicide, because I wished to know more about mathematics."--Bertrand Russell

Once one recognizes the absurdity of life, the next logical step is to consider why (or whether) one should go on living. Indeed, Camus opened his epic "The Myth of Sisyphus" with a discussion of this very issue. As he put it: "Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering."

Ultimately, however, Camus came to the conclusion that one should go on living, if only to revel in one's recognition of life's intrinsic absurdity. We have obviously come to a similar answer, but it is worth digging a bit deeper. The issue with suicide is not, as most believe, a moral one. It matters not whether one has family that will be "left behind," or debts to pay, or a solid standing in the community. Rich or poor, sick or well, young or old...all are irrelevant. Instead, the issue to be considered is whether one wants to go on living...or not.

Interestingly, this is a more difficult question to answer than it first appears. Virtually all people would instinctively answer "Yes" if queried as to their desire to continue living. And yet who, other than the devoutly religious, has not at one time or another wished for the serenity of self-inflicted death?

The reason most do not follow through with such thoughts is part societal, part practical, and part inertia. Societal, because most believe it is indeed "wrong" to kill oneself; practical, because despite the fragility of life, there are few "easy" suicide options (many are the potential suicides who wonder whether the jump is high enough to kill...or simply break their back); and inertia, because, well, in the absence of some catalyst it is simply easier to go on living...

We view such reasoning as flawed in the extreme. To quote an old Rush song: "Even if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." To choose to go on living is to choose not to commit suicide, but to us such a decision makes sense only when one is conscious of it. Bertrand Russell chose not to commit suicide because he wanted to know more of mathematics. We choose to go on living primarily because, having recognized the absurdity of life, we find it endlessly fascinating. Further, to recognize the meaninglessness of life is to cleanse yourself, once and for all, of worry and regret--an experience of pure, total, and permanent liberation.

Think of it this way--to recognize the absurdity of life is to free oneself of all pressures, be they societal, family, or spiritual. The absurd man realizes his "role" in life is no more consequential than an actor in a play, and can act accordingly. So perhaps the real question is: once you recognize the absurdity of life, why would you ever want to leave?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Lie of Character

The crazy old Soren Kierkegaard was on to something...

The cryptic Danish philosopher found many insights which psychoanalysts, such as Freud, later fleshed out with clinical research.

Among his many insights, was his idea that character was a sort of untruth, or a lie.

What we call our personality, or our character, is a scheme built-up since we were children to help us cope with anxieties of the world. In a sense, our personalities are a kind of armor against our existential dilemmas. They allow us to function in a world where he have no control and where the specter of death hangs over us always.

The problem is that many of us become so involved and dependent on that armor that we can no longer see past it. We live out our lives in automatic fashion, uncritical of societal pressures and markers for success and happiness. We become so immersed in the fictional games of the workaday world that we have trouble transcending those boundaries. We have trouble dealing with the idea that we will actually die... and we miss the liberating effect of accepting that truth (celebrating the meaningless of it all is, after all, our raison d'être.)

Kierkegaard gives us many examples and they are all familiar... The corporate types... the religious... the bureaucrats... Those bound by tradition... In other words, people everywhere who do not think for themselves and do what they do because others have done exactly the same thing before them, and because others expect them to do just those things...

Ernest Becker has a scathing line about this: "Man as confined by culture, a slave to it, who imagines that he has an identity if he pays his insurance premium, that he has control of his life if he guns his sports car or works his electric toothbrush." How many people find meaning and control in the silly trappings of modern society - in good-paying jobs, nice homes in the suburbs, cars, clothes, the praise of peers, paychecks, clean socks, church, fancy degrees, good hygiene, pets and the like?

Of course, no one is willing to admit that they are living these lies. Everyone believes they do things for good reasons. Everyone believes he or she is an individual - willful, unique, special. But the odds are you too live a lie. Very few, it seems to us, escape the lies of character. That is why so many people choose to live like so many other people.

We admit, even we do things we cannot really explain. We can only chalk it up to hard-wiring in the brain that is hard to escape.

Kierkegaard has another line which got us thinking:

"Devoid of imagination, as the Philistine always is, he lives in a certain trivial province of experience as to how things go, what is possible, what usually occurs... Philistinism tranquilizes itself in the trivial..."

How many people do what they do because it is comfortable? How many of us toe the mark of what is socially acceptable but no more?

We wonder...

Freedom is an enemy to the Philistine, because it is dangerous... because it is unpredictable.

We think the absurd man must - hard as it is to do always - to look beyond the lie of character. To really step outside of oneself and observe... To accept the unpredictable and not to limit ourselves to lines drawn arbitrarily by society. The absurd man is a free man, in many many ways...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

In the West, we are very goal oriented. We know where we want to go, and we are very directed in getting there. This may be useful, but often we forget to enjoy ourselves along the route.

There is a word in Buddhism that means “wishlessness” or “aimlessness.” The idea is that you do not put something in front of you and run after it, because everything is already here, in yourself. While we practice walking meditation, we do not try to arrive anywhere. We only make peaceful, happy steps. If we keep thinking of the future, of what we want to realize, we will lose our steps. The same is true with sitting meditation. We sit just to enjoy our sitting; we do not sit in order to attain any goal. This is quite important. Each moment of sitting meditation brings us back to life, and we should sit in a way that we enjoy our sitting for the entire time we do it. Whether we are eating a tangerine, drinking a cup of tea, or walking in meditation, we should do it in a way that is “aimless.”

Often we tell ourselves, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” But when we practice awareness, we discover something unusual. We discover that the opposite may be more helpful: “Don’t just do something, sit there! ” We must learn to stop from time to time in order to see clearly. At first, “stopping” may look like a kind of resistance to modern life, but it is not. It is not just a reaction; it is a way of life. Humankind’s survival depends on our ability to stop rushing. We have more than 50,000 nuclear bombs, and yet we cannot stop making more. “Stopping” is not only to stop the negative, but to allow positive healing to take place. That is the purpose of our practice-not to avoid life, but to experience and demonstrate that happiness in life is possible now and also in the future.

The foundation of happiness is mindfulness. The basic condition for being happy is our consciousness of being happy. If we are not aware that we are happy, we are not really happy. When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. But when we do not have a toothache, we are still not happy. A non-toothache is very pleasant. There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don’t practice mindfulness, we don’t appreciate them. When we practice mindfulness, we come to cherish these things and we learn how to protect them. By taking good care of the present moment, we take good care of the future. Working for peace in the future is to work for peace in the present moment.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The illusion of meaning

The raison d'etre for this blog is our belief that individuals should embrace the absurdity of life as a liberating tonic, freeing one to live however one wishes. However, is there not an inherent contradiction in such a position? For one who believes the world is purely physical (and that we are purely physical beings), beliefs about what we "like" or don't "like" are almost certainly illusory--how can I "like" steak, for example, when my neighbor detests it? Am I wrong? Is she? Is there an objective standard for enjoyment?

Put a different way, if one believes life has no meaning, then why bother? Isn't embracing and celebrating the absurd simply another method for manufacturing the illusion of meaning? How can I "enjoy" life? What does that even mean? And how can I enjoy something that others do not (or vice versa)? Aren't all feelings, good or bad, simply chemical processes in our brains?

These are, of course, fascinating questions, and philosophers have spent countless hours debating them. However, for one who truly embraces the absurd they are irrelevant. In our view, all "meaning" is indeed illusory--while things seem to matter, they actually do not. It does not matter how much money we have, how prodigious we are at sowing our seeds, or even when and how we die. We might as well debate the "meaning" of shifting sand dunes at the beach. Were the Earth to be wiped out by an asteroid tomorrow, what exactly would be the meaning of our retirement account? The fact that it probably won't happen does not change the underlying logic--namely, all our trivial hopes, dreams, and worries are just that.

Nevertheless, given that these illusions feel like reality, why not make the best of them? Camus, for example, suggested individuals view life as a role in a play--put simply, one should act as if things matter even when one knows they do not. We find this to be wonderful advice. In other words, just because we know this is water doesn't mean we have to drown.

Creating a Living Myth

“Society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning.”- Ernest Becker

We find many examples of society’s wish to create significance in what it does. One easily observable example is in the way we use language.

We like to give honorific names to people to set them apart. There is a whole elaborate etiquette behind who you call “Your Excellency” or “Your Honor.” We dole out a lot of “Honorables” in front of the names of politicians, for instance, who are most undeserving of the label.

This desire to give people a special title is older than the country of America itself and stretches across many different cultures. But we found this comment funny, from an English traveler, Edward Kimber, writing in 1746:

“Wherever you travel in Maryland (as also in Virginia and Carolina) your ears are constantly astonished at the number of colonels, majors and captains that you hear mentioned: in short, the whole country seems at first to you a retreat of heroes.”

Indeed it does. We know many people who go to great lengths to affix some honorific before or after their names. This strikes us a way to create meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence.

We also find the creation of euphemisms another way to shield us from the idea that we really don’t amount to much.

As H.L. Mencken once observed:

“The American, probably more than any other man, is prone to be apologetic about the trade he follows. He seldom believes that it is quite worthy of his virtues and talents; almost always he thinks that he would have adorned something far gaudier.”

A garbage man is a sanitation engineer, don’t you know?

The absurd man, we think, does not trouble himself with these things. He may indulge in titles and give fancy names for what he does, but he does so with the full knowledge that it means nothing at the end of the day. He does so only because it pleases him. To put more stock in such things than this is, in Becker’s phrase “a defiant creation of meaning.”

Leaves on trees

Can absurdity run in a family? We were talking with a relative this weekend who told us our grandfather used to say we were all just "leaves on trees."

We, of course, would agree...

Friday, July 3, 2009

The non-absurdity of Facebook

We have never really understood the Facebook phenomenon. To us, the idea of "connecting" with people we have not seen in years, if not decades, seems a different kind of absurd. After all, there is probably a reason we fell out of touch...

Recently, however, we were reading the final book by the incomparable Ernest Becker (author of The Denial of Death), which posed the following question: "Why do people work so hard to create useless goods when they already have enough to eat?" Indeed, this has always seemed to us the critical reason people are unhappy--they invest their "happiness" in progressively unattainable goals, whether physical or psychological, in the mistaken belief that "more," broadly and nebulously defined, will bring them contentment.

Becker's argument is that such activities help man to feel "heroic," and thus that he may be able to transcend the fate of other mortals. In other words, the more "stuff" I possess (again, broadly defined), the more "important" I must be, and how could such an important person possibly die? This is why we feel so shocked when celebrities die--after all, if it could happen to them...

Viewed in this light, Facebook makes perfect sense--an ever-increasing roster of "friends" is virtually the perfect antidote to a feeling of insecurity about one's mortal makeup. Unfortunately, it is simply another illusion for those desperately searching for a way to escape the reality of this world.

We, as noted, prefer the liberation of accepting this reality. We die, and thus none of it matters.

Enjoy your holiday!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Absurdity – World’s Greatest Anti-Depressant

We came across an interesting study recently about goals and their role in depression. Dr. Randolph Ness has a hypothesis. It is that mild and clinical depression is akin to normal and chronic pain.

Here is the Economist summing of his view:

“Dr Ness’s hypothesis is that, as pain stops you doing damaging physical things, so low mood stops you doing damaging mental ones – in particular, pursuing unreachable goals. Pursuing such goals is a waste of energy and resources. Therefore, he argues, there is likely to be an evolved mechanism that identifies certain goals as unattainable and inhibits their pursuit – and he believes low mood is at least part of the mechanism.”

Others have tested this idea and have found that a detachment lowers your risk of depression. People who disengage from unreachable goals are less likely to be depressed.

“Mile depressive symptoms can therefore be seen as a natural part of dealing with failure in young adulthood,” the Economist continues. “They set in when a goal is identified as unreachable and lead to a decline in motivation. This period of low motivation, energy is saved and new goals can be found. If this mechanism does not function properly, though, severe depression can be the consequence.”

Other researchers have tied this to heart disease, not only depression.

So, put bluntly, it is healthy to give up on overly ambitious goals. While ambition and dogged pursuit of goals may translate into success – as society generally defines success – it can be bad for your health.

Is it any wonder that America – the nation of go-getters – has the highest level of clinical depression in the world?

We hold that absurdity then – the complete realization that life has no meaning, to celebrate and find liberation in that truth – casts all such goals as fruitless. The absurd man does not worry about goals. He does not set them except out of convenience. And he certainly does not take them seriously. He sees the futility, but it does not concern him. The absurd man is content to just “be.”

Absurdity, then, may be the ultimate anti-depressant.