Monday, November 23, 2009

What we are thankful for

This is Thanksgiving week. Apropos of that, there was an op-ed about the Puritans in the Wall Street Journal last week by Amy Henry, titled “Idle Hands: Some Puritan Advice for the Unemployed.”

In thinking about anti-absurdity, it would be hard to find a more anti-absurd group than the Puritans. Henry sets out to defend the Puritans against the usual charges of overly-serious, fun-hating, work-loving, unhappy prudes. (And she misquotes C.S. Lewis. The following line is the work of H.L. Mencken: “Puritanism… the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”)

But in the end Henry only damns them further in our view.

Henry writes:

“More than just an annual turkey fest, the Puritans gave America a pedagogy of work and an attitude toward life that upsets the modern notion that a person's occupation equals his value. A man's worth, the Puritans might advise… lay in his service to God and to his fellow man, not in titles or financial portfolios. Rather than seeing life as a series of random events, the Puritan's belief in Providence imputed a profound sense of a loving God's purpose for him, a purpose that left very little room for despair.”

Well, we agree that no man should invest his sense of worth in a title or a financial portfolio. But we also see no difference between that and investing a sense of worth in a God or other people or anything else for that matter.

We think that man has no intrinsic worth or purpose; and that we might think more clearly and enjoy life more if we stopped thinking of humanity as some great exception in the scheme of things. Does a mountain have a purpose? Does a monkey? Does the pencil on my desk have “intrinsic worth”? Does anybody endure sleepless nights over it? Not the monkey.

And to write approvingly, in this day and age, that the “Puritan's belief in Providence imputed a profound sense of a loving God's purpose for him, a purpose that left very little room for despair” is to forfeit your intellect for flimflam. It is to toss your brain aside and fill your skull with sweet sounding syrupy goo.

Man does not need a sense of purpose to be happy, we argue on this blog. In fact, we go farther and say that a sense of purpose can easily lead one to unhappiness. Purpose implies an obligation that must be met, a goal. It also implies failure, it implies sacrifice, a burden… these are not happy thoughts to us.

As for idle hands… Well, idleness is a topic that we are fond of. (See our posts “In defense of idlers” and “Doing nothing”). Safe to say, we enjoy our idle moments.

On Thanksgiving Day, we will enjoy our roasted turkey ; we will savor the stuffing, the sweet potato, the cranberry sauce and the wine; and we will be merry in the companionship of our friends and family; we will be happy to be alive, to be there just then. We certainly will not wonder about our purpose or our sense of worth. Nothing matters in the end, so we’ll enjoy the moment… and we’ll be thankful for that.


  1. Isn't reveling in the feelings and festivities of thanksgiving anti-absurd?

    I am not against being humble, graceful, and grateful for all that we have and the people in our lives; however, the mere source of happiness on the day of thanksgiving: football, food, companionship of family and friends seems a bit too reliant on external sources for one's own satisfaction.

    For every idle moment, there is something in the state of being idle that makes it anti-absurd.

  2. Thanks, Krishna, for your comment.

    An important part of being absurd is the ability to be happy or content in whatever circumstance you find yourself in. (Easier said than done, we know.)

    So, we would say that if your happiness depends on having turkey on Thanksgiving - that's anti-absurd. But if you get it and your happy, nothing anti-absurd about.

    Remember, the absurd man finds that life has no meaning or purpose, but he lives his life all the more intensely because of that insight. Absurdity doesn't mean that you can't enjoy physical and immediate pleasures.


  3. This post seems relevant to many of the thoughts I've been having lately about my "philosophy of life" (which encompasses the absurd) and the anti-absurd burden I place on myself to actually live in consistency with that philosophy. To better myself is meaningless, but through my betterment I come closer to living like "the absurd man." I suppose the un-learning of all my instilled beliefs is a sort of meaningless burden, but the effects certainly allow for a greater sense of happiness and peace. How does one mutually correlate the two?

  4. Thank you Inigo, once again, for the kind and prompt response.

  5. Your welcome, Krishna and thanks for your comments.

    Modern Man, that is an intriguing comment. Essentially, what if trying to be absurd - because of the anti-absurd hard wiring - itself becomes a burden...which itself is also anti-absurd!

    Well, we'd say you've hit a neat paradox. Not sure there is a good answer. We will think about it some more.

    A preliminary thought: For us, the idea of the absurd - once we 'got it' - came naturally, like a chimp taking to the trees. Living the absurd life has been more of a challenge - in a good and fascinating way - but we think we've gotten better at it and that it has come easier over time.

    As we say, not sure we have a good answer to your question, which is a good one! Hmmm...


  6. Modern Man-

    Well put. As Inigo says, this is something with which we have also grappled. In fact, we have for a long time wanted to do a post titled "Is This Blog Absurd," but have held off because, quite honestly, we don't know the answer. (Or maybe we do, and don't like it...;-)

    But there is another way to view this issue. Put simply, placing a "burden" on oneself to be absurd is not a contradiction; instead, it is not absurd. As we said in response to another recent comment, we do not view being absurd as part of our "identity." In other words, it is not "important" to us - it just is.

    Thus, there is no objectively right or wrong way to live the absurd life, since the absurd is really just a reference to understanding that none of it matters. We think Krishnamurti is very helpful in this area - basically, he claimed that once one comes to the realization that the key to contentedness is internal, it is like flipping a switch. There is no need to practice, or come gradually to an understanding - either one gets it or one doesn't.

    For our part, we certainly "get it," but of course this does not mean we remember it all the time (as explored in our recent post The Double-Edged Sword of Abstraction). But (and this is really the crux of the issue), while we sometimes find ourselves being anti-absurd, we never dwell on it once it passes. We do not kick ourselves for being idiotic (although we do often laugh at our actions in hindsight); instead, we immediately let it go and focus on the present moment.

    When Inigo and I began discussing the absurd we had kind of a running joke, where one of us would recount some stressful encounter, and then the feeling of bliss once we remembered the absurd. (As Inigo once put it - "The absurd - ahhhhh.") And that is really how it should be.

    One should never feel pressured to "be absurd," or worry about not being absurd. Instead, the absurd should be a salve - a universal tonic that vanquishes the twin scourges of worry and regret.

  7. It's good to know I'm not the only one who has been challenged by this absurd paradox. I agree that the absurd came very naturally, and I definitely have those "Ahhhhhh" moments multiple times a day. I think my mistake has been in critiquing myself too harshly when I falter and give in to my anti-absurd instinctual side. Perhaps I just need to implement the absurd "Ahhhhhh" whenever I catch myself burdening myself with my perceived "failures." Thank you both for the insightful responses.