Monday, June 29, 2009

Governors and Beggars - What's the Difference?

Recently, we were chatting with a friend about the whole Mark Sanford fiasco. The short version is that Sanford, Governor of South Carolina, had an affair with a woman from Argentina. It gets very weird. And it is very entertaining as far as these things go.

But what prompts this post is the comment my friend made that “Sanford should resign.”

We don’t know whether he should resign or not. It doesn’t matter. What we are interested in is the thinking behind my friend’s comment.

We asked: “If Mark Sanford were a garbage collector, would you still say he had to resign?”

We got the “no you idiot” look, the kind we are used to by now. “Of course not,” our friend replied. “But he’s not a garbage collector. He’s the governor of South Carolina for crying out loud!”


“So it’s much more important than collecting the garbage”

Well… we didn’t say it was more important than collecting the garbage. And we pointed this out to our companion. In reality, neither is more important than the other. We offered this.

“I thought you were going to tell me how important picking up the garbage was…” our friend replied. Then he added, “I think it is pretty obvious that a governor is more important than a garbage collector.”

Nope. The absurd fact is that a doctor, a governor, a garbage collector, a prostitute, a beggar – all of them are equally unimportant. Life is absurd. Nothing here matters at all. If that is true, then you can’t make such distinctions.

It doesn’t matter how much money you make. It doesn’t matter if you save a million lives or not. It doesn’t matter if you have only purest motivations to do whatever. None of it matters, period.

This is the absurd man’s view. And again, we find it very liberating. After all, if no occupation is more important than any other, then we can drop all this baggage people carry around about “doing important work.” We also don’t look down on our fellows who are all equally marooned on this ball of earth.

Friday, June 26, 2009

"Nothing Matters"

A fellow traveler writes:

"At first, when you really get that nothing matters at all it's very depressing. It's extremely melancholy to realize that nothing has any intrinsic meaning, that life is essentially meaningless.

It's very disillusioning to get that no matter what one might accomplish, it disappears like smoke in the air; that no matter what service one might attempt to perform, it's like an insignificant grain of sand upon an infinite beach.

Are you feeding the poor? Are you Shakespeare? Doesn't matter. It's all insignificant in the end. If not today, then tomorrow. If not in a thousand years, then in a million billion. The whirling clusters of galaxies don't even notice.

Not only that, but the fact that everything is insignificant and nothing has any intrinsic meaning doesn't mean anything either.

All the meaning is supplied by us human beings. We supply the value judgments—this is good, that's bad, this should happen, that shouldn't happen. Existence has no value judgments about itself; it has no meaning, it doesn't need or want any, to speak metaphorically. All the "good," "bad," "right," "wrong," etc. is supplied by us humans.

Existence not only doesn't care about any of that, it's not even aware of it. Whatever you or I might ever do to make a difference in the world or our little corner of it is like a drop in an infinite sea—meaningless, empty. In fact, all is emptiness, completely empty—like empty characters in a video game, or like a robot in a machine factory pondering what its meaning is.

When I really got all this I walked around in a complete daze. Because life had no intrinsic meaning, because nothing really mattered at all, everything seemed forlorn, empty, drained, bleached. Everywhere I looked, everyone I looked upon, including myself—there was just emptiness, nothing, meaninglessness.

If nothing mattered, then my life and efforts didn't matter, and neither did anything else. Perhaps the best word for it was "bleak."

And then something happened. After I had dwelled miserably in this state for awhile, feeling this bitter reality of emptiness like a freezing wind upon my face, the whole thing suddenly "flipped" one day.

The very thing, the all-pervading emptiness and lack of meaning and insignificance that had depressed me so much suddenly became a source of great joy. So much so that I burst out laughing—I couldn't stop—and then began crying tears of joy.

Lest I be declared a candidate for the looney bin (which probably wouldn't be a bad idea), let me try to explain. It's something like this: The fact that nothing matters is actually a source of great liberation. It's very freeing to realize that nothing matters at all, because that whole weight of trying to make life "make sense" or "go the right way" or "look like this" drops away.

In its place is just reality, exactly as it is, with no meaning at all in the usual sense and yet incredibly pristine, beautiful, shimmering in its "emptiness," forever shining like the lovely moon upon the sea.

When everything becomes completely empty, paradoxically, it also becomes extremely full. In effect, the "emptiness of emptiness" becomes the doorway to the "fullness of emptiness."

The brujo Don Juan understood this very well. He said that you realize that everything is empty and meaningless and yet you act as if it had meaning. In his words, even though you're perfectly aware of the emptiness of all things, of all phenomena, you "act as an impeccable warrior" just the same.

And of course he didn't mean "war" in the usual sense. We usually think of fighting something or kicking ass as being a great warrior. But simply carrying a project through to completion is being a much more mature kind of warrior. Just accomplishing any task at all is being a true warrior.

So we do our service work or we drive our beer truck or we turn out papers at the office or we do whatever we do, but without the stress and strain of trying to make everything make sense or somehow acquire the correct "meaning." This most assuredly includes "our own" life.

Not that stress and strain disappear from life. As far as I can tell, stress and strain are an inevitable part of life, just as relaxation and peace are also a part of it. But beneath the stress and strain, when it appears, is a light heart, dancing with that stress and strain, knowing that it's an indissoluble part of this precious existence.

Paradoxically, when we see clearly the emptiness and meaninglessness and insignificance of everything, including our own life, after passing through the "emptiness of emptiness" there comes a light heart, which contains both a smile and a tear.

The smile comes precisely from the seeing that nothing matters. Isn't that strange? If nothing matters, we're free not to take it all so seriously. It's not serious at all, none of it. Not one bit.

Yet at the same time there's a tear, a tear of compassion for this precious world and its suffering. The pain that we sometimes feel in life is not illusory; it hurts. And the laws of physics and biochemistry, etc. are not suspended just because we realize something.

If we jump off a building we're still going to go splat, no matter what we may or may not have realized. If we stub our toe, it's still going to hurt. If we eat a lot of fat, we're still likely to develop heart disease or cancer. The laws of life are not repealed.

So nothing changes at all. And yet everything changes, because we see that the very preciousness of life arises from its essential emptiness. The grateful heart arises precisely from the recognition of life's ephemeral, fleeting, meaningless quality.

That very meaninglessness, stripped of all fantasies and dreams, becomes the hidden meaning itself. That very fleetingness of all things becomes the very thing that makes them precious.

That literally "nothing matters" becomes the very thing that transforms into thankfulness, bubbling up in surrendered gratitude for this precious life and all its appearances, like a compassionate, mysterious and effervescent spring bubbling up from the meaningless nowhere of nothing.

—jim sloman"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What makes us happy?

We have spent a lot of time recently extolling the virtues of enjoying life. However, it is important to stress that you don't need particular things or experiences in order to do so. So while we (for example) "enjoy" good food and wine, we also know we are no different from the characters in The Matrix who mistakenly believe they are experiencing "life."

Consider the following premise. Two men are sitting in a restaurant eating steak. One man has a high-paying job, a wonderful wife and children, and drives a nice car. The other man has just lost his job, seen his wife run off with his best friend, and had his car repossessed. We all, of course, assume the first man should be "happier." But should this be so? Both men are sitting in the same restaurant, eating the same steak. The only differences are the self-imposed shackles in their minds.

Indeed, this analogy is a bit misleading in that it assumes the "cause" of the men's happiness is their current environment. In fact, why should we assume either is "happier" than a starving child in Africa? We do, but why? What makes us assume one is "better" than the other?

Take another example - two men are told they each have only one week to live. The first collapses in anguish, screaming "I don't want to die!" and spends the next week desperately searching for a cure. The second, on the other hand, smiles and accepts his fate, choosing to spend his week sitting peacefully and perhaps visiting with friends.

The twist, of course, is that the second example applies to all of us - we each have a finite lifespan, whether a week or 100 years (and whether we choose to accept it or not). The concept of "happiness,' meanwhile, is basically shorthand for the biological processes that have enabled us to survive - the reason we enjoy eating, drinking, and having sex is that people who enjoyed such activities in the past (i.e., our ancestors) left more offspring than those who didn't.

So eat, drink, and procreate if you want, but remember those things won't make you happy any more than selling your company for $100 million. Indeed, when discussing such matters we are often reminded of the Buddha's famous answer when asked to describe exactly what he was:

Are you a god? “No.”

Are you super-human? “No.”

Are you an ordinary man? “No.”

What are you then? “I’m awake.”

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rich and Miserable

You have probably heard the variety of media reports and studies that show how people who win lotteries wind up miserable. The huge windfall overwhelms them. It affects their friendships and their relationship with family members. It messes up their heads and they wind up in bad shape.

We have a true tale from a friend who found himself in a similar situation. It is worth examining here, because it highlights issues about our complicated relationship with money and what makes us happy.

This friend started his own business. And for five years, this business grew like a weed. It consumed his every waking hour. He worked very hard to build this business from nothing to something special – and very valuable.

He finally decides to sell the business. He is in his fifties and knows that if he sells the business he will never have to worry about money ever again. Price tag: $100 million.

Time to celebrate right? You would think so.

But a strange thing happens….

Life goes on as before… only he is very rich. And he is depressed. He had been going a hundred miles an hour feeding this business, and then one day he wakes up and he has nothing to do. All the time and money in the world – and yet he miserable.

He is bored. He feels his life has no purpose or meaning. The money he thought would make him happy doesn’t.

So it takes him about two years of being depressed to get over this and think it through. He finds other things to do that he enjoys. I don’t want to get into too many details, as I am sure our friend would like to stay anonymous.

But the details are not as important as the general outline of the story. We think it shows, once again, how people assume money will make them happy… that the material goods that they can buy and the security lots of money brings will make their lives better. And yet, it doesn’t play out that way.

We look at our own lives. We make more money now than we thought we’d ever make doing what we do. And yet life goes on as before. We are richer, but life still has all the same challenges it had before.

Even so, this post is not going to end as you think it might. We won’t say that we would not take $100 million if we should be so lucky as to win a lottery – and it would be especially lucky since we don’t buy lottery tickets.

We most definitely would take $100 million.

We believe the inability of so many people to deal with new found wealth is because they lack the absurd perspective. They search for meaning where there really isn’t any. Suddenly finding themselves with a lot of money, the absurdity of their own situation becomes a little more clear – and they don’t like it.

Their old job has no meaning now that they are rich. Old concerns and worries have little meaning in the context of all this new wealth. Old friends seem less like friends and more like beggars. It is like all the old things they cherished are rendered less important because of the money. It is almost like these winners find themselves in a vacuum and they can’t immediately fill it and so they get depressed or grow miserable.

But if you have the absurd perspective already, then the new money should make little difference. Life had no meaning before. More money does not change that. The absurd man is comfortable in the vacuum – an indifferent universe, without meaning, in which he has very little control. He celebrates these things.

So, we would say the upshot of the absurd (one of many such benefits) is that you become more indifferent to money and to your financial status and the financial status of others. The absurd man does not know envy for he knows the end is the same for all.

Worried? Don't Be.

We have often told ourselves that if our sons ever came to us and told us they were taking a job because it had “good benefits” that we would smack them upside the head.

We don’t want them to think of life that way – the Pensioner’s Mentality, we call it.

It is when you take a job, or stick with one, because of the benefits or the pension. In other words, your desire for security trumps the gamble in you. You’d rather toil at a job that doesn’t excite you but guarantees your future, rather than take a chance at something that you will enjoy much more, but which promises no such safety net. Indeed, you may very well fail spectacularly.

We would extend this analysis too, to all those who worry about their retirement. They squirrel away money today and live in privation so that perhaps when they get old – if they get old – they will have some money to pay for their nursing home expenses. It’s a rather depressing idea.

We say you ought to live more in the present and enjoy more of what the now offers. That doesn’t mean you have to be foolish, but you should recognize the role chance has to play in life. You should recognize how little you control. You should realize just how much you are exposed to the whims of chance.

And in doing so, you come to quickly realize how pointless worrying about the future is, because you come to see how the very idea of finding security in this world is futile.

As Tom Hodgkinson put is in his Freedom Manifesto: “Security itself is phantasm. It doesn’t exist. It’s a construction of the mind, a will ‘o the wisp. Things are unpredictable… The real world is the one we live in, that chaotic, confused, insecure and wonderful place.”

Of course, thinking this way frees you up enormously. It lifts anxieties that are, when you stop to think about it, ridiculous to worry about. Why worry about retirement? Who knows what will happen?

Industry wants you to worry about retirement because they have a lot of stuff to sell you. We are bombarded with ads telling us how to achieve a secure future. But do not fall prey to their siren songs. Worrying about the future always struck us as very much anti-absurd behavior.

In fact, the idea of retirement itself is rather silly. Why should a man work for 30 years or so and then look to not-work for the last thirty years or so of his life? It is unnatural. Think about the idea of retirement with fresh eyes. It seems an odd thing.

What we suggest is to shift your perspective. Recognize first that nothing matters. Second, recognize that you have very little control over anything at all. And finally, live more in the moment. Drink good ales, eat good food, have great sex, read great books and celebrate with friends.

Drink and be merry, as old the saying goes, for tomorrow we die!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Only a game

We were thinking about sports yesterday, as we, along with millions of others, watched with rapt attention as grown men with metal sticks walked solemnly around a beautiful park, stopping occasionally to take vicious swings at little white balls.

However, if you think this post is about the meaninglessness of sports, you are only half right.

It is true that sports are meaningless. However, this does not set them apart from the rest of life. Instead, the fact that people accept sports are meaningless (or, in our parlance, absurd), makes them enormously appealing.

Consider a typical dinner party, in which conversation generally revolves around four broad areas: 1) bland issues/small talk (eg, the weather), 2) family (kids, etc.), 3) controversial issues (eg, religion, politics, economics, global warming), and 4) sports. In everything except sports (and exempting most small talk), people's false belief that these topics "matter" lead to conflict.

Global warming "debates," for example, tend to break down into recitations of talking points from opposite sides of the issue, with neither participant particularly interested (or simply openly hostile) to what the other has to say. Matters of religion, meanwhile, are even worse. As Sam Harris wrote in his terrific book The End of Faith, "certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others." Indeed, Harris' central claim--that religion is fundamentally dangerous because it, first, requires believers to accept unprovable "truths," and second, by definition imposes a hierarchy based on those "truths"--is an extraordinarily powerful refutation of the generally accepted notion that religion is, on the whole, quite benign.

But we digress. The relevant issue is that sports matter no more or less than politics, religion, global warming, or even the potential (as explored in a notably poor made-for-TV movie last night) that an asteroid could ricochet off the moon and threaten the survival of the Earth. Yet for some reason most people see the absurdity of sports far more clearly than that of the rest of life.

Indeed, we are often bemused by fans' reactions when a sports player gets injured. Generally, when a player gets injured an ominous quiet falls over the stadium, as people hold their breath and look on in hopes the player is not seriously injured. (This is particularly true if the injured player is a member of the home team.) Then, as the player exits the field, fans and announcers alike wax poetic on how meaningless the game is when compared with the injured player's health.

But hold on a minute. If we all agree that sports are meaningless, then why do we care more about professional athletes than about other people? Put a different any given sporting event there are a number of injuries (a friend of ours was once hit in the head by a foul ball at Fenway Park, for example, and required several stitches), yet people care little if at all about them. When, on the other hand, a player gets injured, the entire stadium holds its collective breath, despite the fact that the reason for the player's popularity-his prowess at sports-is something we all agree doesn't matter!

Clearly some of this has to do with familiarity and proximity--we tend to care more about people we know and those in close proximity to us, and we tend to feel we "know" athletes (even though we don't), particularly if they play for "our" team. Still, this is a situation we find absurd on many levels.

Back to the original point of this post (there was one, we promise...), we enjoy sports. We enjoy them not because they are absurd, but because everyone agrees they are absurd (well, for the most part - see above). Sports, in other words, are one of the few places where most people are able to see the water.

After all, it's only a game...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Father's Day!

Many people ask us how we can go through life believing nothing matters. We, on the other hand, can't understand how people manage without embracing the absurd. Take holidays. For a large number of people, holidays are a cause of great stress, given the undue importance we arbitrarily place on these days. Thus, we expect Father's Day (for example) to be better than an average day, and are disappointed if it does not live up to these inflated expectations.

The absurd man, on the other hand, knows full well that one day matters no more or less than another. But this does not mean, as some believe, that he cannot enjoy them! On the contrary--since the absurd man does not expect anything from any day in particular, he is free to enjoy what comes. In other words, he has no preconceived notions of what "should" or should not happen (or, more importantly, what is required to make him feel happy).

The absurd man knows he is only playing a role, and as such does not ascribe importance to daily events. He is, instead, completely liberated from the shackles of believing things "matter," and thus that some things matter more than others. Father's Day is a day like any other--yet another chance to gaze in wonder at man's incredible ability to contemplate his surroundings and, in the end, the meaningless of it all.

What could be better than that?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Sage of Baltimore was Absurd

The following are snippets from H.L. Mencken’s Minority Report, one of our favorite books. The great Mencken needs no comment, as he is quite an eloquent and forceful writer. Enjoy the following, though as absurdists, we really could not care less whether you do or not:

“All of us, to be sure, cherish delusions, but it is at least possible for a rational man to avoid the more gross and obvious ones. No one blames a man for believing that his wife is beautiful, but it is impossible to avoid disgust in the presence of one who believes that he has an immortal soul of some vaguely gaseous nature, and that it will continue to exist four hundred million years after he has been shoveled away. Such ideas are not only erroneous; they are in a very true sense offensive. It is not possible to hear them stated without a kind of revulsion.”

“One of the most irrational of all the conventions of modern society is the one to the effect that religious opinions must be respected. It is largely to blame, I suspect, for the slowness with which sound ideas are disseminated in the world. The minute a new one bobs up some faction or other of theologians falls upon it furiously, seeking to put it down. The most effective way to defend it, of course, would be to fall upon the theologians, for the only really useful defense is an all-out offensive. But the convention aforesaid protects them, and so they proceed with their blather unwhipped and almost unmolested, to the great damage of common sense and common decency. That they should have this immunity is an outrage. There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly. Nor is there any visible intellectual dignity in theologians. Few of them know anything that is worth knowing, and not many of them are even honest.”

And this:

"Of all varieties of men, the one who is least comprehensible to me is the fellow who immolates himself upon the altar of what he conceives to be the public interest - in other words, the reformer, the uplifter, the man, so-called of public spirit. What I am chiefly unable to understand is his oafish certainty that he is right - his almost pathological inability to grasp the notion that, after all, he may be wrong. As for me, I am never absolutely certain that I am right, and for the plain reason that I am never absolutely certain that anything is true. It may seem to me to be true, and I may be quite unable to imagine any proof of its falsity - but that is simply saying that my imagination is limited, not that the proposition itself is immovably sound. Some other man, better born that I was or drinking better liquor, may disprove it tomorrow... I know of no so-called truth that quite escapes this possibility. Anything is conceivable in a world so irrational as this one."

This last snippet is from another part of the Minority Report, and is therefore a clean break in thought from the above. We put it here because the statement is highly absurd and we believe correct. We will have more to say on role of humor in the future.

“Human life is basically a comedy. Even its tragedies often seem comic to the spectator, and not infrequently they actually have comic touches to the victim. Happiness probably consists largely in the capacity to detect and relish them. A man who can laugh, if only at himself, is never really miserable.”

One last comment: Reading Mencken is like sweeping the clutter in your brain. We expect we’ll share more from the Sage of Baltimore in future missives.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Why absurdity?

The absurd philosophy, as we’ve often stated, is rooted in the view that nothing matters. Our lives are completely meaningless in this very large and indifferent universe. To us, we find the acceptance of this fact incredibly liberating. How so?

Well, the effect is analogous to a college student being told that the grades on his exams will have no effect on whether he graduates or not. He will finish, guaranteed. If you knew this going into to college, think how differently you’d behave? Think what weights have been lifted from your shoulders. And in life, in a similar fashion, what you do matters not. In the end, you will die and that will be that. We are all assured of the same ending – complete oblivion.

It seems to us a very compelling philosophy, this absurdism. And, we may also add, it is logically correct and an entirely rationale way to view the world. Now that we know it, and have examined it and breathed it, we know we can never go back to putting the blinders on. We can never take the blue pill, to use a Matrix reference. We want the red one. We want to see the world as clearly as we can.

But the purpose of this post is not to defend absurdity per se, but to wonder why some seem so against it and why some seem to take to it like kids take to ice cream. We wonder if some people are more naturally receptive to its arguments due to some character trait, or experience.

We have noted how certain experiences do bring out the absurd in people. A near-death experience would seem a natural wake-up call. We recall this passage from Snow Falling on Cedars, where the main character is a WWII veteran:

“It seemed to him after the war that the world was thoroughly altered. It was not even a thing you could explain to anybody, why it was that everything was folly. People appeared enormously foolish to him. He understood that they were only animated cavities full of jelly and strings and liquids. He had seen the insides of jaggedly ripped-open dead people. He knew, for instance, what brains looked like spilling out of somebody’s head. In the context of this, much of what went on in normal life seemed wholly and disturbingly ridiculous…”

Granted, it is a work of fiction, but surely it is not controversial to say that many veterans have come away from combat experience as changed men. Surely, when faced with death so forcefully, it is then hard to go back to life as you knew it. Everything must take on a different color.

So, experiences would seem to have a hand in whether one is receptive to the absurd or not.

We have also found that cherished beliefs get in the way of accepting the absurd. Most people want to believe there is an eternal life waiting for them. Most people want to believe that their life has meaning. Most people want desperately to believe that they have some control over their fate. The absurd says it isn’t so.

This reminds us, too, of a passage in Camus’ The Stranger. The main character, who is absurd, is facing a priest, who is not. The priest asks him: “I’m sure you’ve often wished there was an afterlife.”

Camus writes:

“Of course I had, I told him. Everybody has that wish at times. But that had no more importance than wishing to be rich, or to swim very fast, or to have a better-shaped mouth. It was in the same order of things.”

Exactly. Sometimes people wish something to be true, they are blind to what is. We are constantly on guard against this sort of thing. We think that may have something to do with the fact that we make our living in financial markets. There, beliefs that are not true turn out to be very expensive. Should one continue on that path, you will find yourself broke and out of the game. The financial markets have no patience with those who put the blinders on.

In life, though, you can go quite far with the blinders on. We admit it. One can have a good life without embracing the absurd, without ever knowing it. But we maintain you can lead an even better life by recognizing the absurdity of it all.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

This is water

As we noted at the beginning of this blog, the whole point is to remind you (and ourselves) that nothing matters, so go ahead and enjoy life! This is, however, easier said than done. Indeed, the novelist David Foster Wallace gave a famous commencement speech at Kenyon College in which he told the following parable:

"There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'"

The point, of course, is that we are all the young fish, constantly swimming around without the slightest inkling of what really surrounds us. Wallace concluded the speech by saying:

"The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness -- awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: 'This is water, this is water.' It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out." (Emphasis added.)

Wallace, as you may know, hung himself last year at the age of 46, a testament to just how difficult it is to remember this incredibly simple fact. However, there are exceptions to the rule. Eastern religions such as Buddhism, for example, have been preaching the non-existence of the self (and defining nirvana as the extinguishment of all desire) for millenia. In the West, where the absurd is still a relatively fringe concept, we have a more difficult slog.

Indeed, we recently read a fascinating column by Tim Kreider, in which he recounts a near-death experience (he was stabbed in the neck) and subsequent epiphany. "After my unsuccessful murder," he says, "I wasn’t unhappy for an entire year." Unfortunately, the euphoria didn't last, and "the same dumb everyday anxieties and frustrations began creeping back. I’d be disgusted to catch myself yelling in traffic, pounding on my computer, lying awake at night wondering what was going to become of me."

Interestingly, Kreider says the experience not only did not give him a permanent sense of contentment, but may have actually exacerbated negative tendencies. "If anything," he says, "it only reinforced the illusion that in the story of my life only supporting characters would die, while I, its protagonist and first-person narrator, would survive."

This is powerful--and somewhat distressing--stuff. In short, Kreider seems to be arguing that while his brush with mortality gave him short-term perspective, it may have made him less aware in the long run. (We don't buy this, by the way--no one who is not aware could have written that column.)

The takeaway, of course, is don't lose sight of the prize--keep reminding yourself "this is water," over, and over, and over again. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, recommends placing something next to your bed to remind yourself to smile each morning as soon as you open your eyes, and to give yourself constant reminders about what you are doing at any given moment (I am taking a shower, I am washing the dishes, etc.) We could not agree more--if you truly live in each moment, worry and regret have a way of simply slipping away.

Finally, we feel compelled to reproduce Kreider's concluding paragraph--a wonderfully eloquent and moving description of the absurd:

"It’s like the revelation I had when I was a kid the first time I ever flew in an airplane: when you break through the cloud cover you realize that above the passing squalls and doldrums there is a realm of eternal sunlight, so keen and brilliant you have to squint against it, a vision to hold onto and take back with you when you descend once more beneath the clouds, under the oppressive, petty jurisdiction of the local weather."

This is water. This is water. This is water.

On education

Taking the absurd perspective often allows your mind to drift into areas of thought where others, so shackled by traditional priorities and societal pressures and political correctness, would never go.

In this case, we look at education.

The Economist recently ran a piece in which it criticized American education because it has one of the shortest school years anywhere – 180 days compared to 195 for other OECD countries and over 200 days for East Asian countries. South Koreans, for instance, spend more than 15 days extra a year in school, which adds up to a whole year over the course of 12 years.

The Economist then brings forth the solution: longer school days and years. It praises the experiment in some parts of the country doing this already. It cites approvingly one school which begins the day at 7:30 am and ends at 5 PM every day. Plus there are classes on some Saturdays and into the summer. All told, students get 60% more class time.

We find much wrong with this whole idea.

First we must recognize that there is a vast difference between education and instruction. One may receive countless hours of instruction, but whether one is better educated because of it is another matter entirely. There is no discussion on this basic fundamental point.

It does not seem to us that spending more time consuming mass-produced instruction can do any child any good at all. Our premise is simple: everyone is different. We are different in temperaments and talents and many other facets. To run all these differences through the ugly press of public education is damage enough.

We don’t think it is controversial to say that the best instruction any student could receive is one-on-one instruction. One pupil and one student who tailors the lessons to the needs of that student. This is the ideal; we are not saying it is economically feasible. But starting from this ideal, we can better see where education ought to go and where it shouldn’t go.

It should go toward allowing the individual students and parents to find their own way, to explore their own possibilities and to find or create the education that best suits their wants and needs. It seems clear that the idea of government run school system turning out docile citizens imbued with a sameness of thinking is a very poor way to create a life for children.

There is too much of a focus on testing, too much of a focus on what teachers unions want, too much of a focus on what’s politically palatable. (Do we really need to revisit the idea of creationism versus evolution? Teaching the biggest idea in all of biology, evolution, is stunted because it offends the bible-thumping crowd of idiots. Let the idiots have their own schools, we say.) There is too much of what is convenient for parents. (We suspect most parents want to escape the responsibility of educating their own children. We can also cite evidence that many working parents love the idea of longer school days and years, because it makes life easier for them – they don’t have to arrange for care when the kids are out of school.)

But there is much more that is completely wrong about the traditional views on education of children. Another that is seldom talked about but very much worth asking is this: Should all children go to school? Are all people educable?

This very question smacks of an elitism that most Americans would find offensive. And yet it seems a critical question. Most people, we think, would admit to the obvious that not everyone ought to go to college.

We quote from the great social critic, thinker and writer Albert Jay Nock: “The assumption that all children of school age have school-ability is flagrantly at variance with the facts… Anyone casually considering a random assortment of our youngsters would be sure there are easily many who are incapable of getting through any kind of secondary school with any profit whatever to themselves [or], to anyone else…”

We think the assumption underlying public education – that everyone is educable and ought to go to school – is simply wrong and expensive. It may make us feel better, but it is at odds with nature and reality. It is an expensive error, as anyone can attest by looking at what is spent on school systems around the country. It is also expensive in that it cheapens the education of those who truly would benefit because it forces them into the compress of mass-produced education for the lowest common denominator. And it does violence to the individual by forcing the student down a path that is not right for him and that restricts his freedom and his parents’ to explore an education outside of the what the masses deem to be appropriate.

In the absurd view, we know nothing matters. But the absurdist is loathe to restrict the freedoms of other people in the name of some spurious and silly public agenda.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Any discussion of the absurd is of course incomplete without reference to Krishnamurti. (For those unfamiliar with his work we cannot recommend it highly enough - start with Total Freedom.) Krishnamurti often said his one role in life was to "set men free" from the self-imposed shackles of existence, and his teachings are invaluable for those interested in what is.

So much of K (as we have come to call him) is incredibly powerful, yet the underlying message is almost unbelievably simple. In short, that which holds us back is our blind reliance on the past to shape our "identity," when by simply taking things as they come we can eliminate all worry and regret. Consider the following exchange between K and a student:

Krishnamurti: Yes. But what do you mean by that word `security'?

Questioner: Alone I am weak.

Krishnamurti: Is it because you cannot stand alone?

Questioner: It is because you are afraid to stand alone.

Krishnamurti: You are frightened of being alone, so therefore you identify?

Questioner: Not always.

Krishnamurti: But it is the core, the root of it. Why do I want to identify myself? Because then I feel safe.

What delicious irony! Our desperate, all-consuming search for security leads us to identify with groups of others (those with similar religious beliefs, similar ethnic backgrounds, similar whatever), and yet it is exactly this identification that causes conflict! Wars, to choose the most obvious example, are fought by groups who each have something in common (religion, geography, etc.), and yet individuals fighting on one side could just as easily have ended up on the other had they simply been born in a different place.

For many (most?) people, this simple truth is too much to bear. They have spent their entire lives identifying themselves as "French," or "Catholic," or "an economist," and simply cannot imagine who they would be without such identity. But as K says, this is "the core, the root of it." We are terrified to be alone, despite the fact that we all are, have always been, and will always be alone. But the irony is that to embrace this fact is to free yourself from the tyranny of identity. Only by acknowledging the (seemingly terrifying) fact that we are each alone in an incomprehensibly vast, cold, uncaring universe, can we gain the ultimate security and freedom that comes with this knowledge--the freedom to live as we wish.

In Defense of Idlers

Some will take yesterday’s column “Doing nothing” too literally as meaning one must literally do nothing, that one must be a sloth and waste away. In this post we aim to better define the many layers and benefits of idling, properly viewed.

For this defense, we turn to one of the great idlers: Robert Louis Stevenson. You may know him for his fiction – Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and The Black Arrow (1888). We have read all of these books and only recently finished the Black Arrow. We will say this for Stevenson: He is one hell of a story teller in the great old manner of storytellers.

Stevenson also wrote a considerable amount of nonfiction, which most people don’t know about. Much of it we’d categorize as travel writing: An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879) were both about wandering in France. And The Silverado Squatters (1883) was about his first trip to America. We have read and enjoyed all of these as well. There were also books about his travels in South Sea and many letters and essays.

Stevenson, born in Edinburgh in 1850, was frequently ill as a child. Indeed, his health was often fragile throughout his life. He attended the University of Edinburgh where he was an indifferent student. He seemed more interested in a Bohemian existence than in becoming a great scholar. Instead of going to law school as his father wished, Stevenson decided he would be a writer – thankfully for those of us who enjoy his work today.

He had a falling out with his father, not only over his career choice, but also over matters of religion, which Stevenson seemed not to take seriously enough for his father. And so began the aimless wandering that characterized much of his adult life.

In 1877, he wrote “An Apology for Idlers” which was a defense of his idling and one of the best ever written. In it, Stevenson expounded more on what it meant to be an idler. And as one can readily attest by looking at Stevenson’s literary output – remembering he died at the age of 44 – idling does not mean literally doing nothing.

As Stevenson put it idleness “does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class.” It meant doing things you wanted to do, regardless of what society wanted you to do. It meant defining success and pleasure in your own way.

This has a habit of making other non-idling people nonplussed. Stevenson said. “It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter the handicap race for six-penny pieces, is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do.”

The idler of Stevenson’s conception, and the one we intend, was an open-minded fellow. “He who has looked on at the childish satisfaction of other people in their hobbies, will regard his own with only a very ironical indulgence. He will not be heard among the dogmatists.”

Also, while Stevenson appreciated diligence and hard work, he thought idling and diligence were not mutually exclusive. And here we get to an important part of his idea. “To state one argument is not necessarily to be deaf to all others, and that a man has written a book of travels in Montenegro, is no reason why he should never have been to Richmond.”

Idlers love learning things, exploring, poking around for its own sake – “to play a fiddle, to know a good cigar, to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men.”

What Stevenson is against is incessant busyness, the rat race, the pursuit of money to impress. He is against all work and no play, the narrowing of life people pursue “until they are forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and not one though to rub against another…”

It the busy man who “sows hurry and reaps indigestion.” Stevenson was for calm, for reflection and for slower work. He would be at ease among the slow food movement of today. He would not be found on Twitter.

Stevenson, in our minds, exemplifies the ideal of idling. He died in Samoa in 1894 on the island of Samoa, which seems an appropriate place for an idler to end up.

There is one other clever writer I want to throw in here: Jerome K. Jerome, author of a collection of essays titled The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and long-time practitioner of the idle arts. I will spare you his life story, but his words on idling stay with me:

“It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Doing nothing

To add on to Bomstein’s post from yesterday…

A disinclination to work is probably as old as humanity itself. But the idea of a slacker, idler or loafer as an identity, or philosophy, is only a couple of centuries old, emerging after the Industrial Revolution. It’s sort of a counter to the “protestant work ethic” – this latter, we’ve always regarded as a life-sucking and moronic creed. But, we’re glad we have plenty of people who work hard. Somebody has to do it.

America has had some great loafing personalities.

There is Henry David Thoreau, a great mid-nineteenth century loafer. He railed against work. Studied nature. Took long walks. Lived simply. Emerson counted it as a mark against him, writing: “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition.”

We count that as among Thoreau’s greatest charms.

Then there is Walt Whitman: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Whitman was kind of a dual personality on this front. He praised working – the hammer of the blacksmith and the plough of the farmer – but he also likes to lounge around, nap in the shade of willow trees and watch the clouds go by.

Tom Lutz has a great book on this whole subject of doing nothing. The book’s title is… well… Doing Nothing. The subtitle is A History of Loafers, Lounges, Slackers and Bums in America.

It covers a lot of ground, including what most people would probably think of first: the hippies. Doing nothing was sort of a political project for them. Lutz writes of the “hippie curriculum” – books like The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Stalking Wild Asparagus and The Whole Earth Catalog: “One of the main lessons of these books was that striving, pushing, desperate grabbing at the brass ring – any and all ambitious desires – were worse than distractions; they were the very stuff that made nirvana impossible.”

Lutz even posits that perhaps Jesus was an idler: “You notice that though supposedly a carpenter, Jesus didn’t seem to drive very many nails.” Jesus was supposed to have said: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they toil not, nor do they spin: and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

Idler talk that. Doing nothing is a virtue.

It runs counter to what many Americans think and yet the idea itself is quintessentially American. If we look at American work patterns, we see a steady climb in things like hours worked. But it’s the idler who argues that the good life is better than the good job. It’s a subculture in America. A sort of shadow ethic.

In the course of Lutz’s book, he uncovers many interesting American characters in this line, including what may be America’s first slacker: John Dennie – “a man who more than any other established the lounger in America. Dennie was a child during the American Revolution, five years old in Boston during the Tea Party and six during the Battle of Lexington.”

He worked for a year as a clerk, which convinced him he wanted to do as little as possible. He enrolled in Harvard to live a leisurely life of student and lecturer. He was expelled for laziness and doing nothing. He wrote poetry. Tried the ministry. Then law. Everything he did, he did for a little while, got bored and moved on.

He started writing essays. Wrote about indolence and idling in a tongue-in-cheek style. He started to attract a literary following and had some name fans – William Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft, Coleridge, Wordsworth, et al.

He found he liked the writing life as he could support himself without working too hard. He was the center of a literary group called the Crafts Tavern, a “coterie of wags, wits and literati.” Dennie continued to live his leisurely lifestyle. He overslept. Drank too much. Worked as little as possible. After he died in 1812, one of Dennie’s followers wrote that Dennie was “perpetually roaming, in quest of pleasure.”

An inspiration, old Dennie is.

There are many more... Herman Melville, who “wrote one of the most significant paeans to slackerdom ever produced.” That being Typee, his autobiographical novel of lounging around in the South Seas, sleeping and eating on the beaches, of many “tranquil days of ease.”

And not all of them were Americans. There is Paul Lafargue, son-in-law of Karl Marx and author of The Right to be Lazy (1883). You can find it for free on the internet.

I won’t go through all of these thinkers or their ideas. Suffice to say there is something in doing nothing. Something to learn and something to make life better in doing less.

Monday, June 15, 2009

In praise of boredom

"I'm bored."

Who among us has not heard these two simple syllables (or uttered them)? Indeed, boredom seems a universal human affliction, and we have created entire industries (sports, movies, television, etc.) in hopes of banishing it from our lives. It is worth questioning, however, exactly what we find so repellent about being bored. Said a different way...what's wrong with doing nothing?

In fact, boredom is not only universally human - it may be uniquely so. After all, when was the last time you saw a cat look bored? Cats (and many other species) instead seem to revel in their boredom, lazily licking a paw, gazing drowsily at a sunbeam, or otherwise enjoying their complete lack of anything to do. Most people, on the other hand, view laying about as a sort of character deficiency - a horrid state of affairs to be avoided at all costs.

We could go into the reasons for why this is so (eg, societal pressure, genetic evolution that has favored high "achievers" over those who choose to lay on the beach), but what would be the point? We find it more useful to humbly suggest you question the human obsession with activity, rethink your innate distrust of boredom, and embrace your inner laziness!

"Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly."--Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Friday, June 12, 2009

Do you want the red pill or the blue pill?

We love the movie the Matrix, which is very absurd…

In the movie, there is the world everyone believes is the real world, which is in the matrix… and then there is the real real world, which is vastly different. In the latter, humans are mere batteries for machines to consume. It’s a bleak world by comparison.

In the movie, there are only a handful of humans who have escaped the matrix and see the world as it really is. What’s great about this is that these humans have the option of going back into the matrix. They can, in other words, choose to be deceived. They can choose to live in that fantasy world. Or they can choose to see the world as it is.

There is a great scene where Morpheus offers the hero of the film, Nero, the choice:

“Morpheus: This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

So… do you want the blue pill or the red pill?

The absurd man takes the red pill. He wants to see the world as it is, rather than believe the fantasy concocted by others for him to believe.

We find that people do not want to accept the absurd, because they find aspects of unsettling. Or because they find they like their own pretty little lies more.

It reminds us of another great line from the movie, where a character name Cypher, who knows the matrix is a fraud, chooses to take the blue pill anyway:

“Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?
[Takes a bite of steak]
Cypher: Ignorance is bliss.”

We know several people who can walk right to edge of absurdity, but can’t accept its final ramifications. They’d rather sink back into believing that their life has some meaning, that they are important in some way, that they control their life, that they can cheat death, etc.

There is another great scene in the movie where a boy uses his mind to bend a spoon. The following is a snippet of dialogue between the boy and Nero.

“Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon boy: Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”

Wild stuff…but again it gets to heart of the movie, and the heart of the absurd: What is real? What do we control?

So we ask you: do you want the red pill or the blue pill? If you take the red pill, we’ll show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes…

Who is the absurd man?

Speech by Albert Camus:

The Absurd Man

"My field," said Goethe, "is time." That is indeed the absurd speech. What, in fact, is the Absurd Man? He who, without negating it, does nothing for the eternal. Not that nostalgia is foreign to him. But he prefers his courage and his reasoning. The first teaches him to live without appeal and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his temporally limited freedom, of his revolt devoid of future, and of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime. That is his field, that is his action, which he shields from any judgment but his own. A greater life for him cannot mean another life. That would be unfair. I am not even speaking here of that paltry eternity that is called posterity. Mme Roland relied on herself. That rashness was taught a lesson. Posterity is glad to quote her remark, but forgets to judge it. Mme Roland is indifferent to posterity.

There can be no question of holding forth on ethics. I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note every day that integrity has no need of rules. There is but one moral code that the absurd man can accept, the one that is not separated from God: the one that is dictated. But it so happens that he lives outside that God. As for the others (I mean also immoralism), the absurd man sees nothing in them but justifications and he has nothing to justify. I start out here from the principle of his innocence.

That innocence is to be feared. "Everything is permitted," exclaims Ivan Karamazov. That, too, smacks of the absurd. But on condition that it not be taken in a vulgar sense. I don't know whether or not it has been sufficiently pointed out that it is not an outburst of relief or of joy, but rather a bitter acknowledgment of a fact. The certainty of a God giving a meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity. The choice would not be hard to make. But there is no choice, and that is where the bitterness comes in. The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. "Everything is permitted" does not mean that nothing is forbidden..

The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend crime, for this would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility. Likewise, if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other. One can be virtuous through a whim.

All systems of mortality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimize or cancel it. A mind imbued with the absurd merely judges that those consequences must be considered calmly. It is ready to pay up. In other words, there may be responsible persons, but there are no guilty ones, in its opinion. At very most, such a mind will consent to use past experience as a basis for its future actions.

Time will prolong time, and life will serve life. In this field that is both limited and bulging with possibilities, everything to himself, except his lucidity, seems unforeseeable to him. What rule, then, could emanate from that unreasonable order? The only truth that might seem instructive to him is not formal: it comes to life and unfolds in men. The absurd mind cannot so much expect ethical rules at the end of its reasoning as, rather, illustrations and the breath of human lives. The few following images are of this type. They prolong the absurd reasoning by giving it a specific attitude and their warmth.

Do I need to develop the idea that an example is not necessarily an example to be followed (even less so, if possible, in the absurd world) and that these illustrations are not therefore models? Besides the fact that a certain vocation is required for this, one becomes ridiculous, with all due allowance, when drawing from Rousseau the conclusion that one must walk on all fours and from Nietzsche that one must maltreat one's mother. "It is essential to be absurd," writes a modern author, "it is not essential to be a dupe." The attitudes of which I shall treat can assume their whole meaning only through consideration of their contraries.

A sub-clerk in the post office is the equal of a conqueror if consciousness is common to them. All experiences are indifferent in this regard. There are some that do either a service or a disservice to man. They do him a service if he is conscious. Otherwise, that has no importance: a man's failures imply judgment, not of circumstances, but of himself.

I am choosing solely men who aim only to expend themselves or whom I see to be expending themselves. That has no further implications. For the moment I want to speak only of a world in which thoughts, like lives, are devoid of future. Everything that makes man work and get excited utilizes hope. The sole thought that is not mendacious is therefore a sterile thought. In the absurd world the value of a notion or of a life is measured by its sterility.

---Albert Camus

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Camus: Quote of the day

"I had lived my life one way and I could just as well lived it another. I had done this and I hadn't done that. I hadn't done this thing and I had done another. And so?... Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why."

-Albert Camus, The Stranger

The Cruise of the Snark

This from Jack London’s Cruise of the Snark, when justifying a friend’s decision to take a sailboat around the world:

“The ultimate word is I LIKE. It lies beneath philosophy and is twined about the heart of life. When philosophy has maundered ponderously for a month telling the individual what he must do, the individual says in an instant I LIKE and does something else and philosophy goes glimmering. It is I LIKE that makes the drunkard drink and the martyr wear a hair shirt that makes one man a reveler and another man an anchorite, that makes one man pursue fame another gold another love and another God. Philosophy is very often a man's way of explaining his own I LIKE.”

We found this touches a chord with us. We also find that we need no grand philosophy to tell us what we must do, how we must act or behave. When we talk to non-absurdists about the absurd, they often wonder how we function in day to day life. The fact is we function quite well. We do what we like. We don’t need, for instance, to find great meaning in our job or crave money to do it well. We do it well because we enjoy it and that is all. I LIKE.

Recognizing that nothing matters doesn’t mean you have to behave like an idiot. It means you focus more on the present moment. You seek out things you enjoy doing for no other reason than it pleases you. I LIKE.

We die

A friend sends us this, from a new business book called The Cluetrain Manifesto:

"We die.

"You will never hear those words spoken in a television ad. Yet this central fact of human existence colors our world and how we perceive ourselves within it.

"'Life is too short,' we say, and it is. Too short for office politics, for busywork and pointless paper chases, for jumping through hoops and covering our asses, for trying to please, to not offend, for constantly struggling to achieve some ever-receding definition of success. Too short as well for worrying whether we bought the right suit, the right breakfast cereal, the right laptop computer, the right brand of underarm deodorant."

We know nothing about the book or the author. But this opening we found interesting. Death is, of course, the only certainty in this world. We observe that most people do not want to deal with this reality. Many of the things people do – such as adherence to a religion or legacy building – are attempts in some way to get around facing the idea that in the end we die. And that’s that. (We will get more into the errors of thinking there is “another life” beyond this one in some future post).

Death, then, colors much of what we do. Most retreat from the reality of death. They either fear it or deny it in thought and deed. We, on the other hand, think this author has articulated the absurd position. We highlight it here because it is no common to find it so bluntly and refreshingly stated. Embracing the idea is also quite liberating.

Yes, we die.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

You are a Black Swan

“You always control what you do; so make that your end.”

That piece of advice comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. A black swan, according to Taleb, is an even that is rare, has an extreme impact and is retrospectively (though not prospectively) predictable.

A key thread throughout the book is how big of an impact seemingly random events have on our world. Recognizing this leads Taleb to many absurd observations:

“I am sometimes taken aback by how people can have a miserable day or get angry because they feel cheated by a bad meal, cold coffee, a social rebuff, or a rude reception… We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordinary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous proportions.

“Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billion times the size of the earth. The speck of dust represents the odds in favor of your being born; the huge planet would be the odds against it. Don’t be like the ingrate who got a castle as a present and worried about the mildew in the bathroom… remember that you are a Black Swan.”

Try to remember this next time you are stuck in traffic, or delayed at an airport, or get lousy service at a restaurant… anytime you are tempted to say “I’ve had a bad day.” Just remember the odds of you being here at all are incredibly long against you.

And given all the stuff you can’t control, why worry about any of it? Really, you can only control your reactions to the indifferent and random world around you. Take the absurd approach, recognize none of it matters at all, and liberate yourself from self-imposed chains!

The illusion of control

"I was never gonna get off that island. I was gonna die there, totally alone. I was gonna get sick, or get injured or something. The only choice I had, the only thing I could control was when, and how, and where it was going to happen."--Tom Hanks (as Chuck Noland), Castaway

Interesting, isn't it? Chuck Noland begins Castaway with the illusion of control--that the dates and times in his appointment book (for example) "matter." He is subsequently disabused of this fantasy when he becomes marooned on a desert island and realizes all his trivial concerns were just that.

And yet. When Noland finally returns to civilization, he immediately forgets the lesson he just learned! Namely, how and when we die is the only thing any of us ever controls. (And honestly, even this is a stretch. First, there is the non-trivial issue of whether we even have free will--more on this in a future post--and second, unless we immediately exercise this control we are ceding it to factors of chance. We can say with confidence, for example, that a small number of young, healthy people will die tomorrow from heart attacks, traffic accidents, etc.)

The illusion of control we feel is extraordinarily powerful, seductive, and constantly reinforced by deep-seated genetic and cultural forces. It is, nonetheless, just an illusion. Beyond losing our life, any of us could lose our sight, get paralyzed...or suffer an accident that completely changes our personality (see, for example, the case of Phineas Gage). Still, we cling to this illusion as if our very existence depends on it, never grasping the truth that our lack of control is incredibly liberating--a wonderful blessing that frees us from the scourges of worry and regret. Each of us will die someday, and the entity we think of as "I" will cease to exist.

Sadly, for most people this is a leap too far, and thus the vast majority of us remain marooned on our own private islands, futilely scrawling "HELP" in a quixotic quest for rescue.

Monday, June 8, 2009

This Simian World

“We have no sure vision. Hopes, guesses, beliefs – that is all.”
- Clarence Day, This Simian World (1920)

Clarence Day’s book This Simian World is one of our favorite books. It was published in 1920 and its author has long since passed from the scene. It is wonderfully written, clever and full of clear-headed insight into the nature of human societies. But what interests us most is that the book is also full of absurd observations.

The basic premise is that we are very much like our simian cousins. We share their curiosity and their love of chatter. “We carry our hairy past with us wherever we go,” Day writes, “running about, busy and active, marooned on this star, always violently struggling, yet with no clearly seen goal before us.”

Looking at humanity through a simian lens is a wonderful device. It instantly casts humanity in a more humble, absurd light. We see it more for what it is in its great futile struggle for meaning.

This lack of a purpose, though, does not at all discourage Day. In true absurd fashion, Day writes:

“It is possible that our race may be an accident, in a meaningless universe, living its brief life uncared-for, on this dark, cooling star: but even so— and all the more— what marvelous creatures we are! A universe capable of giving birth to many such accidents is – blind or not – a good world to live in, a promising universe.”

All or nothing

One interesting phenomenon we have observed is the tendency for people to agree with the absurd for the most part, but with an exception. Many people, for example, will say that nothing matters except family. Or friends. Or being happy. Etc, etc, etc.

But this is to miss the root of the issue, which is that either none of it matters...or it all does. Either there is some larger world of which our consciousness is a part (and thus will survive our physical death) or there is not. If the former--and, it should be noted, this is a view with zero evidence to support it--then things do matter, although we cannot say how, or what the consequences will be. If the latter, then life is simply a grand illusion, imbued with a seductive (but ultimately false) sense of "purpose."

Ascribing importance to one thing over another in such a world may seem logical (after all, how can family not matter?), but on further inspection this is a classic example of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Indeed, as Richard Dawkins has so ably pointed out (most notably in The Selfish Gene), the protective sense we feel for family members is simply a result of natural selection - in short, genes that impel people to protect "kin" have better survival rates than genes that do not. This is so simple and compelling (not to mention being a tautology), that we struggle to understand why it is almost universally misunderstood.

In short, the vast majority of humanity clings to the notion that not only do certain things matter more than others, but some things matter and some things don't! The intellectual bankruptcy and hypocrisy of such a position is simply stunning--for example, does an orphaned child with no relatives "matter" or not? In our opinion, this is yet another result of the desperate quest for certainty and meaning in a world that encompasses neither.

Act accordingly

Once you learn to look for it, the absurd turns up everywhere. Recently, for example, we saw Jack Nicholson (in "The Departed") sum up the absurd in two words:

Nicholson: "How's your mother?"

Bar patron: "Not too good. I think she's on her way out."

Nicholson: "We all are. Act accordingly."

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Capacity to Enjoy

The Belmont Stakes took place this weekend. It is the third-leg of the elusive Triple Crown in thoroughbred racing. It's a lot of fun. We like horse racing for its uncertainties and random elements. Pursuits of chance, like poker and the stock market, showcase much of the absurd.

Before the great race at the Big Sandy on Saturday, we were re-reading pieces of Andrew Beyer's classic, Picking Winners, while sitting under the shade of a great maple tree, under a bright blue sky, while puffing away at a tasty hand-rolled Sancho Panza. We came across this passage, which highlights another aspect of the absurd:

"A friend of mine from Boston was obsessed with playing the horses. He would awaken at dawn so he could study the horses all morning, spend the afternoon at the track, and devote his evening to a stack of yellowing Racing Forms... He didn't have much money but his life was a joy. Every day was a new challenge, an adventure.... "I am thankful," he said, "that God gave me the capacity to enjoy...

"The capacity to enjoy: so few people have it. Most citizens live lives of such routine and drudgery and are so concerned about security that they cannot imagine how delicious uncertainty is. A gambler may have as many periods of pain and frustration as he does exhilaration, but at least he knows he's alive."

We think this is one great aspect of the absurd. The true absurd man enjoys life all the more because he knows that nothing matters in the end. The ride is the the thing. The absurd man does not seek certainty in a world where there is none - except the certainty of our own demise. He relishes the uncertainty and cultivates the ability to see life anew and fresh everyday.

The absurd man has the capacity to enjoy.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Proof of the Absurd

We like the graphic in the link provided below. It is a sort of proof of the absurd. If you've ever felt like what happens on this little blue planet we call Earth is important, we would suggest you spend some time studying this graphic:

After looking at that, how can anyone think that anything that happens here matters at all? As we like to say to those who think some omniscient creator is wrapped up in what happens here, "You are not thinking big enough!"

Friday, June 5, 2009

Stand Still Like the Hummingbird

So often the honey is right under our nose, but we are too busy looking elsewhere to see it. The worst thing is not death, but blindness - whether intentional or not. These are some of the ideas Henry Miller deals with in a book of essays titled Stand Still Like the Hummingbird.

Miller, instead, says we need to cultivate an awareness and an acceptance of ourselves and the world as it is. Miller points to the Buddha and similar free men. This passage is particularly good:

"To such emancipated souls what difference could it make in what circumstances they found themselves? To them Paradise was not associated with a remote and isolated corner of the earth, any more than in a beyond, nor was it to be attained, as a state of mind, through an austere and singular manner of living. They were free in every sense of the word. It mattered not what role they adopted or were obliged to live out. They were in the world and of it, utterly. They renounced nothing; they made no distinctions; they counseled nothing. They were, and that was sufficient."

Work is Absurd

We could not help but note with interest the absurd's appearance in a book review in The Wall Street Journal written by Francis X. Rocca ("It's Only a Job, or Is It?"). Actually, Rocca reviews two books. The first is by Alain de Botton, titled The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. The second is by Matthew Crawford, titled Shop Craft as Soulcraft.

What caught our eye was this little passage:

"For Mr. de Botton, there is something absurd about the energy and anxiety that we pour into our jobs, given that even our most glorious deeds are destined to oblivion. Work has no greater value, he suggests, than as a lifelong distraction from the fact of our inevitable demise. Having allowed us to put a roof over our heads, work is finally a way of keeping us 'out of greater trouble.'"

So far this is all good. We find ourselves nodding in agreement. Yes, people spend a lot of worry on their jobs. And what good is that, given that the end is the same for all?

But can our observant reviewer, Mr. Rocca, take the next step into the absurd? Alas, he falls back, as most do. Here is the very next passage in his review:

"In contrast to Mr. de Botton's resignation, Matthew Crawford adopts a characteristically American attitude: practical, zealous and optimistic..."

No! Rocca gets it all wrong. Realizing the absurdity of work is not resignation. It is freedom. If nothing matters, if the end is oblivion, then there is no sense in worrying. There is no sense in all that anxiety. You are free!

We are always intrigued by how many people come right to the lip of the absurd, look in, and fall back depressed. It is anything but depressing. It is liberating!

One other thought: We read recently Christopher Ondaatje's book Woolf in Ceylon. It covers the life of Leonard Woolf, more famously known as Virginia Woolf's husband, while he was in Ceylon (or Sri Lanka) from 1904 to 1911.

Woolf is absurd. Ondaatje notes:

"Another defining characteristic of Woolf was his rationality. In the first volume of his autobiography, he says that he never truly worried about anything, because he could endure the cruel blows of fate with amused detachment, since he believed that ultimately "nothing matters.""


Channeling Nicolas Cage

Channel Nicolas Cage? The reader could be forgiven for asking if we have lost our (admittedly addled) minds. Nevertheless, we make the claim that the star of such forgettable fare as "Snake Eyes" and "Con Air" has given us a near-perfect template of how to live the absurd life.

Specfically, Cage's role as Jack Campbell in "The Family Man"--to most, an unremarkable movie about what is really important in life (read: family rather than wealth)--gives us a look at how we can step outside the mirage of our "selves" and live a life unconstrained by the self-imposed shackles of who we "are."

In the movie, Cage plays is a high-flying Wall Street exec, living what can only be described as the ultimate bachelor life--high-powered job in NYC, expensive car, beautiful women at his beck and call, etc. However, after a chance encounter with Don Cheadle (who plays something of a guardian angel), Campbell wakes up the next morning to find himself married (to his old girlfriend Tea Leoni) with two children, living in the NJ suburbs and working as a tire salesman. Basically, it is an alternate universe where Campbell made different decisions and thus his life turned out differently. And this is where things get interesting.

After the initial shock wears off (and Cheadle explains Campbell must live this alternate life for some indefinite period of time), Campbell settles in to his "new" life with an ironic shrug. While not the life he knows (or thinks he wants), it does seem to have its benefits (beyond Tea Leoni...) First, everything is new to him, and he spends a good deal of time being intrigued by his everyday surroundings. His house, for example, becomes a treasure-trove of interesting artifacts to be discovered.

Second (and this is arguably the most important point), since he knows his situation is temporary, he adjusts his actions accordingly. For example, in one classic scene a friend warns Campbell against the long-term consequences of cheating on his wife (ie, loss of trust). Campbell responds simply: "Arnie, I don't want your head to explode, but I'm telling you, those rules don't apply to me." In other words, since Campbell only expects to be in this alternate universe temporarily, there are no long-term consequences. Well...what a fantastic allegory for reality! We are all, in other words, only here temporarily. And while Campbell's "temporary" is shorter than ours (or so we assume - any of us could, of course, die tomorrow), this is simply a matter of degree. Put a different way, Campbell's dismissal of long-term issues provides a wonderful case study of how to embrace the temporary and meaningless nature of life.

Third, since Campbell has no memory of becoming a married tire salesman with two children, he views himself objectively. In his "first" day as a tire salesman, for example, he finds a bottle of scotch in his desk drawer, and quips (to himself): "You must have needed this every day..." Again, what a wonderful way to look at things! Virtually all of us are locked into who we "are," despite the fact that such labels depend entirely on genetics and the circumstances in which we have found ourselves. How much more sensible to have no preconceived notions (about anything), but simply take things as they come, and view the myth of our "selves" with a wry sense of irony.

Channeling Nicolas Cage, then, is our code for accepting (and celebrating!) the temporary and meaningless nature of existence, as well as the tremendously liberating benefits of viewing our "selves" objectively and all situations as "new."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Professor of Happiness

Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) was a lover of life. He loved pudding, wine, roast goose and shepherd’s pie. He was a writer, traveler, painter and gadfly among hotels, bars and restaurants. His career, he once wrote, “was mainly dedicated to the enjoyment of life.” He made the following absurd observations in his book To the One I Love the Best.

“I have never been able to convince myself that after I have passed through this magnificent world I’ll be admitted to a place even more astounding, to a paradise of better landscapes, restaurants, horses, dogs, cigars, and all the other objects of my adoration; for such would be my paradise…

For such as I, then, all is here and now, the rewards and the miracles. They are the green tree, the sunrise, and all the things we sing about – the jet plane, the paintbrush and the easel, the cadets of West Point, and especially children, most of all babies with their grave, observant eyes…

In spite of all that, that black moods descend on upon me, and consolation is hard to find….I lie on my own couch, suspended in cosmic gloom, the eye turned inward, and it takes awhile to console myself.

There are two cures. One is to work; all misery fades when I work, but I can’t work all of the time. The other is to celebrate. I, the confirmed lover of life and professor of happiness, look as we all must at life, and at the approaching day when we can only hope to be mourned for. I get hungry again and have to hurry to and reassure myself with another good bottle and a fine meal, and after the coffee I look through the blue smoke of my good cigar. I sit in the melancholy mood that is like cello music and search for the answers we shall never know…

People such as I live by rules of their own. We are not happy with the comforts that the group offers. We are off-horses, misfits… In the design that has been imposed upon humanity we are solitary, self-appointed outcasts. Outcast is too dramatic a word; let’s call us alonegoers. That also is not quite true, for I seek people and like them, but still in their midst I am alone…

My life has been colored mostly be a period spent in the army as a medic in the violent wards of an insane hospital… I learned there also to regard death as a generous manifestation, and to love life all the more for this discovery. And for the good of the soul I learned to step outside of myself, to forget the “I”, which is the key to happiness.”


"What, in fact, is the Absurd Man? He who, without negating it, does nothing for the eternal. Not that nostalgia is foreign to him. But he prefers his courage and his reasoning. The first teaches him to live without appeal and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his temporally limited freedom, of his revolt devoid of future, and of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime. That is his field, that is his action, which he shields from any judgment but his own."--Albert Camus

This blog is dedicated to the absurd--the notion that none of this matters, has ever mattered, or will ever matter. You can, of course, choose to view such an outlook as fatalistic, depressing, or (as one recent author put it) "resignation to our inevitable demise." We, on the other hand, choose to view it as unlocking the chains in which most of us spend our days, tragically unaware of the key sitting unused in our hand.