Sunday, February 28, 2010

Happiness from Within, Unhappiness from Without

“We all carry within us our prisons.”
- Albert Camus

Most of us live in a sort of unthinking routine. We get up in the morning. We eat breakfast and read the paper. We go to work. We come home. We have dinner. We go to sleep. And the next day we do it all over again.

It’s a comfortable pattern. It has its own rhythms. We are barely conscious of the ceaseless passing of days. But then one day we start wonder “Why?” This when all things begin, says Camus. The chain of daily existence is broken. This is when some of us will experience feelings of the absurdity of existence.

Those feelings run along familiar grooves, Camus thought. Among them: An awareness of the inevitable grinding away of our physical existence, knowing the end is our inevitable death. A sense that the powerful forces of nature mock our frail physical existence; that there is this big, incomprehensible universe that is unmoved by anything we do. A feeling of being alone or apart from other people, even a sense of alienation from “self,” a questioning of what is self, like lingering over an old photograph of “yourself” and wondering who that was, doubting it was the same person who gazes at the photograph today.

All of these things Camus writes about. And though they may sound depressing, Camus turned it all on its head. He instead leads us to embrace absurdity. And in this embrace is a release, a kind of liberation. He stresses the joy of life in the flesh, of living in the moment.

Happiness or equanimity, then, comes from within.


But modern life conspires against this idea. That is the thesis behind a new book titled “The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It hard to Be Happy” by Michael Foley. If happiness comes from within, then unhappiness comes from without.

We caught this review and found the idea of the book fascinating. After all, we’ve made the same case on this blog.

As the reviewer (who seems to get the idea of the absurd) writes:

“Modern life, Foley argues, has made things worse, deepening our cravings and at the same time heightening our delusions of importance as individuals. Not only are we rabid in our unsustainable demands for gourmet living, eternal youth, fame and a hundred varieties of sex, but we have been encouraged – by a post-1970s "rights" culture that has created a zero-tolerance sensitivity to any perceived inequality, slight or grievance – into believing that to want something is to deserve it. As Foley puts it: "Is it possible that a starving African farmer has less sense of injustice than a middle-aged western male who has never been fellated?"

(Well… that’s an interesting question!)

We agree with the idea that society is decidedly anti-absurd. It wants us to buy things. It wants us to realize our potential – a potential defined by societal norms like having physical things… a nice house, a new car (you deserve it!), a sleek body, a college education, a promising career and on and on it goes…

The futility of the ceaseless striving is obvious when we reflect that our drive for these things is never satisfied. As the reviewer goes on to write:

“It's not even as if we want what we have once we've got it. Foley calls this "the glamour of potential", a relentless churning of desire by which the things we have are devalued by the things we want next. The only way out of the churn is "detachment", an idea as compelling to the Greek and Roman stoics as to Sartre and Camus: if you can't change the world, don't let it change you.”

Many great minds have arrived at the same general conclusions. Happiness is within and we make ourselves miserable with unmet desires. The great point of absurdity is that you find happiness in the absurdity of existence itself.

The book’s opening chapter is titled “The Absurdity of Happiness” and the last chapter is titled “The Happiness of Absurdity.” Sounds like a nice progression. And it also sounds like something we have to read if only for the pleasure of finding a fellow traveler in this absurd world!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why Tiger Still Doesn't Get It

"Buddhism teaches that a craving of things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously, I lost track of what I was taught."--Tiger Woods

"If this is true, he's one of the worst Buddhists of all time."--Bill Simmons

A couple of months ago we penned an essay about why Tiger Woods was not happy. Unfortunately, things seem not to have changed much in the interim. Not that we particularly care one way or the other about Tiger's state of mind, but the fact that he chose to invoke the tenets of Buddhism--which closely resemble our outlook--caused us to reflect on his situation once more.

One of the things we have discussed frequently in this blog is the perplexing fact that so many people are willing to go right to the edge of the absurd...but unable to follow through. For example: "Yes, I accept that all is meaningless, but family - that's what really matters." Or: "Material possessions don't matter, but having a robust network of friends is essential to a happy life." Etc.

With that in mind, go back and read Tiger's comment again. The first sentence is...well, we couldn't have said it better ourselves. Indeed, we have often written about this illusory (and counterproductive) search for security. And yet, it is clear from the rest of Tiger's speech that he has simply substituted one set of things that "matter" (his wife and children) for another (cocktail waitresses).

In short, he is falling into the well-laid trap of believing family occupies some special and exalted niche in this purely physical world--that our protective feelings toward relatives come not from evolution and simple biology, but are instead...well, somehow different.

A craving of things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security.

It seems pretty clear that Tiger's wife and children exist outside him, so why the double standard? Why do we delude ourselves into believing one set of things (family) is more meaningful than the other (possessions, or even other people not related to us)?

The answer, of course, is that for all our delusions of grandeur, for all the hoping, striving, and achieving we undertake on a daily basis in the vain hope of validating our nebulous and ephemeral self, we remain gene replication machines and nothing more. However, we want so desperately to believe this is not the case that we set up vast, elaborate structures to distract ourselves from our true nature, codified by established (and strictly enforced) social mores.

Think back to why Tiger got in trouble in the first place - he violated the terms of his marriage contract. But so what? As we once noted, the idea that it "matters" whether a spouse has intercourse with another person is merely an idea certain human civilizations have codified, for a variety of reasons. As we put it then, "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."

This commitment to family is so hard-wired into our nature that most people are unable to even converse about it. For example, we recently watched an episode of the (often absurd) television show House, in which a character questioned his wife as to why he should care more about his son than about others simply because they are biologically related. His wife looked at him with horror and replied: "Because he's your son!" (We, feeling mischievous, turned to our wife and commented that the patient had a point. We are still awaiting a reply.)

The problem, of course, is that there is no answer, but this concept is so overwhelming to most people that they retreat behind elaborate defenses ("He's your son!) to avoid dealing with it. There is no objective reason to favor one's family over other, unrelated individuals. It is not "better" for Tiger Woods to spend time with his family than with cocktail waitresses. Any and all preferences we think we have are mere manifestations of biological processes and millions of years of evolution, mixed together with our present and past environments.

To clarify: we do indeed have wants and desires, but we recognize their transient and ephemeral nature. We had a wonderful bottle of wine last night, and today we are at work in an office. But we are not wishing we were back enjoying the wine. We are content where we are, with what we are doing. It is this simple insight that continues to elude Tiger Woods.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Overexamined Life

"On the way back,
we passed by
the stone walls again.
The stones had no mortar;
they were just stones
balancing against the sky."

- Simon Ortiz, "Toward Spider Springs"

The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates once said.

But, we would add, the overexamined life isn’t worth living either. We like the thought expressed in the Ortiz poem quote above. Sometimes, it's good to just be the stones - to just be.

But for many people that won't be enough. They will seek out the mortar. And if it isn't there, they will invent one. In other words, they can't live a life without believing that something holds it together, shapes it, gives it meaning and purpose.

We have a friend who is very interested in defining himself through his chosen pursuits. He lays them out with great thought and vision, rationalizing and justifying choices he's made. He speaks often about personal performance and achievement, as if life was a kind of self-improvement plan.

We are not passing judgment. To each his own. If he finds contentment in this self-analysis, then so be it.

But we can't help but wonder about the wisdom of investing so much of a sense of self in external things, achievements or pursuits.

If you want freedom, or emancipation from societal or personal chains ... if you want equanimity - that sweet sense of "unattached awareness of one's experience as a result of perceiving the impermanence of momentary reality... a peace of mind and abiding calmness that cannot be shaken by any grade of both fortunate circumstance and unfortunate one" - as the Wikipedia puts it - then this would seem counterproductive to that idea.

The reason is because these external things will not abide your wishes. You cannot always be what you want to be. Life and circumstance force changes upon you. How you react to life's vicissitudes will determine whether you can maintain that sense of equanimity or not.

If you have important life goals, activities that you believe define who you are, then you are less likely to maintain that equanimity.

The words of Albert Camus come to mind. "To the extent to which he imagined a purpose to his life, he adapted himself to the demand of a purpose to be achieved and became the slave of his liberty...

To the extent to which I hope, to which I worry about a truth that might be individual to me, about a way of being or creating, to the extent to which I arrange my life and prove thereby that I accept its having a meaning, I create for myself barriers between which I confine my life."

He goes on to write:

"The absurd enlightens me on this point: there is no future."

All that is, is the here and now. At some point, we're all dead men. The absurd man draws strength from this insight. "Death," Camus writes, "has patrician hands which, while crushing, also liberate."

In conclusion, we prefer to let life happen. Whatever wish or goal we have, we hold to it lightly, like a little bird we coddle gently in the palms of our hands. If it should flutter away, our life will be no poorer for having lost it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Absurd Man v. Simian Man

So, are there ways to change your behavior, to mold the hard-wiring of your brain in some way? That is the focus of a new book titled Switch: How to Change things When Change is Hard.

The answer is yes. The authors maintain there are psychological principles you can use to change your behavior and overcome some hard-wiring. We’ve not read the book and don’t plan to. We saw a review in this morning’s Wall Street Journal and the thoughts in there inspire today’s post.

See… we’ve often talked about how there are parts of us that are hard-wired to be anti-absurd. And so in the past we’ve written about ways to be more absurd and overcome this hard-wiring.

The authors have some ideas… and it begins with the idea that humans don’t have one central decision-making unit. You may think of the brain as one unit, but in fact, our brains have two halves. There is a rational and logical part of the brain. And there is an emotional and impulsive part of the brain.

For our purposes, let us call the first the Absurd Man and the second, Simian Man. The first is what writes this blog. It’s our thinking, deliberate side. The side that weighs evidence and does the heavy lifting of (trying) to figure stuff out.

The Simian Man is the anti-absurd part of our brains that make us do un-absurd things – like getting upset in traffic or ticked off at work. It is the reactive, emotional part of our brains.

Having these two sides is like having your own internal Jekyll and Hyde show. Absurd Man tries to wrestle down monkey brains and keep things copacetic, while Simian Man has his own ideas and plays havoc with Absurd Man’s neat view of the world.

Simian Man can get in the way of the liberating feelings of absurdity. In the past on this blog, we’ve often talked about this Simian Man as something to beat down and control. But we are leaning more and more to accepting Simian Man and his non-absurd impulses as part of what it is to be human. If sometimes we act non-absurd, then so be it. Recognize it and move on.

The authors, however, have a few other useful ideas we thought we’d pass on. They say that in order to change your behavior you have to address both sides of your brain. So if you want to be more absurd, you have to appeal to both reason and emotion. You need concrete information (the rational arguments of the absurd) and you need a more emotional mental image of why it is “good” to be absurd (say, peaceful images of how calm and care-free you might be, of equanimity and acceptance, of the idea of emancipation).

The bottom line is you need to bring both systems onboard for change to occur. You need good rational arguments to appeal to Absurd Man… but he can’t do it alone. You also need to appeal to Simian Man.

The authors have other principles, too. One is to recognize that we are influenced by those around us. Our environment is an important part of the puzzle of our behavior. So, in order to be more absurd, the authors would advise you seek out like-minded people and create an environment more conducive to want you want to do.

This blog, we suppose, can serve that kind of purpose. It creates, in a way, a place where like-minded people can find some reinforcement and swap ideas about the absurd and similar viewpoints. It’s helped us be more absurd in our daily living. After all, absurdity, like a good offal restaurant, is a rare thing in today’s society. Even Simian Man would agree with that.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Options and Choices

If today was your last day
And tomorrow was too late
Could you say goodbye to yesterday?
Would you live each moment like your last?
Leave old pictures in the past
Donate every dime you have?
--If today was your last day, Nickelback

We went through a period a few years back where we put four pets to sleep (two dogs and two cats) in 14 months. Leaving aside some of the obvious existential issues, what has stuck with us is the manner in which our vet discussed each pet with us. He would lay out the facts of the pet's ailment, pause briefly, then say "OK. Options and choices." In each case, the "options and choices" were basically: 1) spend a small fortune for (at best) a few extra weeks or months of life, or 2) put the pet to sleep.

We opted for the latter in each instance, but that is not the point. Rather, we want to discuss how this concept of options and choices can impact the way we live on a day-to-day basis. Put simply, it is far different to choose to live each day than to continue living through inertia. (As we have noted in the past, we consider suicide to be a viable and perfectly valid option for one to consider.)

Think of it this way. Do you begin each day (as Will Smith opined in the otherwise-forgettable movie Hitch) "as if it were on purpose"? When you are stressed out about a deadline, or worried about a relationship, does it occur you that none of it would matter if you were dead? (We are not advocating suicide as a relief for one's stresses, mind you, but instead using such a "negative visualization" as a means to illustrate the inherent absurdity of all our worries and stresses.)

You. Could. Be. Dead.

Not only that, but you are free to end your life at any time. To us, thinking of life this way has a clarifying (and bracing) effect. We are choosing to live. Not only that, but we acknowledge that everything we do involves choice. We are choosing to write this blog post instead of innumerable other options available to us at this moment. Even when we do things that seem mandatory (go to work, care for our family), we recognize that there are other options available. The fact that such options may seem unpalatable (getting fired, for example) does not render them moot.

Basically, this boils down to the way perceptions can alter one's state of being. To view life as a choice puts one in control, while to cling desperately to life through biological inertia...does not.

Interestingly, such a conclusion flies in the face of the most common complaint against the absurd - that it is a depressing outlook on life. Indeed, we have found that to contemplate suicide on occasion is a wonderful tonic for easing life's ills - the fact that we had a hard day at work, or our wife is upset with us, seems laughably irrelevant when put side by side with our ceasing to exist.

Also, such an outlook is an essential element to living without fear, which gets at the recent debate in the comments about whether the absurd is consistent with living an "accomplished" life. To us, this is a fairly simple issue: the absurd man recognizes the futility of all endeavors, but may certainly choose to play the role of a high achiever. Indeed, the recognition that all is futile, and the liberation it entails, frees the absurd man to pursue pretty much anything.

After all, what's the worst that could happen?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Jerry Seinfeld, absurd man

Parade Magazine published its interview of Jerry Seinfeld over the weekend. Seinfeld, a comedian who needs no introduction, voiced a powerful absurd idea in the interview – one that we were, frankly, shocked to see in print. Few – especially one so famous – are willing to say the same thing about the death of a loved one as Seinfeld did. We’ll get to that below…

Seinfeld has always struck us as a man totally comfortable in his own skin. He always seemed totally at ease with the world and his fame. Part of that comes from his willingness to submerge his ego. Or maybe a better way to put this is that Seinfeld seems to successfully hold on to his sense of self with a light touch.

This probably helps explain why he is such a good observer, and hence a comedian. (We have a guess that humorists are closer to the absurd than the average man). Harlan Corben, the interviewer, begins by walking with Seinfeld through Central Park to the Upper West Side. “While he strolls,” Corben writes, “his eyes are always searching.” Seinfeld takes note of a man in a business suit on a bicycle far too small for him, an adept skateboarder, teens playing by a frozen lake…

“A born observer,” Corben writes, “Seinfeld enjoys commenting on what he sees. Whereas most celebrities like nothing more than to talk about themselves, he seems to find it tedious, if not painful.”

He is less focused on himself – his ego, his needs, his purpose, etc. This seems to help him in two ways. It helps him become more accepting of the world as it is and it helps make him a very astute observer of the world around him.

And the irony of this effort is to know yourself better than the navel-gazing crowd looking inward for meaning and purpose. “To know the self, of course, is hopefully to forget the self,” Jim Harrison once wrote, memorably adding: “The especially banal wine of illusion is to hold on tightly to all the resonances of what we see in the mirror, inside and out.”

And now we get to Seinfeld’s more shocking absurd admission. Near the end of the interview, Corben asks Seinfeld about the death of his father, “the first great loss of Seinfeld’s life.” ‘“Did it crush him?” Surprisingly, after a brief pause, he says no.’

An excerpt from Corben as to what follows…

“I tend to accept life as it is,” he says. “I’m not one of these ‘Life isn’t fair people.’ I tend to accept whatever the limits are, whatever the rules are.” He sits back. His love for his father is evident, but no more evident than his acceptance of the basic fact that the man is no longer around… “It’s okay.” Seinfeld says. And you get the feeling that it is.

How many celebrities would say that? We venture to say not many. Most would feel compelled to extol emotions of sadness and loss. Rather than go to pieces, Seinfeld has found acceptance.

This acceptance is the key to the whole idea of absurdity… and finding equanimity and contentment in life. And while not a uniquely absurdist keystone, it is connected to the absurd as a man’s head is connected to his body. One of our great inspirations on acceptance is Henry Miller. “Only through complete acceptance,” he writes, “does one arrive at emancipation.”

Miller goes one to say that “this doctrine of acceptance” is “the most difficult yet simple of all the radical ideas man has proposed for himself.” We agree… and the payoff for mastering it is immense.

How immense? We’ll end with the words of Herman Hesse, who gave such eloquent voice to the idea in Siddhartha:

“I learned… to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it… Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Thin veneers

"It was toward the end of my career; I knew it was probably my last shot. That set bad with me. It's like, what is life all about?"Former Purdue University basketball coach Gene Keady, on failing to make the Final Four in 2000.

We have not posted in quite a while, due in part to the epic snowstorm that hit the mid-Atlantic U.S. last weekend (and knocked out our power for two days). Indeed, we and our family, including our black lab, ended up fleeing our house early Sunday morning when the inside temperature hit 44 degrees.

Not surprisingly, the experience provided us with an interesting insight into the absurd.

As you know, we have argued extensively that circumstances are irrelevant, and all experiences equivalent. Thus, our weekend (which consisted mainly of shoveling snow, trying to keep warm (and fed), and searching for flashlights and candles) was no different than that of someone sitting on the beach drinking pina coladas. And yet…

In fact, our early Sunday flight to a hotel was prompted by being awakened at 4:00 by our 4-year old daughter, and our abject pain at watching her sit in the cold, dark bathroom—our protective instincts (which reside in the ancient, reptilian part of the brain) simply overrode any other (i.e., more rational and objective) assessment of the situation.

This was of course obvious in retrospect, as we sat in our warm house this morning and considered that there was no objective difference between Sunday and today; in other words, there was no particular reason to prefer one environment over the other. Yet clearly we did.

This was particularly interesting to us in light of the recent discussion on the blog (and a recurring theme) about the existence (or lack thereof) of meaning. In short, our feelings and actions were certainly consistent with preferring one situation over another. So how can we argue they are the same?

The rub is this: Just because we have a preference for one over the other does not mean it is inherently better. To fully grasp this, consider our weekend experience from the perspective of our dog. Indeed, we joked with our wife several times that the dog seemed to be enjoying the weekend more than usual; she spent the entire time with us (as opposed to being outside or in her crate), and the trip to the hotel was even better—not only was the whole family in two rooms (and thus easily accessible), but she was allowed on the bed!

The message here is pretty simple, of course—the inherent “goodness” of experience is purely subjective.

Now, at this point we are sure some of you (you know who you are…) are chomping at the bit to tell us your version of meaning is subjective—it is, as the Buddha said, your world, and you create it with your thoughts. So let’s explore this.

The view expressed by certain commenters is (as we see it) essentially this: what they refer to as meaning is not some transcendent experience, but rather some sort of personal meaning inherent to them (and them only). Thus, to say a sunset (or anything else) has “meaning” could be true to one person and not to another. The meaningfulness, in other words, is internal rather than external.

However, when looked at through the lens of our recent experience, it strikes us that such beliefs are mere illusions, made possible thanks only to the thin veneer of civilization. Put it this way—the man struggling day and night for survival has no time for thoughts of meaning (internal or external); it is only when he is able to sit and reflect that his actions and desires take on a “significant hue.” What are mere instincts when survival seems to be at stake (protect my offspring!) somehow transform into deep and meaningful statements of “who” we are under less stressful circumstances (I am deeply committed to my family—they matter to me).

The difference, of course, is purely ephemeral—under both circumstances we are merely physical beings playing out ancient scripts hard-wired into our genes—but as the latter feels different, we delude ourselves into believing it has some significance outside our physical (and instinctual) reality.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Recently, we were unable to visit a certain remote lodge in New Zealand because the foggy weather grounded our small airplane in Wellington. Reaction to this varied, as you might expect, from those who acted as if it completely ruined their life to those who shrugged their shoulders and looked for the nearest inviting pub. (We were in this last camp.)

One member of our crew said “Well, it doesn’t matter anyway, we’ve got plenty of other things we can do.”

Ears perking up a tad, we said, smiling, “Of course it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. A few weeks from now this will be just another memory.”

“Well you’re right,” he said. “Nothing really matters in the end.”

We are always curious about how many people seem to agree initially with elements of the absurd, but back off when the full import of what it means hits them. In this instance, thinking we had perhaps found an absurd man amidst an un-absurd society, we probed a touch deeper.

But he soon told us how happiness centered around three things: personal health, friends and family, and positive experiences. We nodded politely, but we found it fascinating how this fellow in one instance can see so clearly how nothing matters and yet in the next he places three things at the center of his universe. Different strokes for different folks, but as absurd men, we see greater appeal in taking that idea of a meaningless universe as we find it. Just accepting it as it is, rather than build a screen around it.

But how people think and respond is an interesting subject itself. Though not directly tied to the absurd, we found the following principles in Robert Gula’s book Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language. It aptly describes the general tendencies of how people think – and goes very far in explaining why an idea, like the absurd, that goes against so much of what people hold dear, has little chance winning the hearts and minds of most people.

Gula writes, people:

1. Tend to believe what they want to believe.
2. Tend to project their own biases or experiences upon situations.
3. Tend to generalize from a specific event.
4. Tend to get personally involved in the analysis of an issue and tend to let their feelings overcome a sense of objectivity.
5. Are not good listeners. They hear selectively. They often hear only what they want to hear.
6. Are eager to rationalize.
7. Are often unable to distinguish what is relevant from what is irrelevant.
8. Are easily diverted from the specific issue at hand.
9. Are usually unwilling to explore thoroughly the ramifications of a topic; tend to oversimplify.
10. Often judge from appearances. They observe something, misinterpret what they observe, and make terrible errors in judgment.
11. Often simply don’t know what they are talking about
12. Rarely act according to a set of consistent standards. Rarely do they examine the evidence and then form a conclusion. Rather, they tend to do whatever they want to do and to believe whatever they want to believe and then find whatever evidence will support their actions or beliefs.
13. Often they do not say what they mean and often do not mean what they say.

That’s a pretty damning list. And we’re not saying we haven’t fallen prey to these principles. We simply offer them as a neat synopsis on thinking itself. Not only is there a lot of hard wiring that makes people resist absurdity, there is also a lot of baggage in their ways of thinking that prevent them from accepting new ideas (or old ideas in new ways).

Gula also quotes from J.A.C. Brown’s Techniques of Persuasion: “Most people want o feel that issues are simple rather than complex, want to have their prejudices confirmed, want to feel that they ‘belong’ with the implication that others do not, and need to pinpoint an enemy to blame for their frustrations.”

It seems some institutions make their entire living on these principles… religion and politics comes immediately to mind. But really any set of ideas and beliefs (including the absurd) can fall prey to these issues.

Interesting stuff…and helpful in trying to think clearly and to understand why other people think the way they do.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


We recently returned from a long overseas trip. A day after our return, a feeling of melancholy set in. We had an unsettled feeling. We were blue.

But what’s this? We are absurd. Nothing matters. What could bother us? Well, we thought about it and wrote the things that were irritating us down on a little pad: The pile of mail (and bills) that had accumulated in our absence that had to be sorted out... The need to run an errand to the bank, which is never convenient… A deadline at work that we had no chance of meeting…

We wrote these things down and studied them a bit; facing them directly and recognizing how each thing didn’t matter. We started to feel better. Bomstein pointed out over coffee one day that he read somewhere how stress makes the brain release some chemicals that stay in the body for a time even after the stress is removed. That, too, made us feel better. As if this feeling was instinctual, one of those hard-wiring things that makes us anti-absurd sometimes.

All of this got us thinking about the idea of feeling blue. In the past on this blog, we have often emphasized happiness… how to get it, or keep it, or what makes it happen or not happen, and even trying to figure out what the heck it is and so on…

But we are starting to like the idea of acceptance better. That is to say, the idea should not be happiness, per se, but acceptance. We shouldn’t fight feelings of melancholy. We should accept that, too. The ultimate absurd man, we think, is one who has mastered acceptance. He finds equanimity in accepting the world as it is and not, necessarily, in thinking about being happy regardless of what befalls him.

We know we’ve talked about acceptance often, too. But we think perhaps we should emphasize acceptance more. There was a man who saw some of these things early. When we think of the word melancholy, we think of his name. His name is Robert Burton, author, famously, of An Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621.

Part of Burton’s message – and we know he had some strange ideas, like eating too much pork or too many cucumbers made one sad – is simply that feelings of melancholy are part of what makes us human. There is no escape. We should accept it and move on.

Burton writes, in his usual purplish prose:

“From these melancholy dispositions, no man living is free, no stoic, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself…

Q. Metellus, in whom Valerius gives instance of all happiness, ‘the most fortunate man then living in that most flourishing city of Rome, of noble parentage, a proper man of person, well qualified, healthful, rich, honorable, a senator, a consul, happy in his wife, happy in his children,’ etc, yet this man was not devoid of melancholy, he had his share of sorrow…

For a pint of honey thou shalt here likely find a gallon of gall, for a dram of pleasure a pound of pain, for an inch of mirth an ell of moan; as ivy doth an oak, these miseries encompass all our life.”

Burton says here that feeling blue is normal. It happens to all. Don’t sweat it. Just accept that it happens. (Well… he also has his prescriptions, some of which are not bad. He says you should drink more beer, because it makes one happy, or, as he puts it, “the hop… hath an especial virtue against melancholy.” We can’t argue…)

To know these feelings are natural and to recognize them when they occur is itself a great anti-depressant, we find. It goes along with the idea that to observe your own actions and thoughts in a dispassionate manner is a wonderfully revealing exercise.

All is to say, don’t fight your bouts of melancholy. Recognize and accept is, we think, a better approach. And, ironically, this approach may dissolve those blues anyway.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


We live and die, but it is our unique fate to know that we live and die.

That’s an old insight, probably realized by our early ancestors, when they were hunting their prey to exhaustion on the African plains.

From there, one can go in many different directions. The absurd man takes that insight at face value. He accepts it and, in fact, finds it freeing. If we’re all going to die anyway, what’s the point in worrying about stuff? Might as well live for today.

That too, is a very old idea. We didn’t realize just how old until we found it in the ancient tale of Gilgamesh. And when we say ancient, we mean ancient. When the tale was lost in the destruction of Nineveh in 612 BC, it was already 2,000 years old!

Gilgamesh was very popular throughout the ancient world. Lost lines were found in many of the languages of the Near East – Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Elamite, Hittite and more. And there are many variations of the tale.

While traveling Down Under, we picked up a copy of Martin Edmond’s Zone of the Marvelous: In Search of the Antipodes. (The antipodes is often used to mean Australia and New Zealand.) It was here we found the discussion on Gilgamesh.

“Gilgamesh is about an ancient Middle Eastern king’s quest for immortality and his coming to terms with the inevitability of death,” Edmond writes. Young Gilgamesh lives it up. He has many lovers. He parties and drinks a lot. In the process he angers the gods (by killing the Bull of Heaven). The gods decide to kill his pal, Enkidu, in retribution. Gilgamesh is distraught, “fearful…that his friend’s fate will also be his.”

Afraid of death, he goes on a journey to achieve immortality. We’ll skip over his many adventures here and focus on just one encounter. In the earlier versions of the story, he meets with Shiduri, who is a kind of tavern-keeper. She is the absurd woman in the tale.

Her advice to Gilgamesh is to give up his quest and accept his inevitable death. As Edmond writes: “Shiduri tries to dissuade him, using words later echoed in Ecclesiastes: ‘fill your belly with good things, day and night, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice…’”

Shiduri is the absurdist voice in this old tale. She is the one who gives the wise advice that says if you are going to die, you might as well live life to the fullest and not worry about your death. Shiduri advises Gilgamesh to live an absurd life.

We don’t know who put those words in her mouth. The author (or authors) of the tale is lost forever. But the fact that the words exist at all means there was an ancient absurd man somewhere back there in the mists of time.

Absurdity, perhaps, is as old as consciousness. When the first man (or woman) looked up at the sky - perhaps frustrated by his hunger or angry at the sun - and wondered why... and then accepted his fate, he was on his way to absurdity.