"I devoted my life, longer than you can possibly imagine, in service of a man who told me that everything was happening for a reason, that he had a plan, plan that I was a part of, when the time was right that he'd share it with me, and now that man's gone so...why do I want to die? Because I just found out my entire life had no purpose."--Richard Alpert, character from Lost.
We were chatting with Inigo the other day about Karl Popper, the philosopher who said (among other things) that the way to empirically test scientific theories was not to seek confirmatory evidence, but rather to do one's best to falsify the theory. His famous example was that while one could see only white swans one's entire life and (quite reasonably) assume all swans are white, the sighting of a single black swan instantly invalidates the premise.
We find this to be of use with the absurd, as anti-absurd views often bring the benefits (and logic) of the absurd into sharp relief. For example, we keep a copy of Carl Sagan's famous "pale blue dot" picture on our wall as a reminder of our incredibly tiny and insignificant place in the universe. (For those who do not know the story, Sagan had the Voyager spacecraft take a picture of Earth from the edge of the solar system.) A colleague recently asked about the picture, and seemed visibly upset when we explained it to him. Shortly thereafter, he sent us an email with the subject line "More than a dot," with a full-scale picture of the Earth in all its technicolor glory.
While the email was at least partly tongue-in-cheek, it gets at what is so difficult about the concept of the absurd for so many people. Put simply, we live our entire lives being told, either implicitly or explicitly, that things matter--as Richard Alpert so aptly put it, that our lives have purpose. Thus, it can initially seem shattering when that sense of purpose is threatened.
Another example. We are quite fond of Cormac McCarthy's book The Road, and recently loaned a copy to another colleague. (For those who have not read it, the "plot" is that a man and his son are struggling for survival in a post-apocalyptic world. The entire novel seemed to us an allegory for the absurd--i.e., that "hope" is a false god--with the glaring exception of the ending, where the man dies and his son is inexplicably "rescued" by another man who can only be described as "one of the good guys." This, needless to say, was our least favorite part of the book.)
Anyway, our colleague said she liked the book a lot--while most of it was very bleak, she explained, she really liked the end(!) We, being unable to help ourselves, pushed on this point. "You know," we said, "the takeaway is really that all of us are on 'the road.'" She looked briefly panicked, then replied, "Well, that's depressing!"
But why? Why do people cling so desperately to the idea that things have meaning? Why must our actions have significance? Why are we so inextricably wrapped up in the ruinous cycle of achievement and accomplishment that inevitably lead to disappointment and strife?
We recently read Joe Simpson's book Touching the Void, about his near-death experience while mountain-climbing. While we heartily recommend the entire book, one passage in particular was particularly pertinent. Simpson and his climbing partner had just ascended the summit, and he recorded his reaction thus:
"I felt the usual anticlimax. What now? It was a vicious circle. If you succeed with one dream, you come back to square one and it's not long before you're conjuring up another, slightly harder, a bit more ambitious--a bit more dangerous. I didn't like the thought of where it might be leading me. As if, in some strange way, the very nature of the game was controlling me, taking me towards a logical but frightening conclusion; it always unsettled me, this moment of reaching the summit, the sudden stillness and quiet after the storm, which gave me time to wonder at what I was doing and sense a niggling doubt that perhaps I was inexorably losing control - was I here purely for pleasure or was it egotism? Did I really want to come back for more?"
For a moment, we found this terrifically insightful. For a moment. But then we read the next passage. "But these moments were also good times, and I knew that the feelings would pass. Then I could excuse them as morbid pessimistic fears that had no sound basis." (Emphasis added.) Indeed, when we searched the Internet for this passage we actually found it in a thesis that argued "if we do have a good reason for living, if we can give life meaning, impending
death is easier to bear. Some desires to die are the result of a lack of worthwhile purpose."
No doubt this is the case--many people find it so difficult to come to terms with our lives' lack of meaning that they contort themselves into all manner of logical fallacies to avoid accepting this simple fact. We have spent much time on this blog, for example, disputing the notion that individuals can create "meaning" for themselves, partly because we believe it is a bit silly, but also because it is the idea of meaning--rather than whether that meaning is defined as universal or personal--that ultimately creates conflict and unhappiness. In short, if one believes certain things "matter" more than others--regardless of why--it is inevitable that one's life will at some point not conform to these preferences.
The absurd man, by contrast, recognizes the folly of all such beliefs. While he certainly feels such things--he is human, after all--he laughs at his own foibles the same as any other individual. He rejects the notion of the "self," instead choosing to view life as akin to acting in a play, where actions seem to have consequences, but ultimately have no significance whatsoever.
To bring this full circle, we take great comfort in our own irrelevance. Rather than despairing over our lack of purpose, we celebrate it!
Until next time...