Tuesday, March 9, 2010
"Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
John Keats requested that those words appear on his tombstone.
We like it, as a kind of absurd statement. We also thought of these words after we recently had a shocking conversation with a very old friend, which we will share below. We found it inspirational and it plunged us into deep thought for several days...
But first, a few thoughts on Keats' words. The idea recognizes the temporal nature of our existence and its meaningless “here today gone tomorrow” sort of nature. It’s our contention that one can live a full and content life embracing the absurdity of existence. We need no goals or mission or meaning. We simply are.
It’s not a popular opinion. And some even feel vaguely threatened by it. We came across this recent editorial, which laments the decline of Judeo-Christian traditions and our “moral compass.”
“[W]e are threatened with the thought that human existence is absurd and pointless,” the editorial says. “That was the dread possibility explored by Albert Camus and the pessimistic existentialists in the 1940s and 1950s. For them it raised the question of whether, faced with meaninglessness, one would do better to kill oneself; and this prompts the question whether rising rates of self-harm and suicide among young people today may be connected to a similar sense of the absence of human meaning.”
If this were a political arena, you can see how the debate would unfold. People who espoused an absurd point of view would quickly be dubbed “pro-suicide” regardless of the arguments. Makes us think the absurd is better off on the comfortable fringe.
In any event, this is always the challenge. The absurd doesn’t really offer a formula for living in the same way the world’s religions do. The absurd is an expression of doubt – doubt about the meaning and significance people put on life, the universe and everything. It is an effort to live free.
Few can master this, it seems. Almost everyone feels the tug of societal pressures of some form or other – and gives in. Part of what we do on this blog is gather examples of people who didn’t or don’t give in, or at least resist better than others. (Rebels, as Camus would say…)
One good example came to us recently when we spoke to an old high school and college buddy. We haven’t spoken to him in 5 years, when he ditched the U.S. and decided to live in Nicaragua.But our business will take us through Central America in the coming months and we thought to find our old friend.
We were surprised to find an absurd man.
We say surprised… well, we knew he had absurd inclinations, as did we. But he seems to have really bloomed into an absurd man par excellence.
We chatted over the phone. We found out he doesn’t work. Well, he works sometimes as a general handyman, you might say. And otherwise doesn’t. It’s very cheap in Nicaragua and one can live very well on very little - even more so if you save and forgo luxuries we don't think twice about spending money on here, but which you could readily do without when you think about it. As he put it, with a laugh, “This is how I can work for a year and take off for a year.”
He has a Thoreau-like lifestyle. He lives by the beach, the grand Pacific Ocean at his doorstep. He watches the sea roll in and out. “You know there are people who pay money for CDs with these sounds,” he told us. “Here you have all you want for free.” The sea lulls him to sleep at night, the sky a canopy of bright stars here, invisible to most people who live near city lights.
He eats fresh seafood and locally grown fruits and vegetables for practically nothing. He reads tattered second-hand books. Takes long walks. Enjoys the culture of living near an old Spanish town that dates to the 1500s. He watches sports on TV. He has plenty of friends around the town in which he lives.
The man has no occupation at all and no ambitions. And he seems completely fine with that. He’s “gone bamboo” as the saying goes. He told us, “I don’t really care about the future. I just live my life in the here and now the way I want to live it…” To think we were in business school together nearly 20 years ago. Wow.
That’s not to say he has been foolish with his money. He told us, “I have saved almost enough to live on my savings alone. I bought some lots around here when they were very cheap. So, I am not poor. Either way I am very happy here.”
No wonder he’s not come back to the states. We made plans to visit him on our trip there. But it was refreshing to find an absurd man in an old friend. A man who completely rejected the normal measures of success, who finds no compulsion to seek a career or do any of the things society expects of a man.
And why not? We are all merely names writ in water…
Posted by Inigo Montoya at 10:42 AM