Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Absurd Road to Nowhere

“There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that cultures decay and life’s end is death.” - Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), American poet.

We were driving on a narrow twisty dirt road somewhere in Central America with the jungle all around us. Up and down and around, we finally came to the coastline and followed it for a time. We drove through what was a very poor village. The people live in shacks made of corrugated iron with dirt floors. Chickens and stray dogs roamed about.

“Imagine if you got your start here,” we observed to our friend traveling with us. “Life would be tough.”

“No it wouldn’t,” our friend corrected us. “The beach is right over there.”

We chuckled, but our friend was right. If you knew nothing else, this life would be perfectly fine. Plenty of sunshine, the sea right there, it’s bounty of fish beckoning and fruit trees all over the place, leaden with mangoes, coconuts and papaya.

We made the assumption that life would be hard here because we saw all the things they were missing. And instinctively we assumed that people without those comforts would be unhappy.

Of course, we know that isn’t true. Our rational brain knows better, but we were struck by how we – absurd men after all! – still instinctively made this judgment. It just goes to show us once again how society has drilled all these ideas into our heads about all the stuff we need… We need a good education, a good job, a big house, a car, a clean floor, good teeth… We deserve it, whatever “it” is, be it a fancy watch or a vacation to Disney… And on and on it goes.

We stopped by a little roadside stand with canvas stretched between four poles for a roof. We ordered up some quesillos, thick soft tortillas filled with pickled onions and a sauce of cheese and vinegar. It’s made right there before you and served in a plastic bag. It costs all of a dollar.

The world from which we came seemed very distant… and different. As we’ve talked about before, the absurd man knows that one experience or life is no better than any other. In a world without meaning or purpose, all paths are equally unimportant and meaningless.

The absurd always amazes us on this front. First, it is always amazing how keeping in mind what most people would see as a very bleak thought – that the end is death and life has no meaning – can keep us feeling so mentally limber and light. Far from bleak, we find the thought freeing!

Secondly, we love how the absurd comes out so readily when traveling. We travel the globe quite a bit in our line of work. We’ve stepped foot on all the continents save Antarctica. We’ve seen very different people in all manner of circumstances. Our “hero” Albert Camus traveled widely, too, and he valued travel for its taking him out of his habits and routines.

The self seems more unfamiliar when placed in unfamiliar settings. The “who” you thought you were suddenly seems less real and feels more distant. Travel takes away the masks and disguises. These people had no idea who we were. We could be anyone we chose to be – which again makes the self seem all the more illusory.

And we think, too, that there is no reason why we can’t keep these same absurd thoughts with us when we are home. There really isn’t a self to worry about or fret over for the same reason that living in that poor village isn’t a tough life. It is all a self-imposed judgment. It’s all in our head. Life is absurd.

Surely, as Jeffers writes, there is no reason for amazement…

1 comment:

  1. I love this latest post. One of my favorites. I think it gets your point just right. Who could argue with this: " experience or life is no better than any other. In a world without meaning or purpose, all paths are equally unimportant and meaningless."

    I started to take issue with you guys implying before that all this means that "What we do has no impact on our present or future (while we're alive) happiness.", a clearly false claim. But you're not saying that. You're saying that "What we do is unimportant and meaningless."

    - which is obvious and wonderful.

    A new criticism is that you guys often conflate absurd viewpoint with happiness. They are certainly correlated in my life, but not at all the same. What we do doesn't matter, and being happy doesn't matter, and seeing these facts generally makes one (me at least) happier. But so do a lot of other things. Like doing something good, without arrogance about it, for a friend or family member. That usually brings happiness regardless of philosophy.