Monday, October 25, 2010

So what?

So what?

It’s fast becoming one of our favorite phrases. Absurdity seems to demand a light touch. Recognizing the meaningless of it all and the soap bubble nature of our existence means you see a lot of people making a big to do over nothing….

Next time you see someone getting all bent of shape about something, throw in a so what and see what happens. It’s like a sort of mental grenade that, upon impact, makes the other person stop in their mental track.

We did this to the wife recently, when she seemed to go apeshit because our son forgot some homework. “So what?” we said. If you say enough “so what’s” the other person can’t help but get a little existential. At least for a moment.

A pause followed… “He’ll get a zero if he doesn’t turn it in.”

“But again, so what?” we said. “He missed a homework assignment. It’s not worth getting all upset about.”

People seem to get most un-absurd about their kids. Especially the moms. We always thought the old advice from D.H. Lawrence has great merit:

“Take all due care of him, materially; give him all the care and tenderness and wrath which the spontaneous soul emits: but always, always, at the very quick, leave him alone. He is never to be merged into you nor you into him.”

With their mom away one weekend, we put DHL’s advice into play. We let them sleep in. We let them find their own ways to occupy themselves. We gently reminded them of their responsibilities for the day and let them sort out when they would do them. It worked rather well. The stress level was zero for both kids and dad.

Well, whatever… we don’t mean to give serious advice of any kind on child-raising. We simply point out that most people take themselves and their kids deathly serious. And they shouldn’t. Life is absurd. That includes kids and family.

We also find the “so what” exercise good for ourselves. Faced with an unexpected setback at work recently, we found ourselves saying “so what.” Just saying it and working out what might happen seemed to immediately cast the setback in its proper light – which is, that it is nothing worth getting upset over.

Steeped in the absurd, we find it hard to take much of anything too seriously. It’s as if it’s all unreal somehow.

Anyway, we’ve found the “so what” question a useful one for maintaining that sense of equanimity. Use it and see what happens. We think you’ll find that if you ask it enough, life’s absurd colors come out a little brighter.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Vacation and the absurd man

If you are living an absurd life, then you have nothing to escape from. Hence, the idea of vacation takes on an ironic aspect. We’ve alluded to this in the past, putting the word vacation in quotes or noting, parenthetically, the misnomer of an absurd man on vacation.

In this post, we aim to explore this link between work and play a touch more. In a sense, the absurd man is always on vacation.

If life is meaningless and our struggles – like that of Sisyphus – futile, then what difference does vacation make in this? If the absurd man accepts that life is absurd, then it makes no difference if he is “working” or not. The distinction is arbitrary.

Or, as a far-left-leaning friend of ours would say, “Vacation is a capitalist construct.” On some level, she is right. The idea of taking a vacation only came about when there was a need for it. Man first had to have that thing called a “job.”

The idea, as we know it, is a post-industrial invention.

E.P. Thompson writes about this in The Making of the English Working Class. He looks at different pre-industrial workers, such as silver miners in Mexico. The idea is that while people certainly worked, the modern concept of a job would’ve been a foreign one to them.

Instead, their work was much more irregular and task-oriented. You worked until you completed a task. Then your job was done and you were free to indulge in siestas and drink beer until you found another.

There was no sense in being stuck in a harness pulling for the same master for a paycheck. There was no sense, either, that one would be working all the time or on any regular schedule. As Thompson says, Mexican miners would be “willing to work only three or four days a week if that paid for necessities.”

There were many other ways in which one could spend one’s days – with family, fishing, gardening, playing sports or meeting your buddies at the local watering hole. The point is that the idea that one ought to be working most days of the week was not yet socially normal.

Thompson writes that for most of human history “the work pattern was one of alternate bouts of intense labor and of idleness, wherever men were in control of their own working lives.” Today, this lifestyle persists among our more creative classes – artists, writers, actors and the like. They tend to work for a time, around a task, and then idle until the next gig.

Now, we don’t know if Thompson is entirely accurate here. We suspect there is some romanticizing of the pre-industrial age. (We think of all the bad teeth, itchy clothing and body odor of those times…) Nonetheless, we think the observation is not so far off the mark. People simply viewed work differently than we do today.

All of this suggests, too, that the idea of vacation came about when we got jobs – jobs so unpleasant that we had to create a means to escape them. Now, people find it normal to go groveling to an employer to ask for time off. Two weeks of annual vacation is normal for many starting out.

It’s an odd thing, when you stop and think about it – especially in light of some of the work patterns of the past, such as those that Thompson writes about.

And for the absurd man, the modern day ideas on work and play take on an especially ironic meaning. We are all dead either way, whether we take a vacation or not.

In light of that, we say play all the time. The concept of work and play are in our heads. Better, we think, to learn to accept the absurdity of life and reject the arbitrary nature of society’s common divisions. It’s all the same. It’s an experience called life. Escapism is an idea antithetical to absurdity.

Some of this may seem unrealistic, difficult and perhaps even naive. But we think one can live an absurd life. Life is absurd. Nothing matters. Not even work. And that is a liberating thought indeed. As Anthony Bourdain put it, “When you don’t give a shit… you win.”

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Absurd humility

“And what, in God’s name, is all this pother about?... When nature is “so careless of a single life,” why should we coddle ourselves into the fancy that our own is of exceptional importance?”
- Robert Louis Stevenson, “An Apology for Idlers”

We have been traveling again. And travel often inspires absurd thoughts to one extent or another. This last trip got us thinking about how unimportant we are and how life would go one whether we were here or not.

This thought, while hardly original, is always striking when we go away for awhile. We are much less diligent checking e-mails and the like when traveling. Alone perhaps in the universe, we have not yet succumbed to those little devices that everyone carries around, pushing buttons constantly – even while in the car or using the toilet. No, not yet anyway.

And so, many e-mails are left unanswered, sometimes for days. And guess what happens? Nothing. Nothing at all. All these things that seem so important while you are in the office – being available and answering e-mail – look especially ridiculous when you are away. We have all had this feeling that we are “missing out” when we are away. But upon our return, we find things managed to get done without us. Somehow people soldiered on without our all-important presence.

It’s not the hustle and bustle, or the work itself that we object to. It is the feeling of self-importance that comes with that. It is the stresses and anxieties that we put on ourselves that is, shall we say, anti-absurd.

As Stevenson asks above, what is all the pother about?

Stevenson’s “An Apology for Idlers,” published in 1876, is one of our favorite essays. We had a collection of his essays in our carry-on while we traveled. The old Scot is an inspiration. On this idea of self-importance, Stevenson was wise to the deception. The world rolls on…

“Suppose Shakespeare had been knocked on the head some dark night in Sir Thomas Lucy’s preserves,” he writes, “the world would have wagged on better or worse, the pitcher gone to the well, the scythe to the corn, and the student to his book; and no one been any the wiser of the loss.”

Indeed. And so too, do not fret over unanswered e-mails. Do not worry over work left undone. Don’t let society lay guilt upon your conscience for getting up late. Don’t let the fact that you let that big client get away ruin your afternoon. Don’t let your neighbor’s financial success plant envy in your heart.

Instead, be carefree. Be detached. Recognize the futility of it all.

Another one of our favorite philosophers is Lin Yutang, who wrote The Importance of Living. (Well worth it – you will always keep this book around. You will find you dip into it now and then. You will find inspiration and soothing words from a man who knew how to live.)

Lin Yutang, wrote “the most bewildering thing about man is his idea of work and the amount of work he imposes upon himself.”

That’s what the absurd helps us understand. It’s all self-imposed. “One must start out with the belief that there are no catastrophes in this world,” Yutang says. Nothing matters. Nothing at all.

But before you can get there, you may have to start small. That means laughing off a spilled cup of coffee… not fretting over missed appointments… meeting disappointment with a shrug… not worrying over things left undone. “On the whole,” Yutang reminds us, “if one answers letters promptly, the result is about as good or as bad as if he had never answered them at all.”

It really doesn’t matter. That’s the freedom that comes with the absurd. The weight of the world’s troubles – all its noise and clanging and banging and bright lights and violence – slips off your back.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Absurd faith?

We have gotten a couple of interesting comments recently, essentially questioning whether we are really simply extolling the virtues of the absurd, or instead proselytizing something akin to religious faith. In other words (as we see it), the objections are that while we say people should be free to live as they choose, our insistence on the absurd as the "best" mode of living belies this claim.

This is a worthwhile point to explore, as it gets to the heart of the argument for living the absurd life. As we have noted, our intention in writing this blog is not to get at some universal truth, but rather to figure out the best way to live in what we view as a meaningless, uncaring universe. However, in the course of developing such a worldview, we have discovered that the absurd answers many, many questions, while competing theories run into one dead-end after another.

The issue of "personal meaning," for example, has come up again and again, with several readers insisting that such meaning can peaceably coexist with universal irrelevance. As we have argued, however, this is nothing more than a comfortable delusion--the notion that meaning can exist for an individual is simply inconsistent with universal meaninglessness (to say nothing of the existence, or lack thereof, of the self).

Or consider this example, pulled from yesterday's Wall Street Journal, when a letter writer took exception to Stephen Hawking's claim, in his new book, that the universe does not require a creator (i.e., God): "Where did the apparently infinite energy and order we know as the universe and life come from? Over the eons when something couldn't be explained, God was invoked. I am willing to go with that."

This, as with all religious belief, is simply a cop-out, and difficult to take seriously. Does the writer realize he is endorsing the view that thunder and lightning are the work of Zeus, and ocean waves the province of Poseidon? Even worse, he identifies himself as a longtime electronics engineer--in other words, a man of science.

The importance of family and circumstance are other areas most people have extreme difficulty squaring with the theoretical appeal of the absurd; while they like the concept of meaninglessness, they simply cannot accept that, well, their family and friends are meaningless too!

To get back to the original question, it is certainly not our intent to sound like "someone saying how great it is to accept Jesus," as one commenter put it...but the reality is that the absurd is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Either one believes the world is meaningless, and humanity a fluke (but nonetheless fascinating) accident, or one doesn't. The problem with the latter is that most people are not willing to accept what is required to rebut the absurd--namely, something beyond the physical. As we have written in the past, we have more respect for religious fundamentalists than we do for Sunday churchgoers; at least the fundamentalists have a consistent belief system.

In sum, we are certainly open to other worldviews that not only allow the freedom and contentment of the absurd, but are also remarkably consistent in their philosophy. We, however, have yet to come across one...

Finally, don't take our word for it, consider the following quote from David Foster Wallace. The quote is from Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, written by David Lipsky about a roadtrip he took with Wallace during the post-launch publicity tour for Infinite Jest. There are many compelling lines in the book, but the following may be our favorite:

“There’s a kind of queer dissatisfaction or emptiness at the core of the self that is unassuageable by outside stuff. And my guess is that that’s been what’s going on, ever since people were hitting each other over the head with clubs. Though describable in a number of different words and cultural argots. And that our particular challenge is that there’s never been more and better stuff coming from the outside, that seems temporarily to sort of fill the hole or drown out the hole.”

The absurd man not only recognizes the hole exists, not only sees it for the bottomless pit that it is...but smiles at the futility of trying to fill it. That, to us, is the wonder of the absurd.