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.


  1. Greetings Inigo,

    In regards to family-matters, did you hold these views before you married and procreated? I can't seem to reconcile an absurdist world-view with actively trying to marry and have kids.


  2. MM-

    You can really look at this from two perspectives. Both of us agree that we would have been far less likely to get married and have kids had we embraced the absurd at that point, but there is no particular reason the absurd man could not choose to play the role of husband and father.

    Indeed, this gets at the fundamental issue of the absurd, which is the inherent and unending conflict between the recognition that nothing matters, and our persistent underlying feeling that things do. (Call it our daily struggle against biology...) Bluntly put, we can tell ourselves all day long that nothing matters, but if someone punches us in the face it will almost certainly raise our heart rate and blood pressure...and make us want to hit back.

    So to answer your question, we don't see any reason the absurd man could not choose to marry and have kids, as such a life would be (objectively) the same as any other. That said, we also agree there seems no reason to choose such a life over, for example, the "gone bamboo" lifestyle, as the inherent stresses in the former (and thus impediments to true contentment) are surely higher.


  3. On this general idea, I thought this was interesting:

    What I like in it is the unsentimental portrait of entropy -- a relentless force that grinds us all down to zero.

    But the trick of the author's is in assuming the universal entropic force is malevolent.

    Why should it be malevolent? Does a harsh environment truly "want to kill you," or does it just not give a shit as to whether you survive or not?

    I mean, it's "natural" to assume that a force that wants to grind you down to zero is malevolent. But that only stems from a preconceived value judgment -- the value judgment that says survival is good, that staying is good. Those judgments are optional too.

    It's interesting to recognize the utter grinding, wasting force of entropy and natural selection, but then to refrain from placing any kind of value judgment on that or any other thing. To simply contemplate experience unfiltered, no value judgment, no emotion at all.

    And then to choose, as one sees fit, what emotions to color in -- like choosing the colors of a coloring book, or a paint by numbers painting.

    On really advancing down this path, it becomes apparent how one can truly view suffering with equanimity... the suffering of others, the suffering of one's self, as illusion, as all the same.

    My god this is powerful stuff. I feel like the weird pragmatic payback for these little advances comes in the form of superhuman self discipline, because the less my self 'cares,' the less it gets in the way. And yet this, too, matters less.

    I can see why the signature facial expression of enlightenment is a sort of small and slightly amused smile. That's sort of the funnel point where all this stuff leads to -- a detached sense of bemusement.

    Little dribs and drabs of enlightenment, passing through cafe doorways...

    Jack Sparrow

  4. "Faced with an unexpected setback at work recently"... hmmm to have a so called 'setback' implies some sort of 'goal' does it not and what of this notion of the 'unexpected' not really a 'live in the moment of absurdity' to be entertaining 'expectations' is it?

  5. If we ran over you with our car, we think it would be fair if you called that a "setback" no?

    And if an airplane crashed through our window, it would be fair to call that "unexpected" no?

    Words are not always the precise tools we wish they were. And we could write this blog much more precisely by explaining and footnoting and qualifying everything we say. That wouldn't be much fun for us and probably not for readers. And we hear the Wittgenstein crowd has their own blog.

    Finally... so what?

    Couldn't resist.. ;-)


  6. This brings up another thought we’ve had about posting what the absurd man isn’t. We spend a lot of time talking about what the absurd man is, but sometimes it is easier – or at least equally effective – to talk about what he isn’t.

    The absurd man is not some unfeeling automaton, some superman above human emotions. Sometimes we may inadvertently, in our enthusiasm, paint him that way… but we view ourselves as absurd men, and we fully realized we are subject to all the foibles and folly that affect everyone else.

    To say that the absurd man cannot feel “surprised” or that he can’t suffer “setbacks” is unrealistic. If we have a frothy mug of beer before us and someone comes and accidentally spills it on our laps, we will feel that it is “unexpected” and a “setback” – after all, we wanted to drink that beer.

    Likewise, we have no pretence that we won’t at some point feel angry or sad or have emotions and feelings that we would call anti-absurd, or at least un-absurd, when we reflect on them.

    But the absurd man distinguishes himself in how he reacts to such things. The absurd man is not one to mope over spilled beer. He views setbacks with equanimity. He masters his emotions by bringing the absurd back in focus, restoring a calm, detached - and even bemused - worldview.

    He soldiers on, like Sisyphus, happy in the pushing…


  7. "If we ran over you with our car, we think it would be fair if you called that a "setback" no?"

    What does 'fair' have to do with it. How does the concept of fairness even enter the lexicon of the absurd? But anyways, I can't quite imagine calling being hit by a car a 'setback'. Unless I was being sarcastic, which I have been known to be.

    Should it require "explaining and footnoting and qualifying" in order for your writing to be clear?

    And one last thing "He views setbacks with equanimity".

    Since they are both 'setbacks' there is no difference between me being run over by you and you with a spilled beer?