“When you are in a huge, empty waterworld you gain a new perspective on life and the universe and that sort of thing. The antics of violent men seem absurd and irrelevant on a planet where nature casually demonstrates the power to sweep us all away.”
- Gavin Bell, Somewhere over the Rainbow: Travels in South Africa
Yes, nature is powerful and awe-inspiring and it makes humanity look like a small trifling matter… which it is, of course.
The quote from Bell up top comes from a book of travels we’re reading on South Africa. Bell takes a ship from Tilbury and the comment comes after passing within 100 miles of a war zone in Sierra Leone. At night, he sees flashes from heavy artillery – and at that distance and with perspective, he sees the comical and ridiculous nature of it, “as if a mischievous god was playing around with a galactic light switch,” he writes.
This got us thinking, too, of the Japanese disaster…
We’ve not commented on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, though we might be expected to. After all, doesn’t this disaster show us in stark terms how tiny a human life is in the grand vastness of the universe? As historian Will Durant supposedly quipped, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” Do these things not bring an absurd epiphany (at least for some)?
Of course, they do.
All of these things remind us how we’re barely here at all in a geologic or cosmic sense. They remind us how we could be dead any minute. They remind us of our smallness.
But… while these things bring about feelings of the absurd, they are not what make life absurd.
We used to think otherwise, but Thomas Nagel has since set us straight on this point:
“For suppose we live forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasted seventy years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity? And if our lives are absurd given our present size, why would they be any less absurd if we filled the universe (either because we were larger or the universe was smaller)?”
Indeed… Our mayfly-like existence has nothing to do with it. If we lived forever, our lives would still be absurd.
The absurd is something deeper; it is when we step outside of ourselves and look at our lives from a perspective apart from the minutiae of living it. It’s when we ask “why”? Why do we do the things we do? Why do we bother fretting over a crease in our pants? Why do we care that the jackass in front of us cut us off? Why do ponder over what brand of peanut butter we prefer? These are “small” things… but the “big” things also don’t escape such doubt… Why do we care about our family? Why do we save for retirement? Why do work hard?
Unable to satisfy these doubts, we live on anyway. “The absurdity of our situation,” Nagel continues, “derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves.”
Mother Nature, in all her power, may heighten that sense that life is absurd, but it is this clash that goes on in our minds, between the inescapable seriousness with which we pursue our lives and the realization that it is all for naught, that makes life absurd.