Finding Joy in Despair

Have you ever wondered why bad people seem to get away with their actions, and likewise, why good people are often faced with hardships? Ever suspect that what we experience in life may just be an illusion or, in other words, a manmade creation only to make existence more bearable? Is there a godly man behind all of this? Is there an afterlife? And is our time here just a preparation for it? It could be that life is ultimately meaningless. The universe is irrational and indifferent to us. Humanity is nothing more than a cosmic joke. French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus believed that life has no inherent meaning and is therefore absurd.

In a way, this might be a reason for despair, and a reason to end our own lives. But a meaningless universe is a way to free ourselves from from the shackles of hope and experience meaning more fully. 

A great deal of existence cannot be rationally explained, and therefore we have to find something outside ourselves to hold onto – things that gives us clarity and guidance in the face of the unknown. He found that religion is the answer and that we should take a leap of faith by embracing this higher purpose of life even though there’s no solid proof of its validity. Such an embrace may solve our existential angst, but it comes with a price. 

Philosophical suicide is what Camus called the solution of faith. Camus argued that reason has its limits and that our understanding is indeed inscrutable. He believed that life is meaningless and that all forms of meaning that we give to it are nothing more than constructs of the human mind. There’s no proof that the universe has a meaning, and if it does then we simply don’t know it. 

He states in his philosophical Myth of Sisyphus:

“I don’t know if this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a condition outside my condition mean to me? I can only understand in human terms.”

Thus he concluded that the only honest observation that we can know about the world is that it is meaningless. There are no universal values. There is no divine plan. Everything happens randomly. Life is absurd. But what did Camus mean with the Absurd? What did he mean that we, humans, are absurd beings? Or that the world around us is absurd in itself? 

The predicament we face as humans is that we are rational beings (some of us anyway.) We have a strong desire to create order and give meaning to life while we are part of an irrational and indifferent universe. The response from the universe as it pertains to our search for meaning is absolute silence. The Absurd is that we keep trying to make something out of this universe, understand a riddle, give meaning to its ways. As soon as we think we’ve grasped it, it slides through our fingers. 

The realization that we are a bunch of primates, living on a rock in a universe that is indifferent to us. After 100 years, our lives will be forgotten, and our planet won’t survive anyway because sooner or later it will be swallowed by the sun. This could leave someone to despair. Knowing this, we might start to wonder, “What’s the point in all of this?”

This is when one becomes aware of the absurdity of it all. 

Camus stated, “Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factor, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday according to the same rhythm. This path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”

So, why are we here? What’s the point? To find rational explanations for these questions in an irrational and indifferent world is absurd, and according to Camus, the absurd cannot be negated. We can react to it in two ways: we can live it or we can escape from it. Many people explored this by creating ready-made answers. These may come in the form of religion, but there are also secular substitutes that attribute to existence. For example, the Nazis believe in a Master Race that is set to rule over all other races or the secularization over all other races, which makes the act of serving one’s country an ultimate concern. 

There’s the belief in karma, which isn’t always valid. Many bad people get away with their deeds and live happily. Many good people are faced with misfortune. The problem with all of these is that we set our rationalities aside and choose to believe in things that lack proof and explanation, or even go against our own experiences. Camus called this “philosophical suicide.” A way to allude to the absurd and placing the uncertainty of existence with a set of man-made beliefs. A more direct way to escape the absurd is the act of actual suicide, which according to Camus is the only real philosophical problem.

The issue with this is that we succumb to the Absurd. Admitting that the confrontation with meaninglessness and experiences of hopelessness is too much for us. In order to live life despite its absurdity, we ought to ask ourselves the following question: “Is a hopeless life in a universe that transcends it universally wrong?” No. A universe without meaning is an opportunity to let go of a life without meaning. The harsh reality comes to the surface.  Instead of despairing because of that, we can choose to see the silver lining. There’s no loss in judgment, no afterlife. We can focus completely on this life.

When there are no transcendent morals or values then we can create our own. When our time on earth is limited, along with our perception of it, we can just make the best of it and have a nice, hot cup of coffee, or a joint, or do a bump. Whatever gets you going. 

Camus believed we shouldn’t accept the Absurd. We should revolt against it because even though we are powerless and ignorant when it comes to the bigger picture, we still have control over our faculties. The only way to be free from unfreedom is through rebellion. 

According to Camus, the Absurd hero lives life to the fullest in the face of the Absurd. Despite the invitation of death, he will not end his own life – no matter if it’s philosophical or physical. Even if this means a life of despair, he chooses despair. 

Living an absurd life means an indifference to the future, the rejection of hope, and the lucid experience of what’s happening in the moment. 

“Hence what he demands of himself is to live solely with what he knows, to accommodate himself to what is and to bring in nothing that is not certain. He is told that nothing is. But this is at least a certainty. And it is with this that he is concerned: he wants to find out if it’s possible to live without appeal.”

Living without appeal means living in a present moment and not wanting anything more from a conceptual future. To point out what it’s like living without appeal Camus pointed to Sisyphus. Sisyphus made a mistake and challenged the gods and was punished by having to roll a block up and heal and do it all over again once the rock rolled back down time and time again. He repeated this process for eternity. 

Sisyphus’ existence is so meaningless and hopeless that trying to give his action any meaning is totally absurd and there’s the appeal: living without appeal. Our actions do not mean leaning toward something better in the future. The meaning lies in the act itself, which is sufficient to be content in a hopeless life. 

The gods based the punishment of Sisyphus on the idea that there’s nothing more dreadful than endless and futile labor. But this simply depends on the position we take towards that. 

So what if we imagine Sisyphus happy? What if he finds joy in despair and refuses to bow to the misery that life throws at us? Is there anything more rebellious than finding joy in what’s supposed to be our punishment? 

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