Category Archives: Meaninglessness

The Fall

I recently finished reading Albert Camus’ The Fall – a book I may have scared someone off of because when I was more than halfway through I still wasn’t sure what it was about.

…And I’m still not sure what it was about.

Unlike his earlier works of the Stranger and the Plague, the Fall doesn’t have much of a plot. Not really.

It’s about a man.

It’s about a man’s fall from grace – or rather, man’s fall from grace.

Or, perhaps, his rise to power.

It’s entirely unclear.

Its a book that seems, at least in English translations, to be full of backhanded jabs at Nietzsche.

We meet our hero after his fall. As he recounts the highlights of his life.

He was perfect, he says. He was happy. He pursued the highest attainable position in life, and was fulfilled by natural attributes which allowed him to achieve those ambitions.

I enjoyed my own nature to the fullest, and we all know that there lies happiness, although, to soothe one another mutually, we occasionally pretend to condemn such joys as selfishness….To tell the truth, just from being so fully and simply a man, I looked upon myself as something of a superman,” Camus writes.

He was at the height of his life, he says. But in that height it is clear he is empty.

That exemplary perfection may as well be destruction. He is self-absorbed out of self-loathing. Cavalier out of over-caring. His presumed height is actually his deepest depth.

“Thus I progressed on the surface of life, in the realm of words as it were, never in reality. All those books barely read, those cities barely visited, those women barely possessed! I went through the gestures out of boredom or absent-mindedness. Then came human beings; they wanted to cling, but there was nothing to cling to, and that was unfortunate – for them.”

And then he falls.

Through nondescript tales of an ignored slight, of a spurned lover, our hero tells of his descent into further and further rungs of despair. Mapping his story as the journey through Dante’s Inferno.

At last, he is in the final circle of hell.But there, at the center of hell, at the depth of despair, there he is saved. There he finds perfection.

And in this wretched state, Camus ends the story: But let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately!

And perhaps that is why I find Camus so compelling: he is a man who insists on salvation in damnation; who finds glory in despair.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Saint Patrick

Today, the Internet seems to be full of articles titled “10 things you didn’t know about St. Patrick’s Day,” or “Everything you know about St. Patrick’s Day is wrong.”

I’m not sure who these articles are geared towards, but they seem to comprise mostly of tidbits of information which I imagine most people who actually know about St. Patrick’s Day already know.

To be fair, there are plenty of people who don’t know anything about St. Patrick’s Day – which is perfectly fine. It is, after all, a somewhat obscure Catholic holiday primarily popularized in the United States.

Albeit among the more popular Saint’s Days, Saint Patrick’s Day isn’t particularly more notable than, say, St. Brigid’s Day.

St. Brigid, if you didn’t know, is another patron saint of Ireland. Sharing a name with the Celtic goddess Brigid, St. Brigid’s Day is February 1, marking the beginning of spring. In another not-coincidence, St. Brigid’s Day corresponds to an important Celtic cross-quarter holiday: Imbolic…which marks the beginning of spring.

In my matriarchal family, St. Brigid always seemed arguably more important – we didn’t celebrate St. Brigid’s Day, but we did have a St. Brigid’s cross – but somehow, nationally, the male St. Patrick seems to get all the glory.

It’s a complicated holiday to celebrate, though.

Saint Patrick is a patron saint of Ireland because he was one of the leading forces in Christianizing the Celtic nations.

He used the three-leaf clover – the Shamrock – to explain Catholicism’s trinity. He used the Celtic pentagram to describe the five wounds of Christ. Like other missionaries of his day, he took pagan customs and symbols and wielded them for his Christian cause.

Famously, St. Patrick “drove all the snakes from Ireland” – a particularly miraculous feat since the isle didn’t have snakes to begin with.

Or could it be, as some argue, that “snakes” is just a metaphor for driving out “the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland”?

Well, that’s nice.

St. Patrick’s Day isn’t just a day where we stereotype the Irish as drunkards and all get to be “Irish for a day.”

It’s a day of history – about loss and pain, about new beginnings and a complicated past.

We raise a pint to hope for the future and to properly mourn the past. We raise a pint because maybe that’s all there is in this life. We raise a pint, indeed.

Eat, drink, and be merry – for tomorrow we may die.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Waiting

My father always told me that it’s better to be 30 minutes early than 1 minute late, so I’ve spent a significant portion of my life waiting.

Apparently, I am not alone in this – in 2012 the New York Times reported that Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line.

It’s somewhat unclear, but I assume that estimate doesn’t include time waiting not in line – waiting for your child’s soccer game to finish, waiting for the meeting before yours to finish, waiting for a building to open, or waiting for the bus (which may or may not be in a line).

The Times argues that the “drudgery of unoccupied time” leads to complaints about waiting. Moving baggage carousels further from a gate, for example, reduced complaints since passengers had more occupied time walking to the carousel and less unoccupied time waiting at the carousel.

In some ways this makes sense, but in other ways I find it baffling.

Unoccupied time? What does that even mean?

Don’t get me wrong, I can get impatient with the best of them. About 4 and half hours into the flight to California I am about ready to jump out the window to get off of the plane. I get anxious when I’m running late and unfocused when I’m waiting for news.

But just waiting in general?

I don’t know. Isn’t that…kind of what life is? Finding ways to occupy unoccupied time?

Maybe I’ve just read Waiting for Godot too many times.

My father, after all, also taught me that when you arrive somewhere 30 minutes before you have anything to do there, it’s wise to bring a good book. Add snacks and water to that list and I’m good to go.

And if it’s too dark to read, that’s no big drama. After all, there’s always something interesting to think about.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Nothing is true/Everything is beautiful

In On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche recounts the so-called assassins creed – the secret motto of “that unconquered Order of Assassins, that free-spirited order par excellence.”

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

“Well now,” Nietzsche writes, “That was spiritual freedom. With that the very belief in truth was cancelled.”

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

One might find cause to worry at those words – even if the phrase weren’t attributed to a secret order of assassins, a group of men whose morals almost certainly fall outside my own.

“Nothing is true,” is nearly damning in itself, but the haunting corollary “Everything is permitted,” seems a dreadful fate. It invokes, perhaps, a world of chaos and anarchy. Where men do as they please and where “as they please” is almost never pleasant.

Everything is permitted allows the worst of humanity the freedom to reign.

Perhaps.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut offers what feels like the next breath in the thought:

Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

As far as I know, these two lines have never appeared together, yet they fit for me like two lines from the same stanza.

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

Vonnegut’s words appear on a tombstone, indicating, perhaps, the freedom of non-existence which comes with death. Oblivion, it seems, is not all that bad. It comes, at least, with a release from pain and an awe-inspiring awareness of the beauty of mere existence.

Profoundly tragic and sublime, Vonnegut’s vision of the void seems to offer…peace, if that rough word can do this idea justice.

But what does this have to do with a world where all is permitted? Where men run wild and loose their will upon the world?…

It is commonly assumed that a dissolution of truth will necessarily descend into despair. That men would go mad should they stare into the void, that all would be lost if they dare believe for a moment that nothing is true and everything is permitted.

Perhaps, like a number of townspeople in Albert Camus’ The Plague, they would spend their days boozing, whoring, or simply doing nothing…unable to face the death that seemed certain to destroy them. Or perhaps, like Rieux, Tarrou, or Grand, they would find new meaning through their lives in the doomed town of Oran.

Everything is beautiful.

There is beauty in the void. There is something positive, hopeful, numinous – none of our English words seem to do it justice. But that awe is there.

Nothing is true is not synonymous with all is lost. It’s an expression of freedom.

Everything is beautiful.

Everything is permitted is not an entitlement to carte blanche, it’s a commitment of profound responsibility.

And nothing hurt.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Internal Dissonance

Modern man loves to torment himself.

As Nietzsche argues in On the Genealogy of Morals:
It was that desire for self-torture in the savage who suppresses his cruelty because he was forced to contain himself (incarcerated as he was ‘in the state,’ as part of his taming process), who invented bad conscious so as to hurt himself, after the more natural outlet for this desire had been blocked…

While claims of the universality of this state might be difficult to prove, it certainly seems reasonable to imagine that it is not entirely uncommon for a modern person to occasionally feel guilt at some of their baser instincts.

And guilt certainly has a way of turning into self-torture, as anyone who has ever called themselves a terrible person can attest.

But how are we to solve this internal dissonance?

Is it truly sensible to inflict such pain and torment upon ourselves for acts or thoughts which are entirely natural?

Nietzsche calls this crushing guilt, “the most dreadful disease that has yet afflicted men.”

This suggests we should perhaps release ourselves from the “incarceration” of the state. We should refuse to be tamed by man or man’s God and pursue whatever acts we choose. There is nothing to feel guilty about. No punishment we should inflict upon ourselves. No bad conscious which should hold us back.

Well. That might sound good to some people – freedom and individuality being utmost concerns – but that doesn’t sound so good to me.

Perhaps I should not punish myself to the point of desperation for every passing thought I regret. But I should feel guilty for the mistakes I make. I should regret those misdeeds and aim to do better in the future.

So, no, I am not comfortable saying that man should no longer torment himself for perceived sins. Indeed, I would argue the opposite – I am in favor of self-flagellation.

Because, here’s the thing – in my experience, it is those who worry about being a terrible person who are the least terrible people.

Perhaps it is hard, perhaps it is torture, but the moment you stop questioning your own morality is the moment you have become immoral. If you are not concerned that you’re a terrible person, you probably are.

But this dissonance does not have to be torture. Nietzsche sees this pain as the mad hope of a modern man driven to unreason in the name of reason. As a desperate grope towards an unachievable and nonexistent salvation.

There is a middle ground here. The choices aren’t simply to abandon all moral pretense or face a life of despair.

Dissonance…for some reason is generally frowned upon. Perhaps it is too complicated, perhaps is too hard, I don’t know.

But I find myself at home there.

Yes, I’m a terrible person, and yes, I’m not a terrible person. Both those states exist at once. They aren’t mutually exclusive. And their coexistence isn’t something to fear. It doesn’t have to be a state of despair and self-torment.

Both those states exist at once, in a beautiful, elegant, balance in the universe.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

When a Mountain is No Longer a Mountain

Many years ago I ran across the koan:

Before you study Zen, a mountain is a mountain
When you study Zen, a mountain is no longer a mountain
Once you master Zen, a mountain is a mountain

While my memory has no doubt mangled the wording, the sentiment has long since stuck with me. Like many koans it makes sense, but it doesn’t make sense. It needs no explanation, yet could never be explained.

And perhaps my gaikokujin sensibilities distort the saying’s true meaning, but I would interpret that particular koan as something like this –

If life makes sense, you are not thinking hard enough. If you are looking to truly understand the world, you never will. All that’s left is to embrace that you know nothing, and to find the knowledge in that.

I’ve never had a the privilege to formally study Zen, but I read much of it’s works in this spirit. Koans are intentionally nonsensical.

As I child I would assure myself that somehow they did make sense, that I could see their deeper meaning. But that is indeed a simplistic, childlike view. Koans make no sense and you can only understand them by embracing that they make no sense.

And that may seem a futile exercise, but life is a futile exercise. And life makes no sense until you embrace the that it makes no sense.

In the West we call this the absurd – another apt description of existence. As Camus describes:

At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of [man’s] gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man’s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this “nausea,” as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd.

In the West we have fought against the absurd. We have called it nausea and godlessness and feared the immorality and unreason that would tumble down upon us if we admitted the existence of the absurd.

Those writers and thinkers who have embraced this approach are often seen as dark figures who stare into the abyss and scorn all that is Good.

And perhaps they are.

But a mountain is no longer a mountain, and it is only by embracing that, by embracing the absurd, that a mountain can become a mountain again.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

On Hermits and Morality

I’m very concerned about the morality of being a hermit.

I’m not sure why exactly I am so absorbed by this topic, but I find it deeply distressing to imagine that hermits might not be moral.

In case this concern has never crossed your mind, I’ll start with some simplified arguments that being a hermit is indeed not moral.

Perhaps it is every person’s moral obligation to care for and support others. You can’t care for and support others when you’re a hermit, so it is not moral to be a hermit.

Perhaps it is every person’s moral obligation to be the best person they can be. Hermitage may have some benefit in this regard – time for silent, isolated meditation is well regarded as a tool for self improvement.

It is only because Siddhārtha Gautama meditated in isolation for 49 days and 49 nights that he reached enlightenment. Jesus wandered the desert for 40 days.

But this isolation of spiritual discovery is a temporary state. A deep breath rather than a permanent state of being.

After achieving enlightenment, the Buddha dedicated his life to traveling and educating. He had an obligation to share what he had learned.

Thoreau returned from the woods.

A temporary removal from society might be beneficial, but a permanent removal means never learning from another person. It means never being told you’re wrong. It means never having that creative tension between others that makes everyone better in the end.

And here we come back to concern of caring for others. Even if you frame that in the negative – a person’s moral obligation is to do no harm – by removing yourself from society you are doing harm. You are depriving others of your voice, your ideas, your perspectives.

The best solutions come from many voices. And every voice in unique.

Removing your voice from the dialogue not only degrades yourself, it degrades  the whole. In this sense, choosing a life of solitude is not moral in two ways – you lose out on the opportunity to improve through the work of others, and they lose out on the opportunity to improve through the works of you.

Thus, in many senses, an intentional choice to remove yourself from society is not moral. It causes too much damage to yourself and those around you.

There’s a lot about these arguments I appreciate. I believe everyone is a special snowflake. I believe that every voice matters. I believe that learning from others can make us our best selves and I believe that sharing our voice can help others, too.

But does it then follow that being a hermit is not moral? That interacting with others is the moral path?

I have trouble making that leap.

Morality implies judgement. Morality implies a Right and Wrong. But I am not prepared to judge those who isolate themselves – physically, socially, or emotionally – from society.

For myself, I am particularly interested in those last two pieces. It may sound odd at first, but anyone whose every felt alone in a crowded room can attest that the latter is indeed possible.

A common reaction to trauma is a sort of emotional isolation – a certain detachment that gives you just enough light to see the world, but enough protection not to face it.

For most of us, this is a temporary condition – the loss of a loved one can invoke an emotional shock which leaves you incapacitated and temporarily unable to process human interaction. You are not so much sad as dead inside.

This is normal.

And it is difficult. But for most of us, this shock fades. These wounds heal.

But I’m not sure the process is so simple – if you’ll forgive that word – for those who have faced deep, lasting traumatic experiences.

If there reaction is to shut themselves off as a result of this trauma. If they find the world and their reality too much to bear, who am I to judge them? Who am I to tell them they are wrong.

Arguably, social integration is the healthiest thing for them, but that’s a far cry from saying it is the moral thing for them.

That feels like to heavy a demand, too high an expectation, too much to ask from someone to whom we should be showing nothing but support.

Everyone has their different paths. Everyone has their different journeys. Life is hard, and I don’t know what’s moral.

I only know we do the best we can.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Just because life is meaningless doesn’t mean you should be terrible, and other life lessons

The meaninglessness of life, or, if you will, its absurdity, is a key tenant of some philosophical traditions, most notably existentialism.

Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are generally regarded as early thinkers in this Western tradition, though I personally find the creative works of Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett particularly enjoyable.

But the existentialists have a problem: if life is ultimately absurd, why not just act like a self-centered fool at all times?

This challenge is a step beyond the derogatory thought that those without religion are incapable of having morals. It’s more than an absence of punishment or reward that presents an issue. An acceptance of the absurd is an acceptance that life is meaningless – that ultimately nothing makes a difference. How you treat yourself doesn’t matter. How you treat others doesn’t matter.

Nothing matters.

There are, of course, ways to address this challenge.

A simplistic response is that, irregardless of deeper meaning, corporeal actions have corporeal reactions. That is – assuming a society is governed by ethical laws, people will behave ethically because otherwise they will face social punishments. Similarly, there may be social incentives to behave well.

I find this argument unsatisfactory.

In our society, for example, many people are willing to cross ethical lines to pursue a social reward of wealth, but not everyone is willing to do so. Of course, you don’t really know how you’ll react to a given ethical situation until confronted with it, but – if social regulations were all that kept people in line, it seems that we’d have a lot more unethical people than we already do. Maybe that’s just me.

I would imagine that different people are likely to respond differently to an absurd world. Depravity nor morality are intrinsic.

Camus explores these different reactions in The Plague.

A small city is quarantined after an outbreak of the (presumably bubonic) plague. Faced with almost certain death, residents react in different ways. Some turn to God. Some turn to alcohol. Some just whither away. And some try to help.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter to the universe which path a person took.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter at all.

If the question to an Existentialist is, “How do you make everyone moral in an absurd world?” The answer is you can’t.

The very meaning of morality becomes muddled in such a world. Each person chooses their own actions, and each person’s actions are their own to choose. There is no right or wrong about it.

But if the question is, “How can I be moral in an absurd world?” The answer is…do the best you can.

There is no clear path of morality in a meaningless world, but you can develop your own sense of right and wrong. You can create a moral code and live by it as best you can.

Other people will do what other people will do.

Your own moral code may involve persuading others to live what you would consider a more moral life. Or it may involve ignoring other’s moral inclinations.

It ultimately doesn’t matter.

But at the same time, it matters very much.

It matters to you.

It probably also matters to those around you, but – their feelings may or may not matter to you.

Seeing an absurd world doesn’t mean devolving to depravity. It means making your own choices and doing the best you can. It means trying to be the person you want to be – not because it’s the moral thing to do or the right thing to do, and not because any being here or beyond will judge you for your actions.

It means being the best person you can be because, really – in a world where nothing truly matters, what else is there?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

In Defense of Hopelessness

Perhaps it is my field of work or area of interest, but it seems like nearly every day I hear someone proclaim – it’s important to have hope.

Now, as much as the contrarian in me may revel in flippantly calling myself anti-hope, the truth is, I have no qualms with, nor judgements of, people who embrace hope as a core need.

It strikes me as a deeply personal matter: some people have faith, some people don’t. Some people have hope, some people don’t. Some people need that something – whether they call it faith, or hope, or use some other word – some people need that. Many people need that.

But some people don’t.

It’s okay to be hopeless.

I mean, it’s okay to be hopeless if you’re okay with being hopeless. Many people aren’t okay with being hopeless, but find themselves hopeless nonetheless. That is a problem indeed.

But do we need to force hope on everyone? To consider hope a core requirement for whatever moves you as the Good Life?

I don’t think so.

It’s okay to be hopeless.

Of course, a key question here is what it means to have hope.

I often hear the term applied to collective action – to social change. It’s important to have hope that we can make a difference. That we can make the world better.

That sounds a reasonable claim, and yet – this is where I find hopelessness most noble.

Faced with overwhelming injustice and so many wrongs in the world, I select two kinds of battles to fight: those I can win and those worth fighting.

I’ll admit to having a bias for practicality, so I’ve certainly been known to evaluate efforts in terms of probable impacts – to favor a strategy or approach that will work.

But pursuing the fights you can win is not enough. Sometimes it is just as important – perhaps more important – to fight the battles you’ll never win.

Of course, one may hedge here, arguing that even a statement of hopelessness is bolstered by a deeper sense of hope. It’s like the argument that that all altruism is ultimately self-interest.

And yet – is there not something compellingly beautiful in the image of someone fighting for justice, fighting for what’s right, but knowing they’ll never win? Knowing they’ll never move the needle, nor make any difference, nor even be remembered for their efforts? Fighting only because it’s the right thing to do.

There’s something remarkable in passion without hope.

Hope can also be seen at a much more personal level. Hope that your life will have meaning. Hope that you’ll make it through the day.

Questioning the universal need for such individual hope is much less socially acceptable.

And the demand for hope here is reasonable. Terrible things happen to people without hope. They feel terrible things, experience terrible things, perhaps even do terrible things.

Hope should not be denied. No life should be lost to hopelessness.

And yet –

Does a widespread need for hope translate to a universal need for hope? Is hope so essential that hopelessness should be removed as an option? That no person should be welcome to stand up and proudly declare their hopelessness?

It’s the pursuit of that universal hope which worries me.

Hopelessness should always be an option.

Perhaps not the right option for the vast majority of people, but an option nonetheless. There is nothing wrong with people who need hope, and there is nothing wrong with people who need to be without it.

There is, after all, something dangerous in hope. It doesn’t help to proclaim that it gets better if, indeed, it never gets better. Shattered dreams can be worse than no dreams at all.

But I digress. For, really, the conversation about individual hope comes down to one question – imagine that person laying in bed. Staring blankly at the ceiling. Too broken to move and swallowed by that dark cavern of despair. Hopeless.

The real question is what gets that person out of bed. What heals them.

Hope, perhaps.

But, I think, not necessarily. There is power in hopelessness. Not just the power to destroy, but the power to repair. Embracing hopelessness can ease that despair.

Perhaps not for everyone. Perhaps not for the vast majority of people. But, perhaps, for some.

Hopelessness should always be an option.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail

Existence is Hard (But that’s okay)

I’ll admit to having something of a penchant for the melodramatic – somehow the art of such flourishes strike me as imbued with valuable meaning.

So perhaps it is simply that flair for the dramatic which occasionally catches me uttering such phrases as: well…existence is hard.

I made that very statement conversationally the other day, though in retrospect such apparently bleak phraseology is not the stuff so-called proper conversations are made of.

I immediately regretted having voiced it.

But, perhaps, there is no need for such regret. Perhaps the statement isn’t so melodramatic after all. In fact, is it not true that existence is hard?

Life is hard is a well known adage, and existence, I would posit, is roughly as hard as life.

Yet existence is hard sounds dark, dreary, and – as I was told – depressing. It’s the kind of thing you might say before tossing yourself off a cliff or going out in some other dramatic fashion.

I imagine someone simply disintegrating into nothingness, too overcome with the difficulty of existence to even hold their molecules together. They might simply disperse, scattered upon the air. An ex-parrot.

But why should it be so depressing that existence is hard? Should we rather have it that existence be easy?

I’ll not deny that the option sounds tempting. Some days, in particular, life would just be so much easier…if life were easy. But life isn’t easy. Existence is hard, and sometimes it’s a struggle to get out bed in the morning.

And that’s okay.

I don’t dream of a utopia where all is perfect and harmonious all the time. If such a state were even possible, I would find it…unsatisfactory. It sounds static, fake, forced. That is not life in its finest sense.

Growth and change and improvement takes conflict, disagreement, and tension.

I’d certainly agree that there are no shortage of things we can improve upon in our society. And I like to think that those improvements could create a better world. A more just world.

But life will always be hard. I’d not advocate that everyone live forever. Nor that everyone hold the same opinion. I might argue that we have the same capabilities, but I wouldn’t advocate to have the same functionings. These realities create challenges.

We should certainly strive to minimize those challenges. I’d advocate for civil dialogue. For systems that treat people fairly and equitably. For collective efforts to address our collective problems.

But we will still have problems. There’s no end to the road, only the constant challenge of continuous improvement. Facing those challenges will make us better, and braving those challenges will make the good times sweeter.

To embrace the role of dysfunction is to embrace the nature of change – to spurn a static ideal. To say that the bad times make you appreciate the good is to appreciate the bad times – to accept that they add value to a complicated world. To say existence is hard is to acknowledge a challenge – but to be cowed by it.

So yes, existence is hard. It is a challenge. But a worthy challenge.

I for one will strive to undertake it.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedintumblrmail