Archives for posts with tag: Albert Camus

I have already written a post about the meaning of life, and I stand by my assertion that meaning is derived from our passionate emotions, but I have a read a bit more about it, and wish to delve deeper into the subject.

Victor Frankl is a Jewish man who survived the Nazi concentration camps. As a psychologist, he was able to use his time in various camps to make observations about the people he was surrounded by. His most important discovery was that those prisoners who had hope, who found meaning even among the horror that inundated them, were able to survive longer than those who gave in to despair. Frankl’s meaning came from the love of his wife, and that love nourished his spirit to overcome the crushing emptiness that threatened to engulf him at any moment.

One of the quotations from his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, reads that  “meaning is available in spite of – nay even through- suffering, provided … that the suffering is unavoidable. If it is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is to remove its cause, for unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic. If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude.”

Frankl discusses a conversation he had with a journalist who tells him the story of a Jew who raised armed rebellion against his Nazi captors, calling him a hero, and Frankl tells the journalist that to pick up and shoot a weapon is no big act of courage, but that to hold one’s head high with dignity as one is marched into the gas chambers, that is heroic.

After having survived arguably one of the worst tortures that humanity has inflicted upon itself, Frankl came home to discover that his wife had not survived her own captivity. Many Jews were destroyed not just by the holocaust, but from escaping it only to realize that the hope they had clung to was only a fool’s hope, and the meaninglessness of their suffering came down upon them in full force.

Frankl endured this holocaust aftershock, though many didn’t, and went on to create something called Logotherapy: a method of therapy where an individual is helped find meaning in their life in order to alleviate even physical symptoms that nihilism can inflict on a human being. He theorizes that there are three sources of meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person) or in courage during difficult times.

This theory lines up almost perfectly with my own. The significance of the work must of course be significant to the individual, as someone might be able to find meaning just as much in delivering the newspaper as in organizing the events that would be written about in one. This would be derived from the passion they feel for their work. Not just love, as the activist would be driven by righteous indignation or the athlete by competitive determination, but by any emotion strong enough to make the work worthwhile.

Albert Camus’ Sisyphus conquers his trial by realizing that the meaninglessness of his endeavour can be overcome by owning it through powerful emotion, and continuing on. It is his spite for the gods that enables him to find meaning in his trivial task. In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus states, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

Why is it important to find meaning in suffering? Well, because life is full of it.

Arthur Schopenhauer suggests that all of life is built upon striving. We are continually moving towards something, and if we are not, we become bored. Because striving is based upon a lack, there is an inherently negative aspect of life that we must constantly deal with. Even happiness, Schopenhauer suggests, is based upon a lack being fulfilled (not a positive, but merely the nullification of a negative) and we experience a brief euphoria before inevitably returning to our natural state of striving for something new, or risk falling into boredom.

Or in Buddhism, it is suggested that all life is suffering because we are attached to ephemeral things, and so life is a series of losses of those things that we cling to.

Is meaning only available during those brief moments of happiness when our attachments are still with us, or we’ve achieved the thing that we were striving for? Is life going from one stepping stone to the next, the spaces in between being devoid of any value? Or do we give up our attachments, give up our goals, and become shells of human beings; serene, but empty?

Whether you agree that all of life is built upon suffering or not, it is undeniable that suffering plays a major role in human existence. Meaning in suffering is imperative because that is when we need it most. Meaning can be derived in the form of works; using the passionate emotion of suffering to construct or create, letting it drive us. Or using another of our passions to sustain us, to endure the hardship. Or simply to hold our heads high, and face our suffering with dignity.

Before I left for India, people asked me if I was looking for something, trying to find myself, or the answers to the universe, or whatever it is old Indian dudes with amazing beards are supposed to know about. Luckily, I already know all the answers, so I didn’t have to shell out the 700 rupees it would have taken to get some mystic to tell me that I need to exercise my loins more (this literally happened to someone in my group).

So, the meaning of life. I always used to think it was fairly simple: boning. Or to put it slightly less crassly, perpetuating our species. We are biological creatures, and our natural drives are telling us all at once that we need to go out and make sure that there are future generations. This line is a poor way to pick up women, by the way, and I would recommend flowers.

So what’s the problem with the meaning of our personal existence depending on the future of the species. Well, for one, our species might not actually last all that long. We might kill each other; there’s the whole asteroid thing and we might not have Bruce Willis around to save us; global warming could flood the planet; the sun is going to go out eventually if we’re even still around for that. Anyway, even if by some miracle we escape this death trap we call Earth, and the inevitable heat death of the universe turns out to be a myth, what kind of meaning is there if you don’t get to appreciate it? Has anyone ever even met their great-great-grandkids outside of hillbillies who are grandparents at 23? I say there is no meaning if we don’t actually get to experience it, or if we never know if it was fulfilled or not. Keep in mind, I’m talking about the species on the whole; having children and loving them and finding meaning there is possible, but that meaning isn’t coming from your desire to perpetuate the human race. I’ll get to that later.

There’s also the religious belief that we live to serve God. There is a problem with that beyond the question about God’s existence, and that is I absolutely reject the notion that the meaning of life is submission. I think even God would reject that belief, as He would have been the one to give us free will in the first place.

The last idea I’m going to reject before I give the correct answer (read: my answer) is the notion that the meaning of life is to do good works. Be nice to one another, and generous, and remember to hug your mom. All that hunky dory nonsense you might see on a poster with a picture of a sunrise on it. There is absolutely no logic to back this up, other than the fact that it gives hippies the warm fuzzies in their bowels. And the day I let hippies decide the meaning of life is the day my brain aneurysm finally kicks.

So, what’s the meaning of life? The answer came to me when I was feeling a smidgen down over one thing or another a while back. I couldn’t sleep, and so around 2am, after having deliberated over why I was upset, I actually wrote down a memo in my phone to commemorate my experience. I knew that this too would pass, and one day the inevitable heat death of the universe would make all my problems disappear, but even with all that, I still felt like shit. Why?

When things fail, when we feel hopeless, powerless, and alone, when we lose everything, when we feel as though we can’t go on, we search for meaning in our lives. We look for a purpose. Something that tells us that things will work out, that there is a reason for optimism in this life. We seek solace in God, in karma, in a just universe, in fate and destiny; where somehow our failings and our suffering mean something. That there is a plan. That despite all the terrible things that happen, they don’t matter because there is something greater at work.

What if none of that was true? What if there is no God, no justice, no great destiny? Our suffering would be meaningless. Our failures would be nothing; insignificant blips, invisible to the vastness of eternity. No comfort for our sins.

And yet, even within that meaninglessness, we still hurt. We still regret. We still hang on to things despite every instinct to let go. We choose to suffer in a universe that ignores it. Why?

Because that is where the meaning comes from. We hurt because the things that mean something to us hurt us. We lose them; it is inevitable, and without that hurt, without that loss, there is no meaning. The Truths of Buddhism state that life is suffering, and we must relinquish our attachments in order to relieve ourselves of that suffering. I disagree. Our lives are comprised of attachments and sometimes that suffering is all we’ve got.

What I was getting at with this depressing little blurb was that despite everything, despite any meaninglessness or valuelessness of our actions and experiences, we still feel. If there is nothing, why do I still feel? We absolutely cannot help it. So you know those silly, girly little things you get at the end of Hugh Grant movies? That’s what this is all about.

This made sense to me almost immediately, because whenever I talk to people about how meaningless this life is, how our actions have no value, and that we live in a universe devoid of hope and compassion, for some strange reason they always seem to find it supremely disheartening. They tell me I’m wrong, and naturally I get defensive and irritable, and demand to know why they would dare disagree with me. They tell me that it just doesn’t feel right. It feels like there should be something more to this life of ours. They can’t quite put their finger on it, but there’s definitely something. And it was those feelings all along that hit the nail on the head.

Camus has a theory that since no individual experience has any relative value, that in order to measure a life, you have to measure the quantity of experiences rather than the quality. And that’s all fine and good, but my problem with it is, you can have all the experiences in the world, but if none of them affect you emotionally, then it’s as if you haven’t experienced them at all. Camus’ character Meursault from L’Étranger experiences a wide variety of things, from a wedding engagement to a murder, but as he feels nothing during any of it, it’s all considered to be equally without meaning.

You might think that this is a fairly hippy-ish way of looking at it, that The Feels are what give our lives meaning, but I’m saying that the negative emotions offer just as much meaning to our lives as the positive ones. When you feel sad, it’s typically because you had something and lost it. Something that meant something to you. And that meaning is perpetuated through your sadness. I mean, you do traditionally let go, just as all joys leave us as well, but it’s better to let things run their proper course, rather than trying to force yourself to be in a state that you’re not.

So those children of yours I was discussing earlier, the ones that give meaning to your life. They give meaning through the love, the anxiety, the frustration, the hope, the disappointment, the excitement, the entire roller coaster of emotions that they put you through. Not just having kids, but the places you go, the people you meet, the drugs you take, all those things that affect your life in different ways. That’s what this is all about.

Don’t be stoic. Don’t rid yourselves of your attachments. You might as well be dead already if you shut yourself off from your emotions, because otherwise what’s the point? Love, lose, suffer, get angry, get happy. Be alive, and make it mean something.