To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
“Males take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and represent 79.4% of all U.S. suicides.” i The Center for Disease control does not go on to say whether females are the primary cause of male suicide, but one wonders. Lady Astor once said to Winston Churchill, “If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee.” Churchill immediately replied, “And if I were your husband I would drink it.” But women most often poison themselves rather than others (39.1%), while men prefer (57.6%) to use a firearm. ii This is a very bad situation for the gun lobby, such that I have committed not to use a gun to take my own life should that privilege be afforded. iii Suicide is not an idle topic of conversation for me. While not presently depressed, I have been so in the past and had considered suicide as a solution. I still have a plan or two in reserve and the means to exact them, but I have never gone so far as to have made an attempt. Nevertheless, there was a time when I spent a particularly bad evening on guard post, sitting in an isolated shack holding in my hands the barrel of a loaded shotgun, the butt resting on the floor between my feet. So, I can imagine situations and conditions that might seem to warrant such action. Most people (99.999%) do not favor suicide as a solution to life’s most dire dilemmas. Albert Camus agrees, offering outright revolt against an absurd universe as a more acceptable response.
In his book The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus makes the case that life is absurd. In view of this premise, he proposes that the first question the philosopher must consider is whether to end his own life. For existentialists like Camus, the absurd refers to “the state or condition in which human beings exist in an irrational and meaningless universe and in which human life [also] has no ultimate meaning.” iv The entomology of the word “absurd” shows it to be a uniquely French word originally derived from the Latin word meaning to be clumsy, awkward, or stupid. While all of the order, exactness, beauty, and complexity to be found in nature seem to argue against this view, the relationship of sentient beings to the creation does not.
I am a fifty-four year-old man. Why do I make it a goal to accumulate knowledge and understanding if the pinnacle of my studies is to be frailty and then death, where I shall have no use of such knowledge if death is a terminus, and little or no use for it if death is enlightenment? Why should I, a trained fighter and dancer have become incredibly obese and sedentary, as have Orson Welles and Marlon Brando? Why does my supervisor’s grandson have hemophilia? Why does history make a mockery of man’s claim to progress? One could go on forever, asking rhetorical questions that condemn the world to absurdity. Nevertheless, the realization of absurdity is left for the fully mature. Young men wake up every morning with an erection and a clear purpose in life. They feel invincible and have visions of a kingdom of their own. Similarly, young women have their own dreams and desires and the hope of realizing them. It is only after full maturity; after the rock has tumbled down the hill a dozen times or more that they begin to understand their dilemma. Wake up, go to work, come home, and go to sleep. The woman you are married to who once thought you a prince of love, now sees you as a bumbling idiot barely able to make ends meet. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. v What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” We read Thoreau’s words in our youth, but cannot possibly appreciate them until a few years after the weight of responsibility lands squarely upon our shoulders and we work day after day, unable to find even enough spare time for rest, let alone for advancement or contemplation. You walk into the house so utterly exhausted, and see your old man sitting at the table. He laughs at you and offers a glass of wine, because all that crap you gave him when you were coming up does not matter anymore because you know the secret now. The secret that this father and son, sitting as two men together know but never mention is that there is no way out.
Thinking about it only makes it worse. As the poet says:
To each his suff’rings: all are men,
Condemn’d alike to groan;
The tender for another’s pain,
Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! Why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
Tis folly to be wise! vi
Camus explains that the attempt to understand the our absurd existence through the processes of reason is futile despite it being a natural “essential passion of man torn between his urge toward unity and the clear vision he may have of the walls enclosing him.” vii If the entire world is absurd; if no concrete meaning or value can be ascribed to our actions, why then should we continue to act. Why not simply end it all? The recognition that the universe is absurd is what drives the philosophical question of suicide. Camus claims that other philosophers who refuse to face the absolute absurdity of life base their theories on something other than cold reasoning and therefore commit “philosophical suicide.” viii Instead, he encourages us to recognize our situation and revel in the absolute freedom it gives us, instead of being demoralized by our inability to create meaning out of the universe. In his Godless world, we have no master but ourselves. Camus therefore exhorts us to live life with passion, to revolt against the absurdity of it and create our own meaning.
“There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely that a man is always a prey to his truths….A man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it.” ix I do not I agree with the last part of this statement, for a man may find meaning in what he previously thought to be absurd, but the first part I found striking. We often make the mistake of assuming that another’s perspective is the same as ours, and this can never precisely be the case. I am greatly disturbed when I consider existentialism, by the thought that some should be convinced of its veracity and act accordingly, but even more that I should be somehow convinced of it. Camus says, “If the absurd cancels all my chances of eternal freedom, it restores and magnifies, on the other hand my [immediate] freedom of action”. x How am I to live then? I have never paid much heed to doing damage to myself, but what credos I have leaned on in later years have prevented me from causing much of the damage I had caused to others in the past. “To be prey to one’s truths”, to be the slave, willing or otherwise, of what one believed, would be a mighty tool for a man if he really believed what he said he believed, and if what he believed was true. “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.” xi Socrates tells us, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” A similar sentiment from a diametrically opposed camp. Agreement is reached at least on the necessity of the doing.
How much time does the average individual think about her life, her options, her possibilities? It seems philosophers are generally of the opinion that they do not, that hoi polloi rushes around like a bunch of lemmings. Well perhaps they do; caught up in the ebb and flow of the economy, the rushing tide of history. I still think they spend quite a bit of time thinking about what might have been, and what may yet be. In this, we are all like Sisyphus. He is myth, and like a parable describes a basic human condition. All humans toil, and all humans take their rest from toil. Physically spent, there is time for contemplation, for considering what it might mean for the future.
A few years ago, I was looking for a large stump to use as an anvil. I found one, put out to the street and I came to get it with a pickup truck and a two by twelve to use as a ramp. It was impossibly heavy but I worked it over unto the bottom of the ramp. For a good half hour, I struggled with it. Just at the end of the work, I tore the bicep in my right arm. Oh, the pain was exquisite. Still I was not going to relinquish that stump and finally got it into the bed of the truck. How exultant I felt that my body was still able to do such things. There was happiness in that to be sure. A happiness born of personal physical and mental triumph. If Sisyphus is still at work, he might be able to muster at least that modicum of joy, enough to provide the strength to do what he has to do one more time. If we are to be absurd heroes like Sisyphus we must learn to revel in doing because we still able to do, no matter the circumstances or our inability or impossibility of making sense of them.
Must we imagine the mythic character Sisyphus as happy? What is happiness? Is it necessary to be in “harmony with the great all” as Camus has been told? xiii It is said “happy is the man that finds wisdom, and the man that gets understanding. xiv Camus is of the opinion that reason and philosophical pondering will not get us there, but a passion for life and an attitude of revolt against our seemingly obvious predicament. It is in that passion and revolt against the impossible absurdity and the inevitable end that gives rise to the nobility in the human condition of which Camus speaks. xv
i Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2005). National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC (producer). Available from URL: http://www.cdc.gov/ ncipc/wisqars/default.htm.
iii What else could a life-long NRA member do?
iv Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Portland House, 1989.
v Thoreau, Henry David, and J. Lyndon Shanley. Walden. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Pg 8
vi Gray,Thomas (Author) and Friedenson, J.T.(Illustrator). An Elegy In A Country Churchyard And Ode On A Distant Prospect Of Eton College. London & New York.:John Lane Publishers (1903) Pg 48
vii Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage Books (1955) Pg 22
viii Sisyphus, pg 41
ix Sisyphus, pg 31
x Sisyphus, pg 57
xi Sisyphus, pg 63
xii Apology 38a
xiii Sisyphus, pg 105
xiv Proverbs 3:13 KJV
xv Sisyphus, pg 127