This book is currently altering my perception of reality in incredible ways. The collection of essays by Albert Camus is an astonishingly honest approach to philosophy and living.
Who starts with suicide? Apparently existentialists do. Am I an existentialist? I have come to consider that of those of us who are actually alive, everyone is an existentialist whether they know it, admit it or not. A number of people find hope in religion – the Way, the Eightfold Path of Enlightenment, The Holy Trinity, Mecca, Allah, Yaweh – all of it offers hope to ward off the nihilism of existence. Even if you’re a Christian, you’re an existentialist. Existentialism as a philosophy is, I suppose, a kind of religion for non-theists. I am struggling with identifying as an Atheist or Agnostic because of the negative connotations. Apparently, I am pretty concerned with what other people think! Who’d have thunk it? It’s really not about what other people think, though, it’s about what I think. So, as with all things, I try and find ways of translating stuff out of philosophical rhetorical jargonese and into regular everyday Oklahoma girl reality.
The most profound encounters with the absurd I have experienced have been through romantic relationships. The marriage with Big Daddy has been fraught with trials and tribulations to be sure, but this relationship occurred post-absurd encounters. In fact, my participation in my relationship with Big Daddy is a direct result of the absurd relationships which occurred before I met Big Daddy. Romance is not something this Virgo does gracefully, or at all most of the time. I am rational, logical, precise, and very, very clean, and relationships, love, and romance are messy. It’s a natural predisposition of mine to be in conflict with the concept of a relationship. This natural predisposition of mine is also fairly masculine in its practical form, which is confusing for men, I think. Sex is like pizza. Sometimes it comes with anchovies and green peppers, but its still pizza, and you can just pick off the things you don’t like. Back then, most women didn’t generally approach sex that way, or they don’t often admit it when they do. If they did admit it, there were special names and categories for them. I didn’t admit it to any but the closest people to me. Before Big Daddy came along, the words “I love you” were akin to soggy pizza crust. It’s about the only thing that will make a pizza absolutely unapproachable. If you have to use a fork and a knife to eat it, it’s probably spaghetti or lasagne. It’s absurd because I wanted a relationship with someone. I wanted to get married and have children, have that life. I was living in Wyoming with an absolutely perfect man, who was handsome, kind, and trustworthy, but I remember calling my mother once and saying, “If he says ‘I love you’ one more time, I am going to kill him.” Romantic relationships were an exercise in futility for me. I couldn’t make myself adapt to what I wanted. Seems ridiculous.
Camus says in the first essay that living is never easy. That we get stuck in this rut of making the same motions over and over again, habits. He says that suicide is an acknowledgement that those habits are empty actions, he says “the insane character of that daily agitation” (6). I prefer to think of suicide here as metaphor, but I’m pretty sure he was being literal. Buddha instructs that all life is suffering and that the path to enlightenment is something about letting go of want and need. Desire is what makes us suffer, not actually living. I think that’s bullshit though. I had precisely what I wanted and all of what I needed, yet I was still suffering. My suffering was from a lack of conformity. I couldn’t have scripted that relationship any better, and most of them were like that.
So another absurdity is the way personal accountability makes you more tolerant of others. This is from Sartre, and I don’t have that book readily available. It means I have to put my laptop down, get up and walk around the house looking for it, and I’m a lazy existentialist. The book is Existentialism is a Humanism, in case you’re even slightly less lazy than I am. Essentially, Sartre says that not taking personal responsibility for your actions means you’re living in bad faith. Existentialism often gets labeled as a free-for-all kind of philosophy. Nothing has any meaning therefore nothing is good or bad so I can do all the bad things I want. I think dictators like this simplistic logic. So that’s ultimately true about existentialism: nothing has any meaning, and so there is no good or bad; there is bad faith though, and that’s a pretty big deal. If we had no laws, then I could kill you and there wouldn’t be anything wrong with it, right? Um sure, but you would still have to take responsibility for taking a life. What that means in the U.S. is usually execution. So, you take a life and give your life as accountability. Ultimately, you have deprived another individual of his right to continue having experiences, and there is no reason that justifies that, for an existentialist. Experience is everything. You have gained the experience of taking someone’s life, but in the process you have permanently eliminated that person’s ability to continue to have experiences. Having the potential for a multitude of experiences is greater than one experience so murder is an act of bad faith.
Oklahoma Girl Translation: Of all the experiences I have had in my life, none of them are essentially good or bad. Those bad relationships weren’t bad; they were experience. The relationship I have now is not good; it’s just more experience. If it ever ends, I shouldn’t be sad about it because I had the experience. Do you know how liberating this is? Of course, I will be sad if anything ever happens to Big Daddy, devastated, but the freedom from good and bad gives me hope. My dad is a 65-year-old widower. My stepmother passed away two years ago. He has been trying to date recently (because he’s a real Lothario and he’s lonely), but he’s very quickly grown cynical. He says that no relationship is ever going to be as good as his second marriage was, that no woman will ever live up to the standards set by my stepmother. While that’s more than likely the truth, because he is trapped by good and bad, he’ll never know what those relationships or those women will be like. He has no hope. We are socially conditioned to suffer needlessly. I’m not suggesting that there was no pain in the loss of my stepmother. It was a profound loss, a loss felt deeply by all who knew her, especially my father. His inclination to date is a sign that he is ready to begin the process of moving forward. That he is incapable of doing so because he is hopeless about what it will mean is tragic.
Absurdity in its most vile and heinous form has been visited upon me. Big Daddy and I have three children between us. I had one already, and he brought two with him. After settling in to the splendors of a blended family, we decided to make our own child. For five years we tried. I think honestly after the first two years we sort of put it out of our minds, thinking it was not in our cards. But after five years, a day came when I knew with unmistakable clarity that it was in our cards. Everything went smoothly, and we were frightened and excited just like new parents should be. Then the unspeakable occurred, and in one half hour regularly scheduled OB visit, there was no heartbeat. There are no words in the English language, or any other language, that can convey the profundity of that loss. This loss is only made worse because less than one year later, it happened all over again. I have successfully made one child who survived infancy and is now a budding young adult woman, so why could I not make another? Big Daddy successfully made two before. There is no answer. In addition to the pain and loss and the profound and fundamental doubt that invades every waking moment of your life after something like that, you have to contend with a lot of well-meaning, compassionate, but completely stupid other people in your life. They have no idea what to say, but because they feel their own sense of profound helplessness in the wake of such a tragedy, they feel they must say something. What comes out is usually far more painful than silence. You find yourself in the midst of the most abject grief, making your own compassionate excuses for other people, which is degrading. Yet, as tragic as the back to back loss of children is, it increased my tensile strength by a factor of one gazillion. My bond with Big Daddy has become titanium. My drive to achieve my goals has crystallized. I spent the first six months afterward under the covers in my bedroom. I went to work and cooked dinner, but every moment outside of that was spent in hibernation. I watched all 127 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, every episode of DS9, all of Enterprise, and most of Voyager before I was able to face the world or my family again. If not for the Prime Directive and the various plucky crews from the United Federation of Planets, I would not have been able to overcome the futility of existence. It has taken me three years to look at that experience as just an experience, not as a good one or a bad one. Accountability. What happened to me was not a choice I made or failed to make. It was not the consequence of some karmic debt I needed to pay. It was not because I failed to live up to a mythical or divine standard. It happened. Nothing was out to get me. I did feel for a time that my body was out to get me, but that’s not really possible. Bodies don’t have vendettas. There was no church that got me through it. No god made it possible for me to survive without killing myself. I was not visited by angels. Star Trek got me through it, really. I mean that completely figuratively too. Really all I needed was time. Time to feel the pain; time to grieve; time to contemplate; time to put it all in perspective. The perspective I got from all that time was that life is short and only means what I make it mean and I can’t make it mean anything unless I get out and do stuff and doing stuff only matters in meaning-making when it’s stuff I want to do.
So it makes absolutely perfect sense to me that Camus starts with suicide. It is from the precipice of the abyss where the most fundamental truths are discovered. Cue Jack Nicholson “You can’t handle the truth!” I can’t. You can’t. None of us can because the truth is not designed to be pleasurable; it is designed to be true. Often the only way we can face the truth is by having no other options. Armed with only the Prime Directive (don’t interfere with other people’s opportunities to experience stuff), we must make our choice when we discover the truth: to recover or succumb. If we choose to recover, then we walk away from the abyss free to come and go, free to make it up as we go along, free from guilt, free from trepidation, and with the ability to free ourselves from social conditioning. If we succumb, then we are free too because we fall into the abyss.