A Philosophy of Being 23, or Camus on a Tuesday
Updated: Apr 28, 2021
Published on April 26: https://spkesy.ca/thought/04/2021/a-philosophy-of-being-23/
In your twenties, questions you previously never thought to ask become the only things you think about.
At least, that’s how it’s been for me. Perhaps it’s all this time I now have to myself (global pandemic for context). Before work, on lunch break, after five. The nighttime routine, moments before falling asleep, upon waking. Hours in abundance.
I never used to bother with questions of why. A diligent student, dutiful daughter, devoted sister and friend. It was all easy. I did everything I was supposed to do.
As soon as the supposed to’s became it’s up to you’s, that’s when things got tough.
Indecision, uncertainty, anxiety. Repeat.
Choices, consequences, opportunities. Repeat.
That led me to the why’s and what’s the points.
I’ve been reading a lot of Camus lately.
L’etranger: I didn't really get it. Something about the imagery of le soleil and a beachside murder. The out of body experience. Okay.
La Peste: now there’s a spooky read. No murder, no psychopathy. It’s worse than that.
It was reading our current-day reality in print, only written by a voice of the past more than 70 years before this pest of a pandemic was on anyone’s minds.
I’ll spare you the details. In summary, it’s a step by step relaying of events of a plague hitting a small town. From the emergence of the first cases of an unidentifiable virus, to society-wide rejection and then panic. The introduction of face coverings in daily life, quarantine of the sick. Separated families. Closed gates. An urgent search for a miracle cure. Reliance on the news and exhaustion from it. Bureaucracy. Insufficient medical aid. Burnt out volunteers. Painful deaths. Eventual return to normality, with all who survived more than a little bit changed.
Switch out small town for a global scale, a serum for the Pfizer vaccine, gates closed to flights canceled. You’re looking straight at the coronavirus.
You know that unsettling feeling you get when you sense that someone is watching you? That’s what every page of La Peste feels like. It all just hits a little too close to home. As if someone wrote a book in the past looking over our shoulders in the present. Each page required me to commit to reading more of what I already know, and more importantly, more of what I’ve been trying to ignore.
This brings me back to all of this time with which I now find myself confronted. And all of the why’s.
Camus’ life’s work depended on the idea that searching for meaning (in other words, obstinately asking the why’s) isn't just part of the developmental process, but rather our moral responsibility.
He says that “we get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking”. And now that our habit of living has been upended (refer back to global pandemic), we can focus more on our often-ignored thoughts.
It’s probably the best excuse to give for spending the day on the couch. (“A waste of a day? No. I was contemplating the meaning of life, as we are all obliged to do”).
Not only did Camus likely spend plenty of time lost in deep thought, but he eventually came to the conclusion of his own philosophy: that of the absurd. He says that in order to find meaning in life, we have to first accept this absurdity of daily life.
In his famous essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe he recalls Sisyphus, the legendary Greek figure who is condemned to a lifetime of rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity. Each time he reaches the summit, the boulder rolls back down and he begins the endeavour all over again.
Camus’ provocative conclusion is that we must imagine Sisyphus happy, believing that he will accomplish his task. Acceptance in the face of the inherent absurdity of life is the only way to overcome our despair and to enjoy life. Part of enjoying our lives depends on helping to alleviate others’ suffering.
But we’re not here to discuss moral philosophy. Or, not really. Why are we here? Ah yes, context of the global pandemic. Time, eternal time! L’etranger. La Peste.
Oh, and if La Peste wasn't uncanny enough as is, here’s the best part. Whether you’re convinced by Camus’ theory or not, his own life story is a prime example of his philosophical musings. Returning home with his family from vacation, he decided to drive with a friend while his wife and children took the train. En route, he was involved in a car accident and was instantly killed.
How’s that for absurd? He simply couldn't have come to any other end if he was to be a true believer in his own philosophy.
Camus’ moral philosophy brings to mind Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. A survivor of the Holocaust and founder of logotherapy, Frankl insisted that the search for meaning in our lives acts as our central motivation to keep living. Frankl’s own circumstances of persecution give his words more weight. A regime intended to eradicate an entire people based on false science and propaganda is perhaps the epitome of absurdity. Yet still, Frankl, forced into concentration camps and into the direst of circumstances, found meaning in his life which enabled him to survive.
I would be remiss not to mention that La Peste, published in 1947, is often read as an allegory of the German occupation of France; the innocent inhabitants of Oran its defenseless victims of the formidable Third Reich. We can also read this story as the fate of a people enchained to a capitalist regime, or the insurgence of a technologically-driven world and its robotic citizens… we live among pestilence of all kinds. And we will continue living.
I’m not here to preach. I’m certainly not here to be a shining example of someone who welcomes the apparent senselessness of life with a cheery hello.
But a little perspective: remembering that societies in our past have overcome plague and pandemic, that our ancestors have survived war and persecution, that the sun will shine again not because we deserve it or expect it, but because with no silver linings we would give up the search altogether.
The proven resilience of the human spirit and, like Camus, our turning to art will rage on.
I mean, have you seen modern art? It’s nothing if not absurd.