An irrational world

Camus' quest for meaning

Albert Camus faced the absurdity of an irrational world by forging his own meaning in his personal passions. If we're to survive the absence of universal meaning, we must do the same. 

The universe doesn’t give a shit about you. It lives by a basic, merciless rule: things must change. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

The atoms that make up your body and consciousness won’t stick around for long. They want to leave and join something else—a blade of grass, a plastic coke bottle, an aardvark. It doesn’t matter. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Atoms just want to flit around, and the fact that you need them to stay alive is inconsequential. You can fall on your knees, clasp your hands together and beg for salvation, but it won’t make any difference. The universe doesn’t care—things must change.

When Albert Camus suggested that suicide was the only serious philosophical question, he was asking the same thing. Is it worth struggling through a life that ends in annihilation?

I first learned about death from The Land Before Time, a classic kids movie from the 80s about five plucky young dinosaurs trying to survive. As Littlefoot’s brontosaurus mother lays dying after a battle with the formidable Sharptooth, and it becomes clear that she can no longer be with him, the realisation hit me: dinosaurs aren’t permanent. At some point, they cease to exist. Then I realised that other animals cease to exist. Then humans. Then myself.

As I grew older, this line of thinking led me to a quintessential philosophical question: if I’m going to die, what’s the point of all this? If I’m destined for the incinerator, why bust my arse earning money that I don’t get to keep? Or spend years poring over books for knowledge that will go up in smoke?

When Albert Camus suggested that suicide was the only serious philosophical question, he was asking the same thing. Is it worth struggling through a life that ends in annihilation? Or should we just kill ourselves, and skip the pain? Our lives must mean something, but when we ask the universe to provide a reason, it crushes our request with its indifference. Why would we expect anything more? There’s no reason for its own existence.

When it becomes clear that our demand for meaning cannot be answered, and that we’re spending our lives shouting into an unassailable sky, we’re left with a dizzying sense of absurdity. We want answers, but the world cannot give them. Camus expresses the idea with typical poetic grace:

“This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.”

—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Demanding meaning from the universe is bashing our heads against a wall; rolling a rock up a hill for eternity. It’s creating a supercomputer to answer the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, waiting for 7.5 million years, and receiving the answer 42. For Albert Camus, meaning isn’t an obscure concept floating in the ether, ready to be snatched with a space net and bottled like some B.F.G dream. We don’t need to look to the world for ultimate answers. We can find it within ourselves.

“Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything.”

—Albert Camus, Notebooks

We have the freedom to create our own sense of meaning; to make the sweat and toil of life mean something. And it might be different for all of us—there’s no universal constant. For Camus, his sense of meaning came from the beauty of nature, and its endless, myriad delights. He describes his experience in Algiers in one of his earlier books:

“How many hours have I spent crushing absinthe leaves, caressing ruins, trying to match my breathing with the world’s tumultuous sighs! Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.”

— Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays

Camus found unending solace in natural beauty, and the bodily senses that allowed him to experience the world. The spectacular triviality of the world was enough for him, and simply experiencing it was the point. By finding meaning in the natural world, he was able to rebel against the absurdity of his human condition.

“At this extreme point of acute awareness everything came together, and my life seemed a solid block to be accepted or rejected. I needed a grandeur. I found it in the confrontation between my deep despair and the secret indifference of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.”

— Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays

But one man’s meaning is another man’s trash, and finding the good stuff is the difference between joy and despair; between defeating absurdity, or succumbing to it.

“One man contemplates and another digs his grave: how can we separate them? Men and their absurdity? But here is the smile of the heavens. The light swells and soon it will be summer.”

— Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays

For psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, in the darkest moments of his suffering under the Nazi regime, meaning was found in the hope of seeing his wife again. As Frankl wrestled through the brutality of Nazi concentration camps, he noticed that the people who survived were usually those who were able to find meaning in their suffering, whether it was seeing their families again, restarting a successful career, or anything else that relieved them of their hopelessness. He was so convinced of the healing power of meaning that he developed a new form of therapy based on the idea: logotherapy. The barbarous suffering of Nazi concentration camps revealed a glaring truth to Frankl: we need meaning not only to thrive, but also to survive.

With universal meaning absent, if we are to forgo the possibility of suicide and flourish despite the world’s absurdity, we must forge meaning for ourselves.

With universal meaning absent, if we are to forgo the possibility of suicide and flourish despite the world’s absurdity, we must forge meaning for ourselves. And we can find it in anything. Boundless areas of interest are open to us. Michelangelo found meaning through painting, Pablo Picasso in drawing, and Leonardo da Vinci in anything he could get his hands on. Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and William Shakespeare found writing to be their reason for living, not gifted to them by a haughty universe, but discovered for themselves. Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and Stephen Hawking found meaning through science, and figuring out the complexities of the world. Comparing yourself with such formidable characters may be daunting, but at one point in their lives, they hadn’t found their purpose either. We don’t have to be geniuses or maestros of our chosen passion, nor does our work need to echo throughout history. We just need to find a passion.

What is it that you consider to have intrinsic value, not for its high-esteem within society, or prized for its rarity, but because it occupies a little corner of your heart — a treasure without the glitter of gold or diamonds, but priceless nonetheless? This is where your meaning lies. It is the deadliest weapon in the fight against absurdity, and when we discover it, we no longer need to demand answers from a mute universe. We’ve created the answer for ourselves.

Read more from Rob Marchant at Antidotes for Chimps

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