Life After the Vortex (An Existentialist Reading)

In my previous post, "Step into My Vortex" (which you should read before this one), I suggested a "braver" way to deal with our insignificance in the universe is to take Camus' approach to the situation presented in his Myth of Sisyphus.

Here's something I posted about this book on another blog.


I've written several times about the influence that Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus has had on me. Camus starts with the assumption that humans seek meaning and purpose in their lives. The universe, however, always appears meaningless and purposeless. People suffer and die for no apparent reason, natural disasters devastate humans and animals, people mistreat others, people hoard resources, etc. Additionally, they discover (through astronomy) that they are insignificant specks in an unimaginably vast universe. When people begin to see the chaos in the universe, they are faced with a decision. Should they continue to live in this indifferent world or should they end their lives? If they choose to live, how shall they continue to do so?

Camus suggests that most people who decide to continue living make some kind of 'leap of faith.' They choose to believe that there is some kind of secret, hidden meaning and purpose to their existence. They posit a god who hides him/herself from humans, but who will some day right all wrongs. They invent another world outside of the one they know in which everything is good and different from the present world. This invention helps them deal with the reality glaring at them (viz. the universe is indifferent to their existence).

Camus offers another alternative to suicide and this 'leap of faith.' He recommends that humans learn to accept the universe as it is, that they stop trying to make it look better than it is, that they courageously accept the obvious senselessness of existence. The way to do this, Camus suggests, is to just stop picturing something better than what actually is. Our lot in life (as an insignificant collection of atoms) is only miserable when one attempts to imagine something better than what exists.

This is where Camus' allegory of Sisyphus is enlightening. The story of Sisyphus comes to us through ancient Greek myth. He was a man who did not properly fear the gods. He deceived them and would not follow their direction. For his insolence, Sisyphus was condemned to spend all eternity rolling a huge boulder up a steep mountain only to have the boulder roll down under its own weight before he got it to the top. Sisyphus' punishment, then, was to engage in eternal futility.

Camus believes Sisyphus' fate is analogous to every day human existence. We are all engaged in perpetual futility. Nothing we do has any lasting effect upon the vast universe in which we live.

How we choose to feel about the futility of our existence, however, is up to us. We could engage our thoughts in speculation about how the universe could be better and more responsive to our existence. We could imagine heavens and gods and pleasant things that do not exist in the world we know.

Another option, however, is that we could accept our existence for what it is ... futility. We could acknowledge that we could imagine a better existence (one with good gods, eternal life, and pleasures of every kind), but that this imagined existence simply is not what we have. We have a pointless existence, but this pointless existence is our pointless existence. It's all we have and as such it is good, because at least we have it.

This is how Camus imagines Sisyphus. Because he knows that the labor of rolling the boulder up the mountain is the only existence he will ever experience, it is not a punishment to him. It loses its misery. Only if he imagines something different, something "better," does what he does have become unbearable. If, however, he accepts his lot as his lot, then it is neither good nor bad, but simply what is. And because it is, it is better than not being and is, therefore, something to take pleasure in. Sisyphus learns happiness in the futility of his action because he stops imagining another, better existence.

At this point in my life, I feel that I can relate to Sisyphus. Sure, it would be nice to imagine some kind of eternal pleasurable existence (my "heaven" would be an eternity to love and be loved by my wife). It would be pleasing to think that my life here has some kind of eternal significance.

The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. And I'm okay with that. When my brain stops functioning and my heart stops beating, I will cease to exist. I will feel neither pain nor pleasure, grief nor loss, regret nor pride. I will no longer be. There will be nothing left to mourn the absence of my wife in my life. There will be nothing left of me. My body will decay, human life will go on and then eventually end without me.

This may sound sad, but it is what all the evidence seems to point to. It is what is. It is neither happy nor sad; it simply is.

I choose to live the life that "is" without fear or regret. I will not invent mythical worlds so unlike the one that actually does exist that it makes this one unbearable. I will face each day with courage. I will surrender to the futility of this life, not fatalistically, but with joyous acceptance of reality. I will make my friendships count in this world, in this life. I will not attempt to hide the person I am to please others because this is the only life I have and I want to live it honestly and openly. I will not waste this precious, short time I have hedging myself in an imagined religion that robs me of the only existence I will ever experience.

This is my philosophy of life.