The world doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t mean you should give up trying.
On the 6th of January 1960, Albert Camus set out on his journey home. Fresh off ringing in the New Year, he had spent the holidays with his family at a friend’s house in the south of France.
His wife and kids had already left for Paris by train, but Camus spent a few extra days in the sun. On that fateful day, the famous philosopher was sitting in the passenger seat of his friend’s fancy, new sportscar. Speeding along on a long stretch of road, the driver lost control of the car and crashed into a tree.
That instant was the last second of Camus’ life. When the police later examined his body, they found an unused train ticket back to Paris in his pocket. The absurdist philosopher was originally meant to go back home with his family. Earlier.
In a way, this tragic death epitomized what he preached in his writings. The world is absurd, utterly devoid of external meaning.
The World Doesn’t Make Sense
Albert Camus represented one strain in a long line of existentialist philosophers. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Camus. All these thinkers bickered among each other, seemingly only agreeing on one thing. Not wanting to be labeled as existentialist philosophers.
Yet in a way, their thoughts shared a common theme. What connected them was a certain view of the world, and the individual person’s life in it. The world doesn’t make sense. It’s random. There is no external meaning.
This makes it hard for people to live in it. For Camus, the eternal struggle that defined existence was a person’s search for meaning in a world totally devoid of it. You are searching for answers, but there are none.
“The existential attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world that he cannot accept.” — Robert Solomon
The existentialists defined the human condition as an existential struggle in a world that doesn’t care. You were wronged. Nobody cares. You got pushed down. Nobody saw it. You tried to do a good deed, but got punished for it. Who gives a f**k?
Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad ones. There is no logic to why things pass as they do. Innocent people are killed in wars. Injustice is the rule, not the exception. Things just don’t make sense.
People are facing an existential crisis
The world is absurd. This realization can send a person into an existential crisis. If there is no grand meaning in the universe, then what is the point of living?
This type of a crisis is especially strong for people in the modern world. Friedrich Nietzsche declared that God is dead. He didn’t mean that some supernatural entity had just passed away. What he meant was that the system ruling people’s lives until his time was no more.
Back in the Middle Ages, people went about their lives, assured that the universe made sense. There was a God up in the sky overseeing everything. Even if bad things happened in this life, it would be different in the afterlife. Good people would go to Heaven, and bad ones would be punished. This worldview gave people meaning.
With the coming of rationality, this supernatural view of the world collapsed. People no longer knew what to believe. How do you cope with the fact there is no purpose, no meaning?
How to live in an absurd world?
Jean-Paul Sartre, French existentialist philosopher of the mid-20th century, believed that for humans existence precedes essence. German philosopher Martin Heidegger stated that humans are thrown into this world without their own agreement.
While both differed in their descriptions, their messages and themes were similar. According to Heidegger, you cannot control whether you are born into a rich family or a poor one, whether you are born in a big city or the countryside, whether you are an American or a hunter-gatherer in some tribe in Africa. These for you are givens which you cannot change.
Sartre went further and stated that you have complete freedom. The fact there is no grand scheme of things in the universe means you are free to choose. There is nothing to guide you, so you need to design your own code to live by.
“Man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, in other respect is free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
You don’t have a preset path to follow. You can choose where to go, and how to go about it. You are responsible for your own choices. Despite your circumstances. Despite the environment you are thrown into. Despite the world around you.
The important thing here is not to follow a path outlined for you by others. The fact that you are free, also means you have to choose. Create your own path. Create yourself.
Living life on your own terms means you have no regrets. People often do things, because someone else told them to do it. You pick a job, because society or your parents think it’s a good job. You do things imposed on you by an outside system. Yet, this doesn’t lead to authentic happiness.
The way to live in an absurd world is to make a choice. Your own choice. You are free to make mistakes, but you need to own up to them. In this way, the existentialists highlighted the ancient Greek idea that life is not as much about the destination, as it is about the journey.
Albert Camus stated there are two paths a person can take in life. Well, besides killing yourself, but let’s forget about that one. You can either take a leap of faith, or you can accept the absurdity and live according to it.
- Leap of faith
- Accept the absurdity
Most people just cannot accept the absurdity of the world, so they look for a wider system to give them a sense of meaning. A leap of faith is about believing something just based on hope, beyond reason. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher widely seen as one of the founders of existential philosophy, took a leap of faith. It was a jump into the irrational, putting trust in a Christian God.
For Camus, taking a leap of faith is not the way to go about it. Instead, the authentic way is to accept the absurd. Friedrich Nietzsche came up with a phrase to describe it, “amor fati”. Love your fate. It’s about acceptance of what happens.
In his work “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Camus described the eternal burden of Sisyphus. In ancient Greek mythology, this man was condemned by the gods to a special place in Hell. There, he is constantly rolling a rock up a hill, only for it to fall back down.
This was an analogy for the human condition. Most people’s lives consist of never ending cycles of work, sleep, and more work. In a way, it’s just like rolling a rock up a hill, only for it to fall back down. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do about it.
Camus’ solution was to imagine Sisyphus happy. He is stuck in this never ending cycle, not having the ability to choose what to do. However, what he is free to do is to think. Sisyphus happy is about him smirking, rising above his condition.
A great way to do that is to use humor. Most people are too full of themselves, thinking how important they are. This usually leads them to being unhappy. What they often fail to do is to see the humor in their situation. In order to rise above the absurdity in the world, you need to use your third eye. Just like Jerry Seinfeld.
Find your own meaning
Humor and using your third eye is one way to deal with an absurd world. You just make fun of it. Another way is to find your own path, your own purpose. While there might not be a grand meaning in the universe, you can create your own meaning.
Friedrich Nietzsche probably put it best when he uttered an immortal phrase:
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
For Sartre, you create your own meaning through the interaction with your surroundings. As you choose to engage with the world, you slowly build up your essence. It is your choices which create who you are.
The environment around you limits you in a certain way. You are thrown into the world, and there are some things which you cannot change. However, what you can do is to play around within these surroundings. You can be born in a certain country, be a certain race, grow up in a certain family. These are facts you can’t do much about. What you can do is choose to surpass these circumstances.
To illustrate how choices make who you are and give you meaning, Sartre used the example of a man facing a dilemma. It is wartime. His country has been invaded by an enemy. He wants to join the greater cause of freeing his homeland, and go fight.
Yet, at home, he has an ailing mother who is sick. If he were to join up with this greater cause, he would have to abandon her. There would be no one to take care of her.
What does he do? Should he go and fight for the greater cause? Or should he stay home and take care of his mother? For Sartre, there is no right answer to this. It’s a choice, and whatever decision the man makes is legitimate. It gives him meaning, and defines his life.
The many traps of the modern world
As Nietzsche was proclaiming the death of God, and the fall of many individuals into existential despair, he could still not imagine the types of forces that would be at play a century after his death. The advent of the internet, of living online, of being always connected, has brought a whole new bag of existential problems.
People are genuinely unhappy. Trying out drugs, alcohol, and taking selfies all day, they think these activities will somehow make them feel better. Turns out, they don’t. They are an escape, and a harmful one at that. Least of all, they don’t give the person meaning.
In fact, they move them away from what makes life feel fulfilling. People in the modern world get wrapped up in filter upon filter, which distances them away from reality. They no longer feel with their own bodies, instead substituting this with watching people do things on screens.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, another French existentialist philosopher of the mid-20th century, saw the body as the key to your experiences.
“One’s own body is in the world just as the heart is in the organism.” — Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Yet, what do all these screens, cellphones, and social media accounts do? They remove your body from the process. Instead of going out and playing a sport, you get stuck watching other people do it on TV. Instead of experiencing life with your own being, you stare at “influencers” doing stupid stuff on Youtube. The coming of the Metaverse, as proclaimed by Mark Zuckerberg, will make this even worse.
The way to get around this is to get back to nature. Start doing things which connect you to the natural world around you. Go into the mountains. Take a walk in the forest. Join a martial arts class. Interact with things around you. You have the possibility, so go do it.
The great thing about being free to choose is the fact that you can make yourself into who you want to be. The best example, and a personal inspiration for me, is David Goggins. Here was a man who grew up in dire circumstances. In his early 20’s, he was fat and working a dead-end job.
Yet one day, he looked at himself in the mirror and didn’t like what he saw. So he decided to change it. Goggins invented the guy he wanted to be, and pursued being him.
“I had to invent a guy. A guy that can take any pain, any suffering, any kind of judgment.” — David Goggins
This choice for me is the epitome of existentialism. You can sit on your couch and complain. Or you can get off it and start doing stuff. With the world being absurd, you might never accomplish what you set out to do, but that’s not the point.
The point is to be out there in field, walking on your path, smirking at the absurd. Just like Albert Camus thought he could imagine Sisyphus happy, the fact of being out there in the world can fulfill you. Despite the absurdity of the world, you can still lead a satisfying existence.
An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.
Credit: The feature image is a collage made by me incorporating Vincent van Gogh’s “At Eternity’s Gate”.