The Question Everyone Answers But No One Asks
Should you snooze your alarm or kill yourself? Before anything else, before you plan your life goals, or argue about whether the world is understood in this or category, there is only 1 question worth asking…why not kill yourself? In a strange case of reverse engineering, Camus causes us to realize that the good life is an assumption that no one examines1. This is because people learn to live before they learn to think. But if they would think first, they would realize that working out how to live only makes sense if life is worth living.
It is strange to write this. In a time of a pandemic that echoes Camus’ own novel ‘The Stranger’, humanity is forced to grapple with the value of life and its meaning in way it hasn’t done so for a long time. But even before this there were creaks and strains under the weight of all this living. In those early mornings, as you clobbered your alarm clock and swiped across the pages of Google News, haven’t you wondered if it was all worth it?
When you become truly aware of this problem, it is like discovering a leech on your back. It has been there this whole time. But without realizing you had continued to walk on the same path. Now that you see it, you can’t forget its fangs or the fact that it’s slowly draining your life away. This is the ever present absurdity in all of living. This acute postmodern problem can produce heights of dizziness and nausea, disorientation and anxiety. But rarely does it surface to the level of consciousness. We’re too busy eluding it in every single pursuit, hoping that one person or promotion or experience will bring the desire of unity and transcendence and meaning to your life. We hope that we will eventually find joy.
Camus starts with this assumption that life is absurd. There is no rational schema, no grand narrative to understand the world and therefore no extrinsic meaning. Every single system that has tried to rationalize world has toppled under its irrationality. Faced with these facts, he believes that one must then ask whether or not the absurdity of existence means it is better not to be. The other options, to live apathetically and only for the sake of others is cowardice or to live with a false hope is dishonesty. Man then must construct his meaning from within knowing that it is absurd.
Whether you’re a Christian or a humanist, the same question remains. Even with the narrative of Christianity, one is faced with a world that is at present dark and filled with irrationality and meaningless suffering. No matter who you are, a leap is required; to have faith in the infinite Being (God) who transcends our comprehension and live, or to defy the absurdity of existence and live as a rebel. One is resigned the other is defiant. Both are courageous (for reasons that will require another article). But both cannot be right. Either way, Camus doesn’t leave us the option of escaping such a question once we realize that life ultimately escapes our grasp.
Note: the fundamental problem with the Christian leap of faith is theodicy, which Camus himself points out. The existence of a good and omnipotent God who permits suffering is a well known argument which I believe has been refuted time and again since Camus’ life (and even in eras before). But I think that it needs a new way of addressing which I hope to get to at some point.