Albert Camus, an existentialist within the 20th century, argues that the absurdity of life occurs when humans experience an epiphany, this epiphany being the moment in their lives when they begin to contemplate and reflect on who they are and what kind of life they live and whether or not these hold any meaning. This conflict between trying to seek meaning, coherence, and value of our lives and the inability to find said meaning within a world that Camus believes is irrational and meaningless is what he calls the Absurd for we can never find meaning no matter how hard we think and attempt to. These two ideals will never be harmonious. We often choose to distract ourselves from ever having to think about these kinds of questions – there’s a social standard that many of us are governed by and carry out in our lives, we are told at a young age by family, our institutions, or media, what kind of life is “normal” or what path we should be taking. For example, majority of humans live their lives very cyclically, and what kind of life one lives is akin to something like going to college, get a job, have a family. These outside factors shape who we are, what kind of values we have (for example, education, family, honesty, etc), it creates us. We are molded in a particular way that we feel we cannot break free from – that once we hit a certain period of time, changing who we are, changing in general of our values, seems impossible because it appears as though we have already established who we are. However, existentialists would argue with “well, what is us?”, “what is the purpose of your life?”, and essentially “are the things you are doing hold any meaning right now?” and this creates the absurd. We are living our life normally without much thought or consideration, but when prompted with these questions, we begin to realize the agency that we do have over our lives. For some people, when experiencing very traumatic experiences such as child abuse, depression, or abandonment, it’s very easy to blame the world for ruining your life. One does not take responsibility to better themselves, and essentially are made to believe that they are doomed to simply be unhappy or broken. It’s easy to be comfortable with these kinds of thoughts, thoughts that the world set you up for failure and you have no control over the kind of life you live often blaming it on outside factors such as family, and the school system, but no one is forcing you to nor stopping you from acting.
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At all times in our lives, are we making a decision and these decisions define us, but we have the ability to change. This is where the absurd comes in for when we realize that everything and anything, we do in the grand scheme of things are meaningless, well then what is holding us back from truly living our lives? That is why the realization of absurdity shows the world in its primordial hostility because any kind of meaning that we attempt to give our lives is essentially meaningless, they’re not actual truths but rather justifications for why we chose to do certain things. We in actuality have full agency of our lives but are made to believe that the universe controls how we are to feel, to act, and to live. It is our own responsibility to take control of our lives and make us happy. Camus’ essay on the “Myth of Sisyphus” explains this directly to us. Sisyphus is condemned to push a boulder up a hill everyday, and then he watches it roll back down that exact hill, only to do the same thing tomorrow. In this situation, Camus explains how when one realizes the absurd, we are given two choices: suicide or rebellion. The task, obviously, is very tortuous and in fact, heavily exhausting. Sisyphus can easily start thinking about “why do I have to do this?”, and “what is the purpose of me rolling this hill up everyday?” but he doesn’t. In fact, Sisyphus, realizes that he will never get an answer and despite how bad his situation is, embraces the absurd. He is happy in spite of how horrible his life. He chooses to be happy – he chooses rebellion for the choice of suicide is the realization that one is unable to handle the world and the idea of full agency. Suicide is an escape from the absurd, but not the solution to it. For when we choose to embrace the absurd, then does that make it worthwhile to live. A cat does not experience the absurd because, the purpose of a cat is to be a cat, such as the purpose of a flower is not to fertilize the soil, or to reproduce to many flowers, no, the purpose of a flower is to be a flower. However, this cannot be said the same to humans because we have the innate ability to reflect and contemplate and we are all very individualistic. We are governed by the ideas of good and bad, we have dreams and goals, and we have regrets. Often labelled as a 'bad person' or a 'good person' when really, we are just living an as individual. As time passes, we grow and the world has no right to judge us for changing, for taking back the control we felt as though we lost, and to have full agency over our lives. These two ideals conflict within the majority of our lifespan. For some, the idea of radical freedom that Sartre speaks of is their hope, but to others the entire concept of radical freedom is their death – the fact that they have too much control and power over their lives become overwhelming to the point where they want to commit suicide because they realize no one can save them. It is their choice and decision to save themselves, relating back to Sisyphus who makes the conscious decision to be happy, ultimately saving himself from the choice of suicide. Suicide in and of itself, has no meaning. It cannot offer value to your life because in death, we no longer have the freedom to choose, we lose ourselves and whatever life we wanted or dreamed to have, can no longer happen. Embrace the meaningless, because while our tasks hold no meaning, it does not mean that life is not worthwhile and that the experiences one goes through, both the good and bad, build value. It’s the little things in life that matter, whether that be seeing the sun, or the fresh feeling and smell after it rains. There is no afterlife or second chances, there is simply the now and you have the ability to change that now for your future.
Nagel, on the other hand, also discusses about the absurd. However, he takes a different approach – rather than seeing it as a conflict with one’s self and their environment/world, he believes that it is an internal battle between one’s ability of taking life too seriously when really these things that we take so seriously such as values, occupation, decisions, are not that serious in the long-run. It’s not common to hear someone say how often they overthink their decisions to the point where it feels as though they have to calculate their actions to provide them the “right answer” to their situation/experience but Nagel argues to essentially stop thinking so deeply about it. Whatever happens, happens. We are so cautious as human beings to not mess up, but Nagel says that whatever we choose to do, there is no justification for it and that these decisions that we make for our lives are open and free, not set in stone and yet we act as though they are. Take for example, the moment we all have graduated from Grade 12. At such a young age (17-18), we are taking this decision far too seriously than Nagel purposes. We are acting as though this decision, the choice of going to university or not, what university you’re even going to, is going to make or break our lives. However, once we have made a decision, we are just thrown into another situation where we have to make another choice – thus, was the choice of going to said university the right one? No, because it’s still open to doubt for once we get into the university, we may realize that we hate this kind of life, that we hate the school. Nagel is purposing that in the moment, these decisions seem very grand and big, but once we take a step back and look at it from afar, we realize how miniscule and unimportant these decisions are. Nagel differs from Camus because Nagel believes that we have the ability to view our lives from a universal stand-point, from a third person perspective and we realize how insignificant our beings are to the grand scheme of the universe. Nagel discuses that humans have the option to simply go back to their everyday, cyclical nature of life and attempt to ignore the absurd but in that case trying to ignore or forget about the absurd means that the absurd already exists, thus you cannot really ignore it as it’s part of your subconscious. Another solution is to not take things so seriously, but Nagel isn’t saying that we should be irrational beings and have no thoughts whatsoever because what makes us human is the fact that we are able to think for ourselves and act upon these thoughts. We still have to be governed in some way or else chaos will ensue. The last option is to commit suicide, but similarly to Camus, they both view suicide as not the answer. Rather Nagel says, things happen and we have to accept it, Nagel offers the solution to face the absurd with irony. For if life has no meaning and our values cannot be justified, then the absurd itself is simply apart of life and should not matter either. In fact, the absurd should be something to viewed optimistically in a sense because of how it is unique to humans. It’s not something we should be running from or fighting against as Camus puts it, but rather the absurd is to be the absurd, it’s simply there. The absurd shouldn’t be taken so seriously as neither should life. It goes back to the idea that, any attempt to solve these issues of trying to find meaning from outside factors such as a God, don’t help because for Nagel, we just have to live and accept the absurd as part of life, and not something to be solved. Any sort of idea of a good or bad person are simply social constructs during life but once we die, none of that mattered. We all end up in the same exact place, and as such, ideas of heroism and despair are rendered meaningless because in death, there are no heroes or villains. Nagel reminds me of a quotation I stumbled upon which was something akin to “you will always be the villain in someone’s story,” and as such Nagel suggest to just live your life because no matter what kind of decision you make and think about very deeply, you cannot and will not be a perfect person.
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