The Absurd Nature of Life

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana. Groucho Marx

When I was still young, but old enough to have some serious thoughts, it seemed to me that humanity had, in its history, risen above the ignorant primitives who worshipped many, varied gods. This seemed evident when I read about the discovery of isolated tribes in the few areas of the earth that were still not fully explored. There still existed then small groups who believed in magic and prayed to deities who controlled the seasons and might grant a better fall harvest and a milder winter. I took some pleasure in this view of how far the human race had come.

But I was a child, living out the riddle of the Sphinx: what goes on four legs in the morning, two in the daylight, and three at night? The answer, of course, is a human being, depending on which of the three ages one refers to — childhood, adulthood, and old age. As an infant I crawled, as do all humans, on all fours. And I continued to do so metaphorically, even as my physical and cognitive abilities developed.

And for quite some time as an adult I held fast to those early views. I believed I was a part of the highest reaches of physical and social evolution, and looked down not just on those poor primitives but on classical civilizations of the past as well. Even in relatively sophisticated pharaonic Egypt the sun was worshipped as a god and cats, animals we now consider household pets, were treated as representatives of minor deities. I, in contrast, lived in a rational scientific world that was constantly making incredible technological advances. As an adult I walked upright in the bright light of an advanced civilization that relies on light-emitting diodes, instead of heating up a wire electrically until it glows. In sum, I was an arrogant ass.

Now that I am old and may soon need to rely on a cane as a “third leg,” I have come to a rather radical revision of my earlier views. One reason is the continued worship of gods, despite the absence of any evidence of their existence. Not that I’m an atheist, just that it seems odd in terms of “advanced scientific knowledge” that most of the billions of people living are quite certain in their belief. What’s more, even though most (of the many) religions focus on just one god, rather than multiple gods, most also insist that the one that particular religion worships is the one-and-only god with all others being in the category of the deity of primitives I once looked down upon.

So, the “evolved” human beings of today hold to what are essentially the same sort of beliefs held by primitive tribes and less “advanced” civilizations. Of course, since we do not and, it seems, cannot know for certain the truth or falsity of such beliefs it is just as foolish to argue their falsity as it is to insist on their truth. But insisting on the truth of unproven and unprovable beliefs is absurd. Indeed, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, in his recent book Embracing Auschwitz, comments on “…the absurdity of a silent God…”.

In fact, absurdity refers not just to religion but to life itself. The absurdist philosopher Albert Camus argues that the most reasonable way to address the absurdity of life is for individuals to embrace the absurd condition of human existence. I think it’s helpful to consider three specific elements of that absurdity and how each might be addressed so as to soften, if not eliminate, its effect on life itself.

Isolation

No one can experience exactly what another person experiences; we are each one of us permanently alone and isolated within our own “selves”. Although we communicate through actions and, especially, through language the precise meaning of actions and words can’t be perfectly shared. This is simply because we have full access to one experience only, that is, to our own experience and not to anyone else’s experience. While we try to understand one another’s experiences — what is in another’s mind — such understanding is always limited by the reality of individuals’ isolation from one another. Every moment of our lives we are confronted with the reality of that isolation and with the absurdity that follows. Whether one wishes, as an infant or child, to merge with a parent, or wishes as an adult to merge with a partner, that wish is impossible. Everyone is faced with and must in some manner deal with the life-long absurdity of an impossible desire: an end to isolation.

A common trope of science-fiction stories involves fully experiencing what another person experiences. It may be that technological advances will make that possible, but I think that unlikely. Physicists exploring the nature of quantum reality have recently noted that we never come into actual direct contact with another object, whether that object is a person or a chair. Any two objects are always separated by the smallest possible distance which is called a Planck length, about 6.3631×10 to the minus 34th inch. That is, they never touch.

What, then, can one do, given the absurdity of isolation? A simple answer is to accept this as an amusing fact. In a classic paper, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that while a human might be able to imagine what it is like to be a bat by taking “the bat’s point of view”, it would still be impossible “to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.”

Going beyond this, one can still attempt to communicate through language and behavior and thus try to understand what is in another person’s mind. It helps to understand that efforts to communicate feelings are especially important. This may be because, as neuropsychologist Mark Solms argues, feelings are a crucial part of consciousness. Therefore a useful start to understanding what is in another person’s mind might be to focus on what that person is feeling. Psychologist Carl Rogers suggests that simply restating in your own words what you think another person is feeling and then listening for that person’s response can be a very effective way to begin to understand what is in that person’s mind.

Absurdity is necessarily part of life. Isolation is an absurd fact of life. That does not, however, mean that one must assume that all of life is absurd. Nor does it mean that there is no point in trying to understand what others think and feel, in order to address isolation. The means for trying to reduce isolation are imperfect and cannot produce full and true understanding of another person’s thoughts or feelings. But philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and psychologists such as Carl Rogers describe ways to address and, perhaps, ameliorate the ultimately imperfect understanding of one another and in that way reduce the impact of life’s absurdity. All experience is subjective but it may be possible for individuals to share their subjectivities and construct what some psychotherapists call “intersubjectivity,” in this way reducing, even though not eliminating, isolation.

Mortality

Many try to deny death by striving to appear young. Some go a practical step farther, actually working to maintain youthful health (and appearance) through appropriate diet and exercise. The simplest rules for this are just “move more, eat less”. Even so, the fact, pointed out by Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hahn, is that everyone grows old, everyone becomes ill, and everyone dies. At 94 Nhat Hahn has returned to a monastery in Vietnam to await what he has referred to as the “transition”. Unable to speak, he continues to read and think, every day.

That by living we necessarily die seems, on the face of it, absurd. And actions taken to deny mortality, such as focusing one’s efforts on physical appearance and health, are not only certain to fail but will probably interfere with actions that could result in achievements that would make life meaningful. “Death anxiety” is a common symptom (at any age) seen by psychotherapists and a common barrier to both achievement and pleasure in life.

In Band of Brothers the historian Stephen Ambrose quotes an officer trying to instill confidence in a soldier, by saying to him “The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead.” Acceptance of the fact of mortality is a powerful concept. It enables one to focus on actions aimed at achieving possible goals rather than obsessing over the impossible goal of avoiding one’s mortality.

While there is no way to change the reality of isolation there are, as already noted, ways that may ameliorate the negative effects of that absurd fact of life. Acceptance of mortality may reduce death anxiety and make it more likely to attain practical goals (including survival). At an age beyond the biblical “three score and ten” I find the death anxiety I experienced in my twenties and thirties no longer distresses me. I don’t know if this is a result of having lived through challenges or a consequence of accepting mortality. In any case, such acceptance may also help one to address a third absurd element of life: meaninglessness.

Meaninglessness

Existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir agree with Albert Camus with respect to the absence of inherent meaning in life. However, their answer differs from that of Camus, who argues that the only approach is to accept and embrace absurdity. Sartre is known for a classic statement: existence precedes essence. By this he means that one first exists and can then can try to construct some essential meaning within one’s self that leads to a meaningful life, a life that is not simply absurd. That is, a person’s sense of meaning in life is not simply part of life itself, of existence, but must be developed by the individual and incorporated into his or her essence. Sartre and de Beauvoir place great emphasis on accepting the freedom to construct meaning. In The Ethics of Ambiguity de Beauvoir identifies several ways that individuals avoid such freedom and points out the difficulty in attaining “genuine freedom”. While Camus appears to agree that we have the opportunity to accept freedom and construct meaning, he adds that the inevitability of death makes the work of constructing meaning inherently meaningless and renders the entire enterprise of life itself both meaningless and absurd. Sartre and de Beauvoir disagree. So do I.

Camus compares the absurdity of man’s life with the situation of Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. In Camus’ retelling, when Sisyphus recognizes this and realizes the absurdity of his situation he is able to accept it and, according to Camus, can even be happy. For Camus the best approach to the absurdity of a life that is inherently meaningless is to simply accept it.

The absurd meaninglessness of life surely exists when one rejects the option of accepting genuine freedom to construct one’s own meaning. Even when you accept freedom, the failure to reach goals one sees as crucially important can result in a deep feeling of meaninglessness. However, considerable psychological research confirms that when individuals believe they have the freedom, resources, and skills and believe they are capable of achieving their goals the likelihood of doing so is greatly increased.

One need not agree with Camus’ assertion that it is pointless — absurd — to bother trying to create meaning in one’s life because death makes such effort meaningless. A person’s “essence” — which is determined by one’s actions and within which is incorporated the meaning one has constructed — will inevitably end. But that doesn’t make the individual’s existence or actions meaningless. I no longer practice the profession I trained for and engaged in for a half-century, but the meaning I constructed through those actions still exists. That meaning exists in the products I created, in the individuals I influenced, and — most important of all — in my own mind. I believe that the effects of my actions will continue, even when I no longer exist.

Dealing With the Absurdity of Life

Isolation cannot be overcome. It can, however, be addressed by accepting freedom and taking action. By so doing, two people may also construct mutual meaning, “intersubjectivity,” a shared sense of understanding. Although we can never actually perceive another person’s experience, by accepting the freedom to act individuals can strive to create such shared meaning.

Mortality cannot be overcome. However, by recognizing the inevitability of mortality one secures two crucial opportunities. These are, first, the opportunity to take the freedom to act and, second, to in this way define and attain meaningful personal goals in life.

Meaning cannot be “found” in life. However, rather than assuming that life is necessarily absurd, meaning can be constructed. This is possible if one accepts genuine freedom. It then becomes possible to use that freedom to address isolation and to attack the absurdity in life that is a consequence of isolation. One does this by defining and achieving meaningful goals, thus rejecting the futile aim of avoiding mortality. These productive consequences of one’s free actions can, in the broadest sense, construct personal meaning. Moreover, the effects of one’s actions — and meaning — can endure long after one’s existence.

Personal meaning may even involve finding meaning in the religion I initially ridiculed. Hammerman’s expanded quote suggests this, when he observes that “…grandchildren of survivors…can begin to take the darkness of the Shoah and turn it into song, absorbing the absurdity of a silent God while loving life nonetheless.” Indeed, every day I pray to a silent God, in affirmation and in thanks for this “absurd” life.

Note: Many of the concepts referred to in this essay came to me in the form of my friend Mark Leffert’s book, The Psychoanalysis of the Absurd.

Some Source References:

Ambrose, Stephen E. Band of Brothers. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Beauvoir, Simone de The Ethics of Ambiguity. NY: Citadel Press, 1949.

Camus, Albert The Myth of Sisyphus. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.

Hammerman, Joshua Embracing Auschwitz. Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2020.

Leffert, Mark The Psychoanalysis of the Absurd. NY: Routledge, 2020.

Rogers, Carl R. & Richard Evans Farson. Active Listening. Fairhope, AL: Mockingbird Press, 2021. (Originally published by the Industrial Relations Center of the University of Chicago in 1957.)

Rogers, Carl R. Client-Centered Therapy. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1951.

Sartre, Jean-Paul Being and Nothingness. NY: Washington Square Press, 1993.

Thich Nhat Hahn You Are Here. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala, 2010.

Nagel, Thomas “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review, October 1974.

Nagel, Thomas Mortal Questions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Solms, Mark The Hidden Spring. NY: Norton, 2021.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig Philosophical Investigations. NY: Macmillan, 1953. (Current edition published by Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.)