All images by Cindy Kunsman from Under Much Grace and used with permission
I am by far a greater fan of Master of the Absurd, Franz Kafka, who laments in his writings about the nature of man and his limitations, but I could not help but think of Albert Camus’ essay about The Myth of Sisyphus concerning the subject of futility and expectation. Can his writing help us find some footing in recovery from trauma so that we can build some type of stability? Trauma robs us of our sense of safety, causes us to feel isolated, and it obscures our memories of stability if we truly had any as a starting point. Trauma causes us to realize the reality of our fragile nature and alienates us from optimism.
This theme is of interest to me because of the problem of figuring out how to fix one’s aim when it comes to expectations – especially in relationships. Camus sees the proverbial glass as half empty, and it won’t be long before the liquid in the glass evaporates. What would the Apostle Paul recommend for us to consider regarding a glass that is only half full while there is great need for more help for our human condition? Sometimes, I feel the weight of Sisyphus rolling down on me and all of my fantasies because I’ve been badly burned by the idea that the glass will soon be full. Can I use the writings of the atheist of absurdity to figure out how to understand Paul’s admonishment to be content and at peace, despite my very human circumstances in real life?
I can’t help but recall that I’m not always that idealistic. The picture that the half empty glass that first pops into my head from my past? I return to my impossible middle management job in the midst of a bad nursing shortage when my manager talked to me about focusing on the soon full glass because I coped too poorly with the same realization as Camus. The rules for expectation tend to be different when they apply to me, as my (early) wiring doesn’t provide for ease or balance.
Experience has taught me more pessimism, and I used to reach to a mindless type of optimism with all abandon as a means of coping, calling it faith. Nursing made the dilemma more significant because it didn’t highlight my own suffering. The half absent resources meant to me that the lack ultimately passes from me and my frustration to the sick person in need who has come to me for help. All that I can really do is comfort the person in need, but is that enough? Somehow, I must figure out that doing something is far better than doing nothing. In the process, though, where to I set my sights? How do I figure out how to aim at a reasonable and achievable target?
High demand relationships provide black and white answers for life’s dilemmas, and the party with the most power in them determines that which is black and that which is white. Providing a promise of clear answers in an ambiguous world becomes a powerful selling point for cults when trolling for new members. While I find elements of Camus’ perspective disconcerting he also makes valid, clear statements amidst the mist of the unknown. (Many Christians find this admission troubling, not to mention Camus’ conclusions about man’s fate.)
In its own right, his realizations prove to be quite anti-cult. It’s a start, at least, and his example helps me demonstrate just how often I find myself pulled in different directions. I crave balance but so often find that I really don’t understand what it is. At least he draws something of a map so that I can figure out where I want to be in that Maze of Healing.
Sisyphus, Camus and Futility
Here’s the short version: Sisyphus was a deluded jerk who thought that he was more clever than Zeus, and he hated death and suppressed death for a time. Long story and jumping past the different versions of the Greek myth, Zeus enchants a mighty boulder as eternal punishment for Sisyphus who is set with the task of pushing the boulder up a hill only to see it roll down again. His quest for power becomes a task that demonstrates how empty and powerless such avarice truly is.
The deluded Sisyphus is apparently happy with his absurd fate of futility, according to Camus, for he plugs away at his task as he lives “fully” while never dying and succumbing to that which he hates. But he never really manages to get anywhere. Camus identifies Sisyphus as something of a prototype of man — wholike us, is consumed with the process of living while resisting death. In the middle, we all find much struggle.
Our More Modern Myths
I would say that this is also the grand message that Terry Gilliam conveys in his last few films, and there’s an element of it in the Matrix film where man refuses to accept the program of a perfect world. Perfection seems to be against our nature. (That’s more the subject of a book or at least another blog post.) Gilliam’s protagonists give in and settle for a type of happy madness that is not inherently religious but sometimes sexual. The Matrix definitely carries an undefined religion requiring faith in the process and in its servant of sacrifice, Neo.
In his work, Camus chews on the ideas of his contemporaries in philosophy who arrive at similar conclusions. He declares them all cop outs and therefore non-absurdists who fail to find transcendence of the human condition. Everyone ends up solving the equation with some type of God belief – either in the manner of an entity or in pure logic as an impersonal type of god that demands homage.
Meanwhile, Camus highlights the stability and logic that we crave in a world that is unstable where people often prove to be most illogical a good bit of the time. We all find ourselves somewhere in the middle, without answers. In the example of Sisyphus, he finds that man’s heart can be “full” (at peace and at rest) in the process of life’s struggle, even if he knows that it’s futile. This seems to be the conclusion of what it is to be human for Camus. Suicide is not an option because that would allow death’s triumph over life, but what does Camus do with the awareness of life’s futility?
At some point, Camus muses that there’s some kind of contentment that comes with acceptance. Uh, but how does one find it? Where does one find that place? That is the mystery.
Does Awareness Make for Transcendence?
I’ve read other works of Camus, and I find him to be much angrier than other writers in his genre with the exception of Sartre who I think is just blooming mad. But as my mostly British grandfather would say, that is probably a function of being French. 😉 I get the most hopefulness from Dostoyevski, but I feel like Kafka is something of a soulmate. Camus sees both as irrational men in their conclusions because their hopes defy the reality of their lot in life. He also criticizes Kafka as a genius of noting life’s absurdity but for his hopefulness. Camus’ best response to false home and awareness of life’s futility involves a passionate revolt against death and to do so, one must just put up with the absurdity.
In the final summation of things and in my interpretation of his writing, I don’t see Camus at a happy man at all, though I love his love of freedom and his quest for a meaningful life. That doesn’t really work that well for me personally, and Camus died quite young, so I don’t know that he found any real or satisfying solutions. He spent his days much unlike Sisyphus, pondering his plight as he worked to find answers in community. I hear a similar hope in the message of Philip Zimbardo who hopes to inspire people to be better champions of goodness instead of creatures who are readily given to evil through self-absorption. If we human beings are given to the banality of evil, why can’t we learn to be just as given to heroism?
I share their goals, but I don’t get there by the same method, and I’m not sure if my expectations are any healthier. I just don’t understand how either Camus or Zimbardo get to that endpoint of hopefulness without their own type of madness of acceptance. They, too, just gather the rosebuds while they may, enjoying the work until it draws to a painful end. What resource can be found to fill that half empty glass? Can revolt or rallying against evil truly change the emptiness? I know that I have nothing else with which to fill it in and of myself, and I am always struggling against that weight. That may be what it means to be human, but I don’t really like the idea any better than Camus did.
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