Every person who has their basic needs met with time to spare will inevitably have a dreaded visit from existential crisis. Me being me, a padentic over-thinker, it came and stayed in the form of major depression. I was paralyzed from acting on my worldly goals until I could figure out why I must bother to do anything.
There are, of course, numerous common advice given to a suicidal depressive. “Think about all the people that care about you!”, you will often hear, willfully ignoring the fact that the dead cannot care. “You make the world a better place!” an argument goes, without a founding argument why making the world a better place is a “good” thing. Indeed, if nothing matters, then there’s no point in improving it. Religious people turn to god, despite a lackluster set of evidence for its existence. Monks, philanthropists, philosophers, and scienctists all pursue some form of mental elevation that they believe is fundamentally more meaningful than the routine way of life. But is it? How can we verify that spiritual enlightment, charity, introspection, or research are inherently meaningful? Finally, your concerned friends and families will play the “if not” card. “If not for your current efforts, you will starve to death without a job in the future!” or “you will become poor!” or “you will live in your parents’ basement!” To this, the depressive will respond with a dispassionate “so what?”
To a depressed person who has lost vitality, none of these help. At least not for me. No amount of effort from others and myself to inspire something worth living for in my life has failed. The only solution then, is to live and act without hope.
At a cursory glance this solution seems hopeless (it is) and nihilistic (it isn’t). How can a person live without any hope at all? The answer, I found, in the absurdist literature of Albert Camus. Camus struggled with the absurdity of meaning-seeking life in a meaningless universe. Yet, he rejected suicide, for to commit suicide is to accept defeat. Furthermore, he rejected illuding ourselves into believing that the world has any meaning, for that is an intellectually irresponsible “philosophical suicide.” The only solution is to face the abyss directly. We must acknowledge that nothing matters, that the universe doesn’t care about our hopes and dreams, that it won’t flinch if humanity is to self-destruct. And we must live on regardless.
Whenever people proclaimed meaning in life, I only found them to be either hypocritical or deluded. Camus doesn’t strike me as such, for he doesn’t pretend that there is any. The possibility to accept meaninglessness and yet thrive is a difficult yet liberating mindset shift, the vitality it provided only matched by prozac.
Why is living without hope so powerful? I can think of a few reasons.
- You are never let down by your hope for a better future being denied upon you. If something you strived to achieve is no longer possible, you do not take it as erasing your purpose in life. Instead, you can recognize that it is an uncontrollable whim of the universe.
- You are never disappointed by the result of your efforts. As your actions were never based on a hope for a better future, and for the sake of the actions themselves, you are sometimes pleasantly surprised but never let down. For example, many students believe that they will be happier once they get a perfect GPA, as I once used to believe, which is certainly not the case. To act without hope as a student means to study without the expectation that getting a higher grade will be of any benefit, yet to do it nonetheless.
- If no grand narrative matters in the end, you learn to appreciate the small joys of the present moment, for that is all there is to life. In this sense, a practical application of absurdism can involve a dose of mindfulness.
- Living without hope places emphasis on living only, which is ironically the best method to progress in our meaningless pursuits like our careers. You act without hope for the sake of acting.
- You become immune from the broader changes of the society going downhill, for you know that the universe doesn’t listen to your wishes to begin with. What matters is that we live our fullest despite it all, the definition of which may depend on each individual.
Was Camus right in proclaiming that Sisyphus, the archetypical absurdist hero who must push a boulder up a mountain every day, must be happy? I think so. For whilst Sisyphus did not find a meaning in life, he did not need one to begin with. I will close my haphazard thoughts with a wish that we can all be as happy as Sisyphus.