Religious stories and what we are able to ascertain about ourselves through them is at the very foundation of human experience. Whether a culture literally subscribes to a religion that points to a supernatural deity or whether a culture accepts secular Grand Narratives makes no difference — the point is that the spirit of the human condition is irreversibly entwined in the religious.
One individual who comes to mind in realizing this not-so-small fact was Albert Camus — someone who did not shy away from engaging with the religious despite his refusal to believe in a higher power.
One famous line of his was: “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
Camus grappled with what is known as “The Absurd” — the recognition that our desperate search for meaning and purpose is only ever met with the gentle indifference of a cold universe. There are three ways to respond to this jamming of the mental gears: submit to the belief in a higher power, remain mentally jammed in this absurdity, or commit suicide. This very topic is taken up in Camus’ masterpiece: The Myth of Sisyphus.
The option to submit to the belief in a higher power speaks for itself. Suicide is an option that exempts one from a religious existence at the cost of their own life (this, in itself, is another form of absurdity). However, Camus rejects both of these options. He instead suggests that humans remain in the mentally jammed stage.
To remain in the mentally jammed stage is perhaps the most religious of the three options. It suggests that a human — in being a self-conscious entity — is the only thing that can consciously wield influence over its indifferent environment (including the rest of living things such as plants and animals). This sounds a bit like the power theistic religion gives its god, does it not? The big difference between the absurdist philosophy and theistic religion is that the former situates humankind as the last line of defense in any and all things. It posits that we are going to have to figure out a way to make this world a better place because there is no god or spirit or entity coming to our rescue.
This philosophy places a burden on human beings to take full responsibility, for better or worse, since it is only us who have the awareness of what can and will happen in an otherwise indifferent world.
This sobering worldview makes sense when one considers that Camus’ absurdist philosophy was fleshed out in the midst of World War II — a time when the entire human race was threatened by nuclear war.
Additionally, I do not believe Camus’ worldview of The Absurd has ever wavered since it was first conceived, and I am confident it never will.
This is where the mythological character of Sisyphus comes in. For those of you who are not familiar with the story of Sisyphus (who happens to be the namesake of this newsletter), he was said to be the king of Corinth and became known for his trickery and for escaping death… twice! He finally received his due when Zeus condemned Sisyphus to an eternal punishment of rolling a boulder up a hill only for it to tumble back down again, and so on ad infinitum.
Not only was Sisyphus’ punishment painful and grueling, but it was the absolute epitome of boredom and suffering. This is the message Camus is trying to communicate with his philosophy — the world is a place chock-full of suffering and pain and there is nothing that will save us from it, except for ourselves.
This means a few things when we go to apply Camus’ absurdist philosophy. The first thing it means, as mentioned above, is that we are wholly responsible for our actions and the consequences brought on by those actions. No “evil” deed is condemned by some higher being just as no “good” deed is rewarded. Even the Bible alludes to this truth when it states: “for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45)
There are no angels and demons: there is only the human.
The second thing it means is that there is no guarantee of some paradise or heaven. All we can possibly know for sure is that we have the life we are currently living. We are to make the most of this life since it is the only one we (knowingly) have. Again, this alludes to the Sisyphean sentiment. In achieving his goal of pushing the boulder to the very top of the mountain, Sisyphus realizes that it is only a matter of time before the boulder tumbles back down, meaning that he will have to start again.
You may ask whether Sisyphus ever finds peace in his pain and suffering. The answer is yes, but it is where you might least expect it. It is between the bottom of the mountain and the top of it. The most optimistic point in Sisyphus’ suffering is when his arms and legs are quivering for the weight of the boulder. It is when the droplets of sweat tumble down from his brow to his chin. It is when he peers into the blasting sun toward the peak, hoping that if only he could make it then everything will be okay. It is when Sisyphus is in the process of pushing the boulder toward the mountaintop.
Sisyphus only has hope so long as he has not arrived at his destination. Once he arrives, hope vanishes and the reality of another grueling round of boulder-pushing sets in.
Whether you believe in some higher power or not is irrelevant. What matters is that you are trudging through life right now, propelled only by the fumes of your own effort.
That is what Camus was trying to communicate to his readers in The Myth of Sisyphus.
This is why he wrote: “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. … Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
It is the struggle toward the heights that makes life worth it, not the heights themselves.