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Conquer the Absurdity of Life (Existentialism 1/2)

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

According to Albert Camus, life is an absurd experience -- but it’s the only one we've got. So when you push that rock up the hill, push it with all you’ve got! Because through effort, we find meaning.

“We’re put on earth to fart around and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

- Kurt Vonnegut


What is All This?

Beginning when I was about six years old, I'd occasionally pause, look around, and think, What the hell is all this? What am I experiencing? What is this thing called life? I felt like I was stuck in some sort of maze. Existence made no sense to me. Why was I even here? I thought. The idea and reality of life felt absolutely absurd to me. Ahh... nothing like your first existential crisis at age six.


After that, these feelings about the absurdities of life only continued to grow. Surrounded by more than ten trillion galaxies, with each galaxy containing a hundred billion stars, I'd often look up at the night sky and just laugh my ass off. By the time I reached adulthood, things got even more absurd when I learned there might be multiple universes -- and that all of them might just be a computer simulation in my head. Okay... WTF! What's going on here? What are we even here to do!? According to the mid-century French philosopher, Albert Camus, we’re here to do absolutely nothing. There is no design and no intent for us. The universe – 13.8 billion light years across -- is cold, mostly vacant, and has absolutely no concern for you.


edhinman@barbarianinyou.com
Albert Camus

According to Camus, any “longing for clarity” about our existence within a meaningless universe is, by definition, "absurd." To illuminate this absurdity about our existence, he wrote, The Myth of Sisyphus about a character from Greek mythology who Zeus punished by condemning him to push a boulder up a hill for eternity. Every time Sisyphus is about to crest the hill, the bolder rolls back down and Sisyphus must start again. Thus, over and over again, Sisyphus pushes the rock.


Because life is monotonous, meaningless, and absurd, Camus says we're all Sisyphus -- condemned to a life of toil. Okay, okay… I know. This all sounds depressing. Surely, Camus knew about the simple pleasures of life beyond the daily grind; he was French for god’s sake! I’m sure he laughed, smiled, and drank wine with friends. All true, he’d nod with a grin. Then, after a long drag from his cigarette, he’d say, but if you want to create meaning in your life, you must first awaken to the fact that your life is absurd.


Awaken with the Red Pill


When we eventually realize that beyond the fleeting moments of bliss, life is really a "mechanical [and] meaningless pantomime," Camus says we experience our first existential crisis. In this moment, he writes, we “awaken" to reality. Once we realize we’re only here to push the rock up the hill, he concludes, we’re left with three options on how to live (or not live).


1. Suicide. First, we can just kill ourselves. We’re going to die anyway, so why prolong it? But even Camus considers this a bad option. In suicide, we get nothing. At least rocks and hills are something.


2. Lie to Yourself. Our second option in dealing with the absurdity of life is to lie to ourself (i.e. take the blue pill) and believe that there’s actually more to life than pushing the rock up the hill. By convincing ourselves that those ten trillion galaxies really do care about us and that “everything happens for a reason,” we can ease our angst and march on through life asleep. He considers this option a violation of our integrity and intelligence.


3. Acceptance. Finally, and this option he favors, we can liberate our “universe of its phantoms" (i.e. lies) and accept our plight on earth. By taking the red pill, we accept our role to push that damn rock up the hill without any cosmic consequence.


Through Effort, We Find Meaning


If we take the third option, accepting that life is absurd, do we become jaded nihilists always responding with “what’s the point?” No way, says Camus. By awakening to the harsh realities of life, he concludes, we gain agency in our lives. Once we understand the rules of the game (pushing the rock), we can decide how to push that rock, and what rock we will push. It’s through “our daily effort,” he writes, that we create meaning for ourselves within a meaningless universe.


According to Camus, who you are is defined by how you do things. “The struggle itself,” Camus writes, “is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Therefore, he concludes, “one must imagine Sisyphus [as] happy.” Sisyphus understands the absurdity of his plight, but carries on anyway with a smile -- because his rock is all he’s got. And it’s all we’ve got too.


Arnold


There’s a great story from one of my heroes, Arnold Schwarzenegger. As a young man burning with ambition, Arnold discovered bodybuilding and weight training became the rock he pushed. Often as a teenager in Austria, he and his friend would carry hundreds of pounds of weights into the forest to work out like barbarians.


On one occasion in the woods, he did 55 sets of squats. “The last hour seemed endless,” he wrote. “Our thighs pumped like balloons [and] we couldn’t walk right for a week. We barely could crawl!” Despite his toil and pain, Arnold said, “we loved it…[because] we were gladiators.”


Though I’m no Arnold, I can relate. When I was 19, a friend handed me a key to his gym and said, “use it anytime.” So whenever home from college, I’d train there. Sometimes I’d train at midnight just because. Blasting Pantera from the speakers and screaming through endless sets of squats, I’d have a big Sisyphus smile on my face because I was pushing that iron rock up a steep hill.


When I trained at midnight I felt in control of my life. While everyone else was sleeping or drinking beer, I was on the attack – gaining ground in an activity I loved. Through effort, I found meaning in my life. I began to believe that I was different, that I was powerful, and that I could be great. Though pumping iron (especially at midnight) is absurd, I found purpose and meaning in my effort.


According to Camus, the rock Sisyphus pushed “is his thing.” And it’s up to each of us to determine “our thing” – that thing we’re drawn to do. Once we determine our thing -- and push it up the hill with sweat and a smile -- we can flourish as human beings and find meaning through our efforts.



edhinman@barbarianinyou.com
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Junior Mr. Europe 1965

No Regrets


As Arnold pursued his bodybuilding goals, nothing got in his way, including the Austrian Army. A few weeks into his mandatory one-year stint in the army, Arnold received an invitation to compete in the Junior Mr. Europe bodybuilding contest in Germany. When he requested leave, it was rejected. After that, Arnold wrote, “I spent a couple sleepless nights wondering what I should do. Finally, I knew there was no alternative: I was going to sneak out and go.” The contest, he continued, “meant so much to me that I didn’t care what consequences I’d have to suffer.”


Crawling over the perimeter wall in the middle of the night, Arnold went AWOL, bought a third-class train ticket and somehow snuck across the German border. Arriving in Stuttgart, he won the contest wearing a pair of borrowed posing trunks. Returning to the base with his trophy, Arnold’s commanding officer threw him in the brig. But the 18-year-old didn’t care because he was a champion. He was pushing that rock – his rock – up the hill. Within a few years, Arnold won the Mr. Olympia, moved to America, and became the greatest bodybuilder who ever lived.


My biggest regrets in life are the times I didn’t do what Arnold did. They are the times I let stuff happen to me, instead of making things happen for myself. Arnold reminds us to be free. To choose our rock, to choose our hill, to be a lion and take what’s ours.


So long as we choose to live and not suffer illusions, Camus writes, we must push our rock up the hill. But we (like Arnold) get to decide which rock to push and how to push it. We (like Arnold) can live our life with unapologetic passion and effort. When we do, Camus writes, our “world is reborn in all its splendor.”


Doing 55 sets of squats in an Austrian forest is absurd. Oiling up your body so you can flex in front of a crowd is even more absurd. But being able to do it at all – now that’s a miracle.


“Though none of this has any meaning,” Camus writes about life, “the point is to live.”


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Click here to read Part-2, where I add a very personal story evoking the Existentialism philosophy. Part-2 might be the best piece I'll ever write.

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