Have you ever thought about the fact that one day you will die and all the endeavors, accomplishments, relationships and accolades that you’ve personally or corporately been involved in (not to mention that handsome headstone you’ve acquired) means very little if nothing?
Of course you have! Welcome to your existential crisis!
When people travel the roads of existential crisis, one of the more commonly cited causes is the realization that our existence is absurd. Viewing existence as absurd has a long history in western thought, but especially so in the 20th century.
Jean-Paul Sartre drew attention to absurdity in his 1938 book Nausea when the character Roquentin while on a train is suddenly struck by the strangeness of the seat on which he is about to sit. The point was that all things around us are strange outside of their context which, as subjective experiencers, we are responsible for creating.
Most Things Are Absurd
If you think about it, much of the everyday experiences we encounter and participate in are absurd. For instance, the act of kissing your romantic partner; what is more absurd than two people squishing their lips together as a sign of affection? Bizarre, especially if you’re not the one involved but instead observing it on a street corner, or worse, in the halls of a high school.
Here’s another: I have thoughts in my mind and am able to convey those to you, whoever you are, by means of tapping “keys” on a “keyboard”, creating a “digital document”, passing it on through something called the “internet” and having it accessed by you (thank you for reading, by the way). Very strange.
Most of the time when we have these thoughts, we can, like a tennis player, return the problematic ball with a solid forehand back across the net and move on with our day. But what about the seemingly bigger questions, such as the fact that any of this exists at all? Why something instead of nothing? Why is the universe and everything in it, including you and me, here? And being that it is here, why is it the way that it is?
For some people, these kinds of ideas slowly eat at them, sending them into an existential spiral. This is, of course, if taken to extremes not healthy. Many people think our existence and everything about it is absurd, and not without reason, but to this I say – and?
I’m not trying to be dismissive; certainly, the contemplation of whether or not our existence is absurd is worthy of consideration. But the contemplation of such things should be beneficial, not crippling, so let’s go through a couple of counter-arguments to the notion of absurdity. Why do we think things are absurd?
One thing often pointed towards is the nature of time; that there is so much of it and we get to experience so little of it. As far as we know, the universe has existed for 13.7 billion years and Earth for 4.5 billion years. These spans of time are actually incomprehensible to us, yet we allow them to bother us because we think that we, in comparison, are around for such a short period of time. An average human lives 70 years or so – an infinitesimal amount of time compared to that of the age of the Earth or the universe. We cite this as a cause for our existence being absurd, but allow me to counter this type of thinking.
If you were eternal or near-eternal, living millions or billions of years, would your existence be any less absurd? Or the opposite direction, if you had the lifespan of a fruit fly, would that make your existence any more or less absurd?
We also think that our size makes our existence absurd. We think about ourselves in comparison to the size of the universe and think we are so small because we are a little organism on a little planet in a little solar system that is part of a galaxy that is one of over 100 billion galaxies containing some 30 billion planets. What are we when compared to the vastness of space?
But if you were the size of Jupiter, or even so large that Jupiter was the size of your thumbnail, would your existence be any less absurd? Or the opposite direction, if you were the size of an ant and someone’s backyard constituted the largest amount of land you could ever possibly traverse, would that make your existence any more or less absurd?
And finally the issue of existence itself, the fact that we are here at all. Why? Why are we here? Is it just random? Are we merely the product of billions of years of the Earth and her ecosystems evolving? And why are we here now? Why have we been thrown into this particular point on the timeline in the contexts we find ourselves? Or what if a god were responsible for creating us? Humans acknowledge many different gods all with different creation stories; which is right? Or what if there wasn’t anything? Why something instead of nothing? The answers to all these questions are just as absurd as the next.
You can keep doing this, on and on, with virtually any scenario. Consider the dizzying amount of cultural customs, like mealtime customs, marriage customs, funerary rituals, calendars, rites of passage, so on and so on. It’s all absurd, which can only lead to one conclusion:
if everything is absurd, then nothing is absurd.
This conclusion may not solve anything for you or ease your existential anxiety in any way, but it may offer a perspective that can lead you towards greater assurance that everything is okay, because life isn’t really that absurd.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t many deeply troubling things that occur from time to time, such as a loved one has been told they have two months to live or a mass shooting has occurred…again. I’m not really addressing these kinds of events in this post, but certainly, they too would be seen as absurd.
When times are troubling, I like to think of outlooks similar to that of critic Martin Esslin who commented about the 20th century absurdist movement in theater,
“It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity. And to bear it with dignity and noble responsibly precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence…it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief, and that is why, in the last resort, the Theater of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but laughter of liberation.”
So stop worrying about life being absurd and get busy living it! To do otherwise would be, well, absurd.