In love with the absurd
Notes on one of my favorite words
The word ‘absurd’ has always held a special place in my heart. ‘Absurdity’ evokes the strangeness of everything around us—the serendipity of our mutual existence at this place and time, the complexity of the cells and proteins that make up our bodies, the vastness of our galaxy.
The moments I’m in touch with this absurdity have always been the moments I feel most alive. I find myself in awe that anything exists at all, and that the things which do exist happen to form this particular conscious experience of ‘me’ and ‘the world.’ Absurdity gives me a sense of expansiveness; it relieves my impatience with everyday frustrations, unwinds my egocentric thought patterns.
So in college, I was excited to learn that there was a whole philosophy centered on this word: Albert Camus’s absurdism. I thought to myself, finally, someone else gets it. I couldn’t wait to read Camus’s books, to build a philosophical framework around my joy at how weird everything is.
It turns out, Camus had very different associations with the word ‘absurd’ than I did. He uses ‘the Absurd’ to refer to the conflict between humanity’s attempt to seek value and meaning in life, and the inherent meaninglessness of the universe. The Absurd is captured in the myth of Sisyphus—the guy who was doomed to repeatedly push a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down, forever.
I’ve noticed this framing of “inherent meaninglessness” elsewhere among philosophers and people on the internet. It’s taken for granted that our attempts to create joy and value and meaning are an act of futile resistance against some deeper void. This picture—which seems to be so obvious to some as to be unworthy of questioning—feels far from obvious to me. Maybe it comes from an implicit reductionism, wherein all that “really exists” is atoms moving back and forth, and everything else is made up and arbitrary. Or maybe it’s born of something that David Chapman calls eternalism: the view that meaning can only come from some preordained, universal plan, otherwise everything is meaningless.
There are interesting questions here, none of which have obvious answers. It’s difficult to tell what is or isn’t intrinsic to reality, what “real meaning” should or shouldn’t look like, whether moral value actually exists. But even as my personal philosophies on these things have shifted back and forth over time, it has never felt right to confidently call this world “intrinsically meaningless.”
This is ultimately a matter of attention more so than philosophical debate. Yes, the world is “meaningless” if you expect meaning to be a fixed, permanent, objective plan for how everything should go, handed to us by the universe. But have we ever actually needed that kind of meaning? When you’re immersed in your favorite movie, or breathless from laughter with friends, or witnessing the smile of someone you love—do you need some cosmic plan that justifies or explains our place in the universe? Is the experience not enough on its own, at least for that moment?
For me, noticing absurdity is one way of being in touch with this feeling. Of becoming fully immersed in the world around me, stepping out from incessant mental chatter and into a speechless, joyful confusion. When I look at the world—like, actually pay attention to it—I’m blown away by how ridiculous everything seems.
I feel lucky that we live in such a complex, rich, layered universe. A universe which just happens to have enough structure to enable the development of DNA and life, which eventually led to the development of self-aware, story-telling lifeforms like ourselves. It did not have to be like this. Maybe life, consciousness, emotion, and art could have just not existed. But they do!
Is there some all-encompassing explanation for why all these things exist, a story with a meaningful beginning and end? Maybe. Or maybe it’s all an accident. You can call that “meaningless”, but to me that just makes it weirder, cooler, more comical. To know that we were all lucky enough to participate in the Greatest Accident of All Time.
The world isn’t perfect, of course. There’s suffering and poverty and pain. But there’s also friendship, problem-solving, music, and dance. For every awful disease that afflicts us, there’s another we’ve cured through effort and ingenuity. For every act of cruelty, there’s an act of kindness that affirms our humanity. I see no “intrinsic meaninglessness” here. If the universe really wanted it to be difficult to create meaning, it could have easily done so. The whole of reality could have been dark and dead and cold.
So I propose we create a new iteration of the philosophy of absurdism. Camus was right in that we have to create our meanings—they aren’t given to us by some grand principle. But this is not some act of resistance, this isn’t a contradiction. This is a playful dance with reality, an ongoing back-and-forth in which we poke around and see what comes up. The absurdity of our situation is a source of wonder, it’s cause for levity and laughter rather than dread. Our central difficulty is not in fighting some deeper meaninglessness—it’s remembering to pay attention to the meaning and beauty that’s already all around us.
Special thanks to my friend Karen, whose edits and suggestions gave this piece life.