Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Is Life Worth Living?

Albert Camus opens the preface of his book The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays with this statement:

“For me ‘The Myth of Sisyphus” marks the beginning of an idea which I was to pursue in The Rebel. It attempts to resolve the problem of suicide, as The Rebel attempts to resolve that of murder, in both cases without the aid of eternal values which, temporarily perhaps, are absent or distorted in contemporary Europe.”

It is an intellectually honest inquiry. In a post-Christian world, when God has become a meaningless concept and the Bible a neglected guide to ethical behavior, where do values come from? And even more fundamentally, is life worth living? Hence Camus’ essay begins, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

David Ogilvy, founder of one of the most influential ad agencies in history, wrote in his autobiography about coming to America in the late 1930's and being astonished to discover that so many Americans still went to church. Here a majority attended weekly services, and many more than one. In England, where he originated, church attendance was no more than 3% if that.
This is the milieu within which writers like Camus and Jean Paul Sartre found themselves. Add to this the horrors of want and war that ravaged the European continent, and from where do we derive our answers to life's big questions?

In 1942 Camus wrote his essay on the myth of Sisyphus, whom he used to exemplify the existential hero in the midst of an absurd reality. Sisyphus, whose life was not the epitome of sainthood, had been condemned by the gods to an eternal fate of having to roll a large boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again, an absurd an meaningless task. (I think here of Paul Newman's assignment to dig a hole and re-fill it in Cool Hand Luke, another story about an existential hero.)

It is a variant on Nietzsche's concept of eternal recurrence. Except that in Nietzsche's equation, we have the power to choose our fate, must use our will to create our destiny, and in Camus' bleak equation the task of living is endlessly futile.

So where does Camus take this image of absurd fate? In his essay, he notes that for a brief time, Sisyphus has to walk down from the mountain to retrieve the rock, and for that brief space in time there is respite from his suffering. Moreover, he can use that walk down the mountain to smell the flowers, to appreciate the vista, to take deep gulps of fresh air into his lungs. In other words, even in the midst of a hard lot there are moments we can treasure, and when we put our minds to it, we can discover more of these than we realized.

This is not Christianity by a long shot. But Camus is offering something here for the post-Christian man wrestling with meaning in the midst of yet another absurd world war.

Christians look to the Bible as a source of light to illumine the way in an otherwise dark world, may not understand where writers like Camus and Sartre are coming from, but many there are who do wrestle with such questions. Camus is to be commended in that he himself was attacking head on the major questions and not just playing word games or the mind games of radical skepticism which doubted whether the sun would come up tomorrow.


Christella said...

Sisphyus walk down the mountain is so powerful. We all need a respite from our trials.

ENNYMAN said...

Jesus said, "Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

Many there are who find condemnation in the Bible when God's intent is comfort. Or that the church has at times failed at bringing this comfort... It is true, though, that respite from our trials is a real need in this broken world.