TELL ME A STORY
By Bob Lane
In monasteries, seminaries, retreats and synagogues, they fear hell and seek paradise. Those who know the mysteries of Life never let that seed be planted in their souls.
Over the years I have talked with your congregation on several occasions. I have talked about the Bible, about contemporary literature, and about absurdist philosophy, and had fun doing that. Today I want to tell you a story. Today’s story will be about story. I have come to believe that story is of basic importance.
Long ago and in a romantic faraway place my life was changed forever. Outside a Lutheran Church I met the woman who, some 62 years later, is still helping me to tell our story as a family. A second story was found in the works of Albert Camus – specifically the first two books he wrote: The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger. The ideas that had such an effect on me? The Absurd. And the absurd hero.
The ideas behind the development of the absurd hero are present in the first three essays of The Myth of Sisyphus. In these essays Camus faces the problem of suicide. In his typically shocking, unnerving manner he opens with the bold assertion that:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. (p. 3).
He goes on to consider if suicide is a legitimate answer to the human predicament. Or to put it another way: Is life worth living now that god is dead? The discussion begins and continues not as a metaphysical cobweb but as a well-reasoned statement based on a way of knowing which Camus holds is the only epistemology we have at our command. We know only two things:
This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. (p. 14)
“And the rest is construction” – Camus argues that there is no meaning to life. He disapproves of the many philosophers who “have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living.” (p.7) Life has no absolute meaning. In spite of the human’s irrational “nostalgia” for unity, for absolutes, for a definite order and meaning to the “not me” of the universe, no such meaning exists in the silent, indifferent universe. Between this yearning for meaning and eternal verities and the actual condition of the universe there is a gap that can never be filled. The confrontation of the irrational, longing human heart and the indifferent universe brings about the notion of the absurd.
The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.21) and further:
The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together…it is the only bond uniting them. (p. 21)
People must realize that the feeling of the absurd exists and can happen to them at any time. The absurd person must demand to live solely with what is known and to bring in nothing that is not certain. This means that all I know is that I exist, that the world exists, and that I am mortal. Doesn’t this make a futile pessimistic chaos of life? Wouldn’t suicide be a legitimate way out of a meaningless life? “No.”
“No.” answers Camus. Although the absurd cancels all chances of eternal freedom it magnifies freedom of action. Suicide is “acceptance at its extreme”, it is a way of confessing that life is too much for one. This is the only life we have; and even though we are aware, in fact, because we are aware of the absurd, we can find value in this life. The value is in our freedom, our passion, and our revolt. The first change we must make to live in the absurd situation is to realize that thinking, or reason, is not tied to any eternal mind which can unify and “make appearances familiar under the guise of a great principle,” but it is:
…learning all over again to see, to be attentive, to focus consciousness; it is turning every idea and every image, in the manner of Proust, into a privileged moment. (p. 20)
My experiences, my passions, my ideas, my images and memories are all that I know of this world – and they are enough. The absurd person can finally say “all is well”.
I understand then why the doctrines that explain everything to me also debilitate me at the same time. They relieve me of the weight of my own life, and yet I must carry it alone. (p. 41)