Posted on 9 mins read

[…] a man is always prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

[…] success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

In a recent conversation it was brought up that some people seem to live in the immediacies of life (“in the moment,” you could say) and others seem to live in the abstract. Maybe the former group is living in first person and the latter in third person; the former is in their senses and the latter is in their thoughts. It’s hard for me to describe the first group confidently. I’ve always been adrift in thought, in thoughts about thoughts.

I’m sure humankind is more complex than described here, with people existing at every point along the concrete-abstract spectrum and others who can shift their perspective at will from one point to another. It’s easier to describe them as two distinct groups anyway.

Recent and severe changes to my system of belief have led to existential angst. Having accepted that I (not to speak for everyone) can’t force myself to believe something I don’t believe, and that choices are not always validated or invalidated thereafter by feelings, I’ve been living in the limbo of uncertainty that’s been the core problem of Western philosophy since at least the days of Descartes. My questions are familiar ones, then: is there meaning in the universe? Am I able to interface with that meaning, to feel and enact it? Or is meaning something that must be confronted psychologically, humanly, rather than with metaphysical premises?

Albert Camus asserts in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus that:

  1. Human beings are hard-wired to seek meaning in the universe.
  2. The universe has no inherent meaning.
  3. Therefore, existence is absurd.

Hence absurdism. Note that Camus didn’t find this particularly depressing, and in fact he prescribed a mode of living that embraces this absurdity and finds happiness and satisfaction in it. Many of us have been taught to flee from anything that stinks of nihilism (as Camus’s second premise does) without giving it a chance to speak for itself. I assure you, there’s no need. The more you study it the less frightening it becomes.

Religious people tend to have quick and easy answers to the question of meaning. While I don’t personally find those answers compelling, they do seem healthy in their own way. Zapffe calls it anchoring, Kierkegaard calls it a leap of faith, Camus calls it a “blind act of human confidence.” Whatever you call it, religion allows you to delegate questions of meaning without thinking that you’ve ignored them. Some approaches to life (and let’s not dismiss them too readily, since the question of meaning has no certain answer and each of us is left alone with whatever response we negotiate) are based around distracting oneself from the question of meaning or compartmentalizing it so it doesn’t weigh too heavily on what is, for many, already a very full slate of activities and problems. If religion can provide a satisfying shortcut to “getting on with life,” then far be it from me to discourage it. For those who are impressed with the immediate, fully caught up in the day-to-day adventure of life—the concrete or sensory thinkers I mentioned earlier—a few received answers are more than enough to wrap up the deeper questions in life. Some of them don’t even care what the answers are, per se, and are satisfied to live by intuition, by the emotional life of their subconscious, wherein things like “meaning” and “purpose” are too trite to bother with. I have a hard time saying there’s anything wrong with that.

For the more abstract among us religion can still maintain a chokehold on the absurd, albeit a complex one. Philosophers and clergymen have at times been so kind as to offer defenses of religious belief that, while they may lack directness, are sufficient to form a logical foundation for those who want one. Most often this takes the form of pointing out a series of complexities, improbabilities, and coincidences that can be physically observed, then offering a divine explanation for them. This works when the giver is bold and the receiver is willing. Probability theory may be the more rational solution, but god is a much better story (and I say this unironically, as someone who believes good stories are among the most valuable things in the world). I tend to think the unlikely and mysterious things of the universe are brought up not to demand god’s existence by logic but to draw emotion out into the space between direct knowledge and dogma. That space or gap, traditionally filled only by faith, can also be filled by a combination drug of faith, self-doubt, desperation, love, group psychology, and sublime awe. Faith is always a requirement in the calculus of belief, but its role can be diminished somewhat if one can be persuaded into alternate intuitions.

I want to stress that I see faith as a valid choice and a legitimate response to the absurd. But one cannot avoid the fact that faith is a chaotic choice. Perhaps only chaos can respond to chaos. Faith is, at its core, the decision to privilege a will, an experience, and an interpretation over all other possible wills, experiences, and interpretations. In a lifetime it is not possible to probe the depths of spiritual phenomena attested by every religious tradition, nor even by all the disciples of a single tradition. Convenience is always a factor. And since a rational decision can’t be made without a complement of data sufficient to rule out the alternatives, there is necessarily an element of randomness to one’s choice of object to have faith in. It should also be noted that the choices here are not actually finite. There may be a finite number of religious traditions in the world, past and present, but an infinite number can be imagined. It does not “seem” likely that an unpracticed imaginary religion would end up being the key to the mysteries of the universe. And yet it might be. Our attachment to the way things “seem” is simply another form of faith. So in the end, we do not (cannot) have enough data to choose what to have faith in. That preliminary choice depends on its own sort of faith. Faith requires faith; it is recursive; it is arbitrary; it is chaotic.

In my case, a personal inability to feel stable atop the chaotic choice of faith was the beginning of the end for my certainties. I looked into my heart and found the core of my religion. A stare was enough to destroy it. When a person inspects the relationship between feeling and truth, that is when religion unravels.

That’s not to say it can’t be re-raveled. At the end of every road lies Camus’s first premise: that mankind craves meaning. Most people seem to find it, at least occasionally. It always requires a choice, since Camus’s second premise prevents the universe from spoon-feeding it to us. And although that choice could be characterized as faith, and perhaps fairly so, a person who’s confronted the absurd aspires to something more vulnerable than faith. More naked than faith. More “I don’t know” than faith. If it is faith, then a faith that acts without the need for authority and sees an end in each of its movements, unbothered by hope. A faith that doesn’t underpin a religious canon or indeed anything other than itself, and therefore can’t be turned against the believer. That’s how I imagine it.

Some people return to the religion of their youth. Others return only performatively, saying the prayers but privately shrugging at the cosmology. Some find god in another church or a private devotion, others not at all. Some devote themselves to practical causes, like animal rights or pacifism. All of these can be done honestly. I have no criticisms. I only hope their confrontation with the absurd has left them more passionate, not less.

At this point in my journey I am fixated on the experience of meaning just as much as the definition of it. For most of my life I was told what was meaningful. My feelings did not always answer. Sometimes religion was fulfilling and sometimes it was empty. The fulfillment isn’t there for me anymore—it left before I did—but the emptiness has followed me out. So I’ve joined the existential quest humanity has been on since millennia before I was born. Naturally, I feel a bit behind. But if I’m late, I’m also innoculated against several philosophies I might otherwise spend time on. For example, some say that people can create or choose meaning for themselves: find a project, assign meaning, get cracking. Rinse and repeat. This doesn’t seem to be the case for me. I can assign meaning as much as I want; the experience does not necessarily follow. I am not happy defining meaning into a philosophical corner and then congratulating myself as I act it out. The feeling is not there. I am happy when I feel purposeful, when I sense that my actions have gravity, when meaning ensues. It need not be inherent; I am happy when it is present.

It’s been suggested that this experience of meaning may be the definition of it. This fits well with the way I’ve come to understand it. Perhaps meaning is only an emotion, not some grand purchase of destiny. It is a sense of satisfaction that seems not to proceed from circumstances or nerve endings. It’s a resonance between actor and action.

These days I find meaning in good conversation, in my writing, in little home projects, in art, in a relationship that’s a little stronger than it was yesterday. I think there are sources of meaning I haven’t found yet. I no longer expect to find a single, ultimate source of meaning, for everything to be made clear in a flash of revelation. I’ve set all that aside. This doesn’t sadden me. Isn’t it better in the end to have multiple wells to draw from? Isn’t it better to enjoy one’s meaning in the present, denying the afterlife its tax?

There is uncertainty involved, for sure. There is fear and self-doubt involved. Sometimes listlessness. But these things feel real in a way I appreciate. And when happiness ensues, I understand that it belongs to me. It isn’t a trick. It doesn’t serve anyone’s purposes, not even mine. It just is.