Finding Purpose Again (Absurd Ladders)
Featured image: We want meaning when there is none. So we find reasons for things happening. Albert Camus (pictured) termed it 'the absurd': the nakedness of man—out of tune with reason or propriety—when faced with the absurd conditions of his existence.
Beneath humanity is a plight set in purposelessness. If we reduce everything around us to its hollow parts, we will be led to the admission that nothing is meaningful. Why we’re here, what we should do with our lives—those with raw honesty suffer great sadness because of the rational examination they grant these questions. We are out of sync with a universe that owes us nothing.
Still, we are human. Our ability to consciously understand things is rivalled by the irrationality of our experiences, which makes us pine for meaning.
And we should seek it.
Making something worthwhile
A dreadful tension between purpose and purposeless is something which can become apparent in our ambitions.
In the first part of ‘Absurd Ladders’ I revealed the fruitless journey I embarked on with my career. I lost my role in the world. I concluded that I had to move on but that the journey was worthwhile whilst I believed it to be so.
The problem in general is that, if we are to be fulfilled by our lives’ projects, like our careers, we require meaning—stamps of authenticity sealed onto the fabric of our work. Only then can we conceive of and meet goals which validate the drives we feel to secure them. Underneath it all, though, there is nothing—no clear answers as to why things have to be this way because, by chance, the wind dropped me here; and should it lift me again my doubt will remain. How, then, is this job my purpose?
Purpose comes from believing in the righteousness of what you are doing—and it comes from within. I am in the process of building a new ‘ladder’. Hopefully through philosophy and writing I will be assigned my next objectives. I don’t know what the future holds yet. My endeavours may be stalled in inertia or short-lived. But right now they feel promising and I like it. I am under my own enchantment; life is being breathed back into me. Notwithstanding uncertainty, I will attempt to carve my space into this world.
What does it all mean in the end? We each face the same unknowns. Disharmony surrounds us as we each fight for a different world. I need somewhere to fit in. I need genuine motivation. But the Universe is ignorant of my wishes. (Yann Kebbi)
Whenever we think about anything profoundly enough we realise that every mortal body and every object faces the same fate. All pre-empting efforts are eroded by the passage of time. Irrationally encapsulated within our minds, we suffer pangs of doubt every time we try to fight: a futile hope to make enduring differences in our finite lives. In existential crises we rush to move our lives into some new, uplifting directions toward permanent abodes. But these are inefficacious remedies.
These questions form part of our psychology of existence. But our realisations don’t have to be the end of some tragic story. We can each do something good with our lives’ projects. If, in hope, we attach values to the Universe—an inherently valueless world—we will destroy evidence of its emptiness and avoid our dismal plight.
Sisyphus, according to Greek mythology, was condemned for putting Death in chains by being forced to carry a boulder up a mountain. Upon each trip he'd see the boulder roll back down again. Still, in The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus declares that we must see Sisyphus as fulfilled in his punishment. That is, we must revolt against meaninglessness with him. Sisyphus' plight is only harrowing if we choose to see his condition as wretched; while Death escaped and punished Sisyphus, Sisyphus commendably chose to live and fight for something by hating Death. (Detail of 'Sisyphus' by Antonio Zanchi)
Albert Camus spoke of this absurd world we all occupy. It’s not possible to make sense of an empty universe which senselessly houses us on that which we cannot graft intrinsic reason for existing. But in it one can find honesty and reasons to live.
In my life I’ve come to the conclusion that reasons for my existence, fundamentally, cannot explain my existence: the psychology of my existence needs more than a set of facts. Meanwhile, religion leaves my reasoning powers with too much to doubt. Existentially, if religion was my only ‘comfort’—or any other value system outside myself—I’d be forced to plunge into bouts of despair when facing crises: I’d be encumbered by the knowledge that this pain was handed to me. No: I want to bear the responsibility of my own actions; I want to know my own pain.
With this perspective I can find my own path.
Albert Camus' friend Jean-Paul Sartre disagrees with him on hope: '[T]he real problem is not that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God. In this sense existentialism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of action, and it is only by self-deception, by confining their own despair with ours that Christians can describe us as without hope.' — Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Existentialism Is a Humanism'
For there is an alternative: we choose to live in this world by freely projecting our own values onto it—by each making a difference in our own way. We accrue these values from our experiences and project them onto to the objects around us in meaningful relationships. Our own purposes are drawn towards these values. We want them to be heard by things greater than ourselves: we need to think the world responds to what we offer. If not, purpose is dampened into procedure in our isolation.
No other martyr can pave our ways: their instruction undermines autonomy. We each have to begin our own journey of self-growth—growth which is discretely ours and achieved on our own terms.
But the freedom to live according to our own values comes with a terrible, even debilitating, responsibility to live and act authentically: we have to constantly reason why we think we should be this way over that way to have hope in one. And when we lose sight of where our lives should be going—when our worlds are punctured by doubt—we can no longer purposively extract meaning from a reality that has been deflated because the motivation to uphold truths has fizzled out and there is no safe island to quickly retreat to. This process defines a crisis.
What will you do in an existential crisis?
I cared deeply for my role in my career. I genuinely wanted to change my work environment for the good of the institutions I was working in. I now must find another role in which my values can be accepted—where I am heard, where I am appreciated, where I can flourish.
Slowly climbing down that ladder with my tail between my legs was a tough process: I invested so much of myself into this life because I expected us to make an impact together. But I was right to leave. I departed believing I could do good for society elsewhere, with hope in spite of emptiness.
I don’t need deluges of pride in my job; only trickles of progress to show me I’m going somewhere as I blindly search for my place—some potential, at least—in this confusing, chaotic universe.
'If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!' — Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (Arne List)
With Camus, I acknowledge that there is no certainty about anything, no universal meaning of life: authenticity can only exist to me in my endeavours. However, contra Camus, I believe I must thread my life’s tapestry together with my own search for meaning (always searching). My search for meaning, itself, at work and outside of it, will always define how I overcome my existential struggles. I seek drive. I fear a hollow life—a twig-like existence of being pushed into paralysis by the currents around me. I will face my crises head on, in control, to feel the process of overcoming them, to feel empowered.
In my previous career I was howling at the moon before a dawn cracked the sky to break my spirit. Earnestly, I had to build my next ladder. You, too, can look inside of yourself for unfound motivations that can spur you on: find ‘projects’ which transcend ‘tasks’ by seeking to bring ‘good’ to the world as a microcosm of something larger than yourself—but grow within it on your terms; make your passions be felt. Accept that your values can change. Accept the risk of your ladder resting against the wrong wall and reframe your life if it is. The ascent will gift you a new perspective and a chance to grow yourself into the world.
Embrace reason but don’t neglect meaning. Don’t give up hope in feeling purpose once more. You have to believe that there is something out there, even if there isn’t. So take your authentically held values, however and whenever they arose, and begin to validate your existence by going somewhere with them now. This search for self, which never ends, no matter what heights you reach, is embodied in your next ladder, whose construction will gift you meaning, not that ladder’s endpoint.
The ladder may be leaning against the wrong wall but you don’t need to see the top: you just need to be sustained long enough to be the director of your passions in the process.
The deposition of your values into a feeling world is what grants you the freedom to feel alive.