How to Push a Boulder Up a Hill

Boulders and meaning

Do you ever find yourself pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down before you reach the top? Do you perhaps wonder why you should put up with having a spinach smoothie rather than cereal every day when eventually you’ll wind up dead underground anyway? Or why you should bother hopping on one leg in a straight line just because a clairvoyant promised to give you a spoonful of yogurt at the end of it? Do you frequently yearn to find the justification for all these things, yearning for meaning, and yet finding the world giving you the silent treatment?

Fear not – although I certainly don’t have the answers. This situation just is, and some people might say this is what we call the human condition. We like to find reasons for existing; why do we put up with all the pointless, pernicious, and pestilent situations, conversations and ambitions when there’s no real justification for them at the end? And often you don’t succeed in your undertakings at all.

Failure is just as inevitable as working against it. It’s an eternal game. So in this life, marked by constant hunting, eating, working, fighting, loving, sleeping, running, jumping, arguing, learning, forgetting, coping, failing, succeeding, moping, hoping, losing, winning and so on, you’d better hope that the world can be held accountable at some point, and that it deems us worthy of a straightforward answer. Unfortunately, we end up having to wonder whether the world is a bad player that never reveals its cards, even when we have placed the last bet.

The big question of meaning

Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus writes about the importance of this very question (regarding existence, not whether Gaia is indeed a keen gambler):

I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.

Albert Camus

This paradox puts a big question mark on everything. If you feel lost, find the suffering too great to bear, and find no meaning behind it whatsoever, you are liable to give up and die. Or, alternatively, if you have a cause that fulfils you to an endless extent you may find yourself giving yourself up for the cause. That we can find this sort of behaviour in countless ideologies and religions around the world need not be emphasised further.

Albert Camus

It almost makes you want to transform into a cat and just enjoy a pleasant form of existence in which you not only don’t think, but literally can’t think in greater detail about any of this. Your life is the same, day in, day out, and your happiness is little more than the satisfaction of treats and going hunting for mice every once in a while.

But human beings are cursed with more defective brains than other animals, and as much as Blackadder may remind us that for most of us, all we can do is try and make a bit of cash, this approach only helps us to go so far.

A couple of suggestions to tackle meaning

So: what do we do? For Sartre the solution lies in the fact that “existence precedes breakfast”.  Or it might have been “existence precedes essence”, but in any case, the point is that you are nothing before you are born, so anything that comes afterwards is arbitrary introjection based on your parents, teachers and peers. Therefore, Sartre recommends creating your own values and finding your own meaning. There is no truth out there, so you might as well create your own truth. It is basically making a fundamental choice about how to live.

The issue with this approach is that you are still infused by the ideas and attitudes of others. How can you truly become independent when your entire way of life is tied to that of others? How can you know that you really are an individual and doing your own thing? What if you fail to create your own values? Aren’t you still a slave to your circumstances and just trick yourself into believing you’re making up your own values?

Jean-Paul Sartre

An alternative approach to this is to follow an ideology that claims to have the answers. There are endless options to choose from, either spiritual or political. All claim to have knowledge that will set you free, or claim to be morally righteous, or claim to lead to a better world, in one form or another. This is essentially Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith – to trust in something to take you to that sweet bowl of chocolate and whisky at the end of the rainbow.

But is that really so simple? Religions are often founded by definition on the unknowable that comes after death; political ideologies often have a utopic vision of the future. When either of these necessarily fail to provide satisfactory results, you either close your eyes and double-down in your ideology; or else you go through a drastic change and embrace some other ideology.  

So…. What now?

And all the while time presses on, you eventually run out of time, and then that’s it. Nothing knowable on the other side. Either it’s the endless void, or else everlasting life in some form or another – and god save us if it’s the latter, nothing is more terrifying than the prospect of endless time!

So we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. And yet we continue to push that boulder up the hill. Every day of our existence. At times it feels tougher, at other points easier. But aside from a few very tough moments in which it is very hard indeed even to get those feet out of bed and onto the ground, most humans do press on. Each day. As futile as it seems.

This is ultimately the human achievement and the solution that Camus proposes. To embrace the absurdity of human existence, and the reality that we cannot know, and yet we desperately want to know. Sisyphus is a mythological Greek figure who tricked the gods, came back from death twice, and was finally condemned for his insolence to push a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down before reaching the top, thus starting an endless cycle of his labour. To Camus, he is the ultimate absurdist hero.

It’s only in the consciousness of his predicament that Sisyphus is really tragic. Ascending the hill with the boulder is a moment of utter triumph to him – the triumph to do great things against all odds and to be proud of one’s work. Sisyphus doesn’t mope and complain, he just gets on with it. And this is the key difference between Camus and Sartre, essentially. Sartre tries to find a way out of the absurdity of existence. Camus realises there is no escape, and so proposes to take life as it is – in all its absurdist glory. In so doing, he creates a truly life-affirming philosophy that embraces all of life’s aspects – no matter how silly and paradoxical they may occasionally seem.

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