I have been called a lot of unflattering things in my life. One of the earlier ones of that series was that I was hard-hearted, which I countered by pointing out that I was perhaps harder on myself than anybody else. Thankfully, my accuser concurred. One of the recent epithets in the same vein is that I’m cold and calculated, and I use my head to think rather than my heart; I believe it is a fair assessment. Then again, using my head is the only way I know how to think (which, of course, is exactly the sort of cynical comments that earned me the said assessment.)
In one of my recent posts, an astute friend of mine detected a tinge of midlife crisis. He was right, of course. At some point, typically around midlife, a lot of us find it boring. The whole thing. How could it not be boring? We repeat the same mundane things over and over at all levels. True, at times we manage to convince ourselves that the mundane things are not mundane, but important, and overlay a higher purpose over our existence. Faith helps. So do human bondages. But, no matter how we look at it, we are all pushing our own personal rocks to a mountaintop, only to to see it roll down at the end of the day — knowing that it invariably will. Our own individual Sisyphuses, cursed with the ultimate futility and absurdity of it all. And, as if to top it off, our knowledge of it!
Why did Camus say we went through the Sisyphus life? Ah, yes, because we got into the habit of living before acquiring the faculty of thinking. By midlife, perhaps, our thinking catches up with our innate existential urges, and manifests itself as a crisis. Most of us survive it, and as Camus himself pointed out, Sisyphus was probably a happy man, despite having to eternally push the rock up the slope. So let’s exercise our thinking faculty assuming it is not too dangerous.
Most of us have a daily life that is some variation of the terse French description — metro, boulot, dodo. We commute to work, make some money for ourselves (and more for somebody else), eat the same lunch, sit through the same meetings, rush back home, watch TV and hit the sack. Throw in a gym session and an overseas trip once in a while, and that’s about it. This is the boring not merely because it really is, but also because this is what everybody does!
Imagine that — countless millions of us, born somewhere at some point in time, working hard to acquire some money, or knowledge, or fame, or glory, or love — any one of the thousands of variations of Sisyphus’s rock — only to see it all tumble down to nothingness an another point in time. If this isn’t absurd, what is?
If I were to leave this post at this point, I can see my readers looking for the “Unsubscribe” button en masse. To do anything useful with this depressing idea of futile rock-pushing rat-race, we need to see beyond it. Or have faith, if we can — that there is a purpose, and a justification for everything, and that we are not meant to know this elusive purpose.
Since you are reading this blog, you probably don’t subscribe to the faith school. Let’s then look for the answer elsewhere. With your permission I will start with something Japanese. Admittedly, my exposure to the Japanese culture comes from Samurai movies and a couple of short trips to Japan, but lack of expertise has never stopped me from expressing my views on a subject. Why do you think the Japanese take such elaborate care and pride in something as silly as pouring tea?
Well, I think they are saying something much deeper. It is not that pouring tea is important. The point is nothing is important. Everything is just another manifestation of the Sisyphus rock. When nothing is important, nothing is unimportant either. Now, that is something profound. Pouring tea is no less (or more) important than writing books on quantitative finance, or listening to that old man attempting the Susannah song on his mouth-organ on Market Street. When you know that all rocks will come tumbling down just as soon as you reach the pinnacle of your existence, it doesn’t matter what rock you carry with you to the top. As long as you carry it well. And happily.
So I try to write this blog post as well as I possibly can.