Book IV. Absurd Rebellion
1. A kirist is easier with absurdity than the next person. We accept the reality of absurdity, we do not deny its demoralizing power, and we wish that life was less absurd than it is. But above all, we exclaim, “I refuse to let absurdity rob me of the freedom I possess.”
2. There was a time, for the better part of a hundred and fifty years, when public and private conversations about absurdity flourished in a corner of human discourse. Everyday people were not discussing it but we were, you and I, usually privately.
3. Mostly privately, we looked at life, shook our heads, and said, “How absurd!” How absurd that we should be given consciousness of our own mortality and made to feel terrible. How absurd that we should be born doomed—and know it!
4. How absurd that the details of your birth should matter so much. How absurd that you might come into the world burdened by ordinary looks, tyrants for parents, stubby legs, and a dismal outlook. Who threw those miserable dice?
5. How absurd that virtue was not rewarded. How absurd that the self-proclaimed righteous were so devious and untruthful. How absurd that the rich got richer and the poor poorer. How absurd that there should be upper classes and lower classes.
6. So much looked absurd that whole movements grew up whose sole agenda was to point out the absurdity of this or that: the absurdity of employing a word like “truth,” the absurdity of valuing art, the absurdity of political action, and so on.
7. Then we stopped thinking about absurdity, talking about absurdity, or factoring it into our calculations about life. We simply concluded that life was a cheat, included absurdity in that evaluation, and dropped the concept like a hot potato.
8. We arrived at a point where it seemed absurd to continue chatting about absurdity. We still took absurdity as a bedrock feature of existence but it became a secret, unmentionable feature. We buried it and we sank further into despair.
9. We turned our back on the concept and tried to put it out of our mind, even as life grew more absurd. We swallowed hard, ran this way and that, kept very busy, and purchased antidepressants. But who were we fooling or kidding?
10. We had made a serious mistake, a grave miscalculation, by trying to turn our back on absurdity. Now it is time to face it again. Let us exclaim “How absurd!” as we look out at the human spectacle. Yes, that hurts, but we are obliged to be honest.
11. And it does hurt. It hurts because we know that it translates as, “Life is ridiculous,” “life isn’t fair,” “nothing really matters,” and so on. We may exclaim “How absurd!” with a bit of a laugh, as if we’ve amused ourselves, but that laugh is deeply bitter.
12. Now we must revisit those absurdities, as bitter as they make us feel, for the sake of understanding our real challenges and crafting our next steps. Here are a few of those absurdities, just a sampling, about as many as we need or can stomach.
13. I may be a person who values helping the less fortunate and I may also be a cynical person who wonders if the panhandler I’m passing is perhaps a professional beggar playing me. How absurd that I am both people! But I am.
14. I am the same person in the morning and in the afternoon. I possess the same values. But how those values play themselves out—what predominates, what comes forward, what “wins”—is so very different those few hours apart. How absurd!
15. You read an interview and are once again shocked to discover the extent to which powerful forces in society are mugging you and gagging you. You really should fight back, shouldn’t you? But how absurd to imagine fighting back! Fight back? Really?
16. Having read that demoralizing interview, you know in your heart that you should drop everything and fight. But isn’t that completely absurd? What difference could you possibly make? And there you sit, precisely as impotent as you feel.
17. But isn’t it likewise completely absurd to simply go about your business as if you hadn’t noticed? Here you are, working fifty hours a week at a terrible job so that you can pay the rent in an overpriced city, and they steal from you. And you do nothing?
18. And not only can’t you fight back, maybe you don’t really want to fight. Maybe all you want to do is write your psychological thriller set in 1920’s Paris. But what is the value in that? Who needs another story? How absurd to devote your life to that!
19. And maybe you value your loved one above all else? But what if he is about to engage in some terrible betrayal or some sordid deed? Should you still side with him, this love of your life, perhaps to your everlasting shame? How absurd!
20. Or, say, you completely understand mass entertainment. All of that sedating, soothing, and sentimentalizing so as to seduce mesmerized viewers into forgetfulness. But your five-year-old really wants to see a certain Disney movie. How absurd!
21. Should you deny him that innocent pleasure? Should you have a conversation with him in which you quote Adorno that “Walt Disney is the most dangerous man in America”? Or do you let him watch that singing mermaid? What an absurd situation!
22. And, more absurd still, maybe you are an animator who would love to work on such movies! You see through them, you despise them, and you also love them and want to be a part of creating them. Really, could anything be more absurd?
23. If we had the stomach for it, we could continue with countless examples. Instead, let’s distill the essence: absurdity is with us, even as we try to deny it. And it is better to face it, whether bitterly or with ringing laughter, and then get on with living.
24. Yes, it may be absurd to bother. But the absurdity of bothering must not be allowed to stand as the perfect excuse for inaction. We nod at absurdity, we give it its due, and then we act. You acknowledge absurdity without letting absurdity defeat you.
25. Absurdity is not an excuse for inaction. It certainly could be. Can you think of a more powerful excuse for not bothering than the absurdity of bothering? But as someone who has decided to matter, you refuse to take that familiar, well-lighted route.
26. In Camus’s famous fable, Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to roll his rock up a mountain for all eternity, smiles at the absurdity of his situation. But in his peculiar way he has it easy. He can’t act freely, which means that he is nothing like you.
27. Sisyphus has no options and no way to matter. Oppressed and rendered completely impotent, he smiles the dignified, mostly vacant smile of a man no longer with us, a living dead man, one who for all intents and purposes is smiling from the afterlife.
28. Sisyphus can take no action in the real world. He can respond with dignity and with his peculiar smile to his situation but his situation is not yours. He is trapped in a sense even more monumental than yours. You can still do some good!
29. You are not Sisyphus. You are a man with a toothache and options, a woman with heartaches and choices. Your delicate amount of freedom, pitted against that ocean of absurdity, is your absurd burden to bear and your responsibility to manifest.
30. You, having smiled wryly at the absurdity of it all, must go about your impossible business. You acknowledge that it is absurd to stand alone, tired, out of sorts, and only wanting brunch, but there you are, rising to your feet and standing.
31. Sisyphus is wearing an ironic smile. Your smile is graver. You have your small portion of freedom, that portion that you are obliged to use, which makes it much harder for you to smile at all. Maybe you find that you can’t smile. But still you can act.
32. It is ridiculous that a purposeless universe should make it so hard on us, effectively acting, in its completely indifferent way, as if it were actually malevolent. Ridiculous … but here we are. So, we do not bow. Rather, we rebel. Our absurd rebellion!
33. We know that absurd rebellion is the right way. When we encounter a character in literature who ought to rebel and doesn’t, we want to shake him. Sir, can’t you see the absurdity of your situation and that your only wise response is rebellion?
34. In Kafka’s The Trial, K. hunts for rational answers to his absurd situation. Finally, he is absurdly executed. Watching him, we want to scream, “Stop it already! Don’t you see that rebellion is your only answer! A ridiculous answer; but still your only one!”
35. We want K. to refuse to sheepishly play along. We want him to laugh just once at the absurdity of his situation, so as to unlock the door to some resistance. Please, K., laugh at the absurdity of your indictment and your punishment. And rebel!
36. Of course, some rebellions are impossible. You can’t stop the sun from slowly dying. You can’t stop time from passing. You can’t stop falls from hurting. You can’t stop your mind from whirring. You might as well beg electricity to stop shocking.
37. And then there are all those pointless rebellions. Spending the week fighting that unfair service charge on your bill. Refusing a seat on the bus because you hate looking old. And so many other rebellions that waste your time and do not serve you.
38. Skip the pointless rebellions and the impossible rebellions. Skip those rebellions that arise just because you’re angry or hurt. Skip those rebellions that are just versions of acting out. Skip those rebellions that do not serve you or the world.
39. Which rebellions, then, are the absurd rebellions that are the hallmark and cornerstone of kirism? They are your absurd rebellions on the side of the good. They are your rebellions for the benefit of all humankind, played out in tiny installments.
40. You might rebel by singing. It’s absurd to suppose that your protest song can stop the tidal wave of history. But you sing it anyway. You sing it on street corners and from rooftops. You sing out for justice, a rebel songbird, not caring if you look ridiculous.
41. You might rebel by breaking the silence. Can your few kind words, offered in passing, do much good? You sigh, put aside your distaste for your species, and stop and chat anyway. You say a nice thing to this person who needs some comforting.
42. You might rebel by putting the world on your shoulders. It’s absurd to suppose that it’s your job to save the world. What could be more ridiculous? And still anything less is too little. Everyone tells you, “Do less,” and you say, “No, I don’t think so.”
43. You might rebel against your own programming. How absurd to arm-wrestle yourself! But you know about your shadow side, your trickster nature, your callous impulses, your venalities, and, absurdly enough, you valiantly rebel against your own nature.
44. You might rebel against the very idea that you do not matter. Yes, you are puny. Yes, you are a lone creature among billions and billions of others. Yes, you are miniscule. But do not let your insignificance stop you from aiming for grandeur.
45. What are you rebelling against? The universe deeming you trivial. Yes, it has done that to you. But you say, “I am something, in my human way, and when it comes to speaking up, pointing a finger, and of all that, I will make my presence known.”
46. What are you rebelling against? The hypnotic trance that afflicts all of us, causing us to sit there, watching yet another episode of a beautifully crafted television show about nothing. We rebel by snapping our fingers and waking up.
47. What are you rebelling against? The mountains of humbug piled in every corner of the kingdom, where deodorant is sold to make poverty smell good and holes in the ozone layer are called windows on the universe. We rebel against liars.
48. What are you rebelling against? You rebel against the inertia produced by living, the inertia that makes sitting on the couch seem like your next best option. You heroically create your own momentum to fight the terrible weight of inertia.
49. What are you rebelling against? You rebel against meanness, even if you are feeling mean yourself, because you know that meanness wounds and that you are not here to do harm or let others do harm. You take a stand against meanness.
50. What are you rebelling against? You rebel against your own modesty and your own meekness, qualities drilled into you by your family and your society. You roar like a lion even if you have been trained to squeak like a mouse.
51. What are you rebelling against? You rebel against your own disinclination to rebel. How comical that you are in mortal combat with yourself about rebelling! Imagine a squirrel fighting with itself about whether or not to crack open a nut.
52. Squirrels are not built that way. No squirrel can find itself in so absurd a situation as we find ourselves. We find ourselves built with the good sense to avoid conflict and the good sense to invite conflict for the sake of righteousness. How trying!
53. How are you rebelling? By speaking up rather than keeping silent. Your vocal chords are instruments of goodness. You are that child who says, in a small voice but one so distinct that everyone can hear him, “Look, the Emperor has no clothes!”
54. How are you rebelling? By navigating your personal way through the mine fields of custom and ordinariness, building what you need as you go, creating the tools, the methods, the systems, the visions, the world of you.
55. How are you rebelling? By announcing, “I will not buy religions and philosophies that do not speak to me and that do not make sense to me. That a billion people believe something signifies nothing. Not a billion or a trillion. It has to make sense to me!”
56. And then there are all the quiet rebellions. You want to party. Nothing in the universe can stop you. There is no one to keep you from your drugs, your sex, your fun. Why not party? Still, you sigh and stay home. Absurd rebellion looks like this.
57. Everyone is saying that your son should be medicated for his high spirits. They are cocksure and certain. You disagree. You say, maybe in a shout or maybe very quietly, “No, thanks. I’m not buying what you’re selling.” Your rebellion spares him.
58. You tiptoe to the mirror and carefully look. “Oh,” you say, “I think I need to upgrade myself here. Oh, and also there. I must calm myself. And lose that weight. And shed that guilt. And smile more. And roar more. And feel more devoted. I see!”
59. You quietly make those changes, some earthshaking, some painstaking, some as bite-sized as getting on your walking shoes and walking to work, even though you could manage fifteen or twenty more minutes of work time if you didn’t.
60. Surely it is absurd to walk to work when there is so much to do there and you are so far behind. Nevertheless, you calmly rebel against the pull to rush like a maniac. You stroll to work, feeling the sun on your face, falling behind but also getting ahead.
61. Most crucially, you quietly rebel in the service of the good. That is your understanding of how you want to live your life: on the side of the good. You acknowledge the absurd difficulty and amazing complexity of right action and nevertheless vote for it.
62. You quietly rebel in the service of what ought to be. You look at what is and say, “It ought to be thus.” You muse on betterment and listen to your soft musings. Maybe you move the species forward or maybe you just proceed like an inchworm.
63. You quietly rebel in the direction of an improved, upgraded you. You look in the mirror and you say, “I could be better, and here’s how.” Softly, softly, walking on tiptoes, you discard a vice, act with love, refuse to shout, or calm your nerves a little.
64. Is it absurd to lead when following is so much safer and more convenient? Absurd to discard a beloved vice when it’s doing no particular harm? Absurd to do good when the universe is completely indifferent? No; these rebellions are the best of us.
65. These absurd rebellions are available to everyone. They are not available only to the privileged, the healthy, the educated, or the nicely positioned. Each human being can live an engaged life, even in the direst of circumstances, if he or she is willing.
66. Well, but what can absurd rebellion look like to an old woman in a wheelchair parked in a nursing home corridor? Or to a refugee carrying his belongings on his back? Or to a gay teenager trapped in a claustrophobic town? What then?
67.What does absurd rebellion look like to each of them? For the old woman, it might mean taking three painful steps with a walker. The refugee might become a camp leader. The gay youth might plot his escape. These are things they might try.
68. Each can do something and each must do something. There is no formulaic response to suggest and no principle to offer, except the principle of radical self- authorship: a human being can stand up, even if he or she can’t literally stand up.
69. No one is in a perfect position to rebel. It would be absurd to imagine that there could be some perfect position. We are all too burdened, too constrained, too conflicted, too human. We awkwardly stand on one foot and rebel while tilting.
70. And, of course, there will be consequences. You tell the truth at work—job gone. You back an unpopular cause—serious pushback. Are you ready for such consequences? Of course not. How absurd to imagine you could be ready for harsh reality!
71. You see those consequences looming and you hear yourself say, “No, thank you. No absurd rebellion for me. The price is just too high.” Then you are obliged to shake your head and reply, “But isn’t the price of not rebelling even higher?”
72. The price of not rebelling when rebelling is called for is despair. That despair is crippling millions. They may have no idea how to name their malaise and they may have no idea that absurd rebellion is called for, consequences be damned. But it is.
73. Are you ready? No. No creature of our sort can ever really be ready. So, unsure, weak in the knees, you nod and say, “I am not ready. But that’s just another bit of absurdity, to suppose that a creature like me could ever be ready for such heroism!”
74. Absurd rebellion is you taking your stand even though you feel alone. You don your winter coat to help with the coldness and you warm your hands by the fire, where other hands are also warming. You stay as warm as you can in the face of cosmic coldness.
75. Why engage in absurd rebellion when others aren’t? Because you must. Let others fall short, even pathetically short, of self-authorship and self-obligation. Your path is the harder one but the righteous one. Don’t you feel that?
76. Others may resent you for living more heroically than they are. That is absurd, too, that your neighbors might resent you for standing up. And maybe we should even envy them, as they look to be absurdity-proof! But, no, nothing to envy there.
77. Still, we must remain watchful. The kirist way is courageous and dangerous. We may nod compassionately at this odd creature that nature has made and then dropped into a hornet’s nest. But as much compassion as we may feel, we must be careful.
78. It is absurd that we must be reckless in our rebellions and also careful in our rebellions! It is reckless of us to rebel, as there will be consequences, and so we take as much care as we can. But in the end, we do what we must, as that is our obligation.
79. You see a child smile. That smile changes nothing and that smile changes everything. You are built to be moved by that smile and it reminds you of your obligations. Maybe you smile, too; but whether you smile or not, you have your work to do.
80. What if everyone in one tumultuous gasp exclaimed, “How absurd! Now let me get on with it!” That would amount to a leap forward for our species. We would all of a sudden grow up. That leap is not coming—except person by person.
81. What a triumphant sound such a mass exhalation would make! It would help every person in every situation. It would help our species and our world. But there will never be a mass exhalation. It will always be just a single person sighing.
82. Denying the absurd is a powerful obstacle to living your life purposes, manifesting your potential, and coaxing meaning into existence. Instead of denying it, you acknowledge absurdity and calculate your rebellions.
83. Our tasks are absurd, our efforts are absurd, and our situation is absurd. Yes, there will be infant deaths, cancers, fascists, meaningless work, hurricanes, split second mistakes that result in AIDS. We can’t bear this … but we can respond to this.
84. We marshal our freedom, shake our head, and say, “This is absurd and maybe even intolerable but here I go anyway.” Then we find a hand to hold, a mouth to kiss, or a battle to wage. That is what wellness looks like.
85. We possess a bit of freedom and the absurd obligation, arising from nowhere but our own understanding of our situation, to use it. We are obliged because we understand that we are obliged. Hello, absurd rebel. Nice to see you again.