“Another thing we have learned is that we cannot accept any optimistic conception of existence, any happy ending whatsoever. But if we believe that optimism is silly, we also know that pessimism about the action of man among his fellows is cowardly.”
-Albert Camus, from a speech at Columbia University (1946)
Barely three weeks into the presidency of Donald John Trump, one can already hear the exasperation and despair on the lips of so many. It’s as if the weight of exhaustion distorts time, turning days into months, and stretching the future out into eternity. The specter of burnout and despair already haunt us. One cannot help but hear the whispering temptation of surrender, the path of least resistance.
When faced with such prospects, how does one continue to fight and resist? How do we overcome the despair that follows the frustration of failure? Will we be able to continue trudging uphill when the summit is obscured by clouds and the climb is so difficult?
The answers to these questions are wide ranging. Some turn to art, others to faith, and still others to posterity and fame. All of these have their strengths and are sufficient to sustain many. For others, gnawing hopelessness cannot be easily evaded. After all, when I can think of so many ways for us to fail, and so few ways we might succeed, how can I entertain hope for success?
Albert Camus, the French-Algerian writer made famous by his novel The Stranger in the years following World War II, posed this question differently. In his work, Myth of Sisyphus, he begins with a startling assertion: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
For Camus, the question of suicide was a matter of reason; how can we justify bothering with life if we are unable to find reasons that ultimately justify life? Any success we may attain will eventually be undone by time, all projects are subject to failure, and we will all inevitably die, ensuring that even personal meaning will evaporate from this world. How can we persist when things seem so pointless? And if we cannot find a way to justify life as worth living, then there can be no opportunity to even consider other questions, given the stakes.
This led Camus to identify absurdity as a fundamental feature of the human condition. Absurdity, in this context, means for something to lack reason or justification. Any endeavor characterized by this sense of being ultimately pointless is, in turn, considered an “absurd struggle.” While he initially introduces the absurd struggle in its most literal and radical form, he explains that the question of suicide also serves as a broader figurative question of whether we should continue to strive and persist in our endeavors or if we should admit defeat and give up.
These were not abstract ruminations for Camus, but deeply personal questions. The Myth of Sisyphus was published in 1942, as war raged around him in France. He was cut off from his family in Algeria and risking his life as the editor of “Combat,” an underground newspaper that acted as an intelligence organ for the French Resistance (Isaac, 1992). The struggles of the French Resistance must have often seemed absurd – a ragtag network of private citizens organizing to fight the largest war machine and most powerful totalitarian state that had ever been created. How could they hope to succeed when defeat seemed so certain? Why bother fighting if the only possible outcome seemed to be death?
To answer this question, Camus offers us an image from another time: the Ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a king who played a trick on the gods, and so was condemned to forever roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it tumble back down upon reaching the summit. He would then have to repeat this struggle, over and over again, without purpose. How can Sisyphus ever come to terms with his struggle, knowing that he will never truly succeed?
When I consider the image of Sisyphus, I feel compelled to fight on. We stand before the boulder and are presented an ultimatum: to struggle and endeavor onward or to surrender and abandon our aims. If we should choose to give up, we are giving into absurdity, we are saying through our actions that those we wish to fight for do not ultimately matter to us. But when we choose to struggle, we declare in that moment, as we put our shoulder to the task, that what we do is worthwhile. In committing ourselves, we answer the question: Yes, our lives, and the lives of those we fight for, matter.
In the closing paragraphs of Sisyphus, Camus argues that it is possible to struggle onwards, without appeal to hope and in full confrontation with absurdity. He ends the essay, saying, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
This is not to say that our struggle today is pointless. After all, we have witnessed in these few weeks that our resistance has caused enough friction to slow down the machinations of the Trump White House. In some cases, we have even seen officials backpedaling on legislation and executive orders. Instead, it is my intention to help those fighting for a better world understand that we need not resort only to hope, but can commit ourselves to action when hope feels distant. By choosing to act, we create the meaning and value that makes the struggle worthwhile.
Today we face yet another boulder. Shall we rise to the occasion?