Coping with Tragedy Through Philosophy: Camus, Absurdism, and the Weeks Following the Orlando Shooting
July 25 2016
"However, it is good for man to judge himself occasionally. He is alone in being able to do so."
--Albert Camus
The Myth of Sisyphus 

 

In the wake of the events of the past few weeks, many of us have been forced to ask ourselves unanswerable questions: Why? How? What? 

Why do we continue to destroy ourselves, destroy one another? How could anyone possibly defend hate and bigotry and racism and homophobia? And, what is going on in this world right now?

It is reasonable enough to believe that we (not much unlike the decades and centuries that came before us) are a culture inundated with grief, and in these times, we turn to whatever comfort we can find, wherever we believe it to exist. 

In 1955, French thinker Albert Camus published his philosophical masterpiece, The Myth of Sisyphus, a collection of essays in which Camus lays out the foundation for what, now, 56 years after his death, remains his most notable work. His very name has become synonymous with its proclamation in absurdism. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus explores all that one would expect from a 20th century book on thought and philosophy: life, death, existence, knowledge, etc. But, it is his conclusions, however, that remain remarkable. 

In discussing the paradox of the absurd, Camus states that we as human beings are caught trying to derive meaning from an ultimately meaningless world. He concludes that (and in an attempt to better define absurdism) it is not man who is absurd, nor is the world, but the absurdity is created by the interaction. Camus states: "The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation."

In an existence defined by absurdity, there is no reason. There is no reconciliation or meaning or closure. One's life is plagued by punishment and suffering. But, I assure you, that in this there is freedom. To embrace the absurd, even if only in a kind of inchoate reasoning, is to begin to consciously forego the falsities of deceitful constructs that seductively lure the weary into the belief that this world, and our interaction with it, within it, must be more reasonable, more amiable than currently presented. It is this false belief, according to thinkers like Camus, that causes us so much existential dread, so much cosmic anxiety. In turn, It is the taking charge of action which grants man freedom. It is by his own hand that he will endure. 

Sisyphus, condemned to push a boulder up a hill for eternity, only to have it roll back down to the base of the hill again, continues this action, and in doing so, endures his fate. He is a hero for this reason. 

The end of a tragedy is not a time for politics or agenda. It is not a time for ratings and speculation and sensationalism. It is not a time for empty phrases of empathy. It is a time for philosophy.

After the Orlando tragedy, so many of us sat in front of the television, radio, newspaper, trying to make sense of the events that transpired. They were tragic. We asked the same questions that we've asked now a hundred times before. Why? How? What? We kicked, each of us, alone in our vast, open waters and clung to some floating mirage that we hoped would provide some answer, some respite from the perpetual fight. To do so is only human. 

I remember sitting down to dinner with my father the night after the incident that, now, is simply referred to as Sandy Hook, and concluding, without question, or really much thought at all: I'm tired. I'm tired of the tragedy. 

After Orlando, I said nothing. I read the last two pages from Camus' essay:

One does not conform the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness. [...] ‘I conclude all is well,' says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, had not been, exhausted. [...] It makes fate a human matter, which must be settled among men. 

All Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up [...] There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

And then, like those victims still fighting, clinging to life, those families still grieving – like the city of Orlando who refused to become synonymous with bloodshed, but with healing and perseverance – I, like any other who identifies with the tragedies and the sufferings of this world, went back to my rock. 

 

Blake Jon Mycal Smith

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