Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

Humans are Courageous

Thesis: Staring meaninglessness in the face and continuing on (the human condition) is courageous.

Last week as I was walking out of my building at the Washington Navy Yard, I couldn’t help but notice the faces of my fellow employees.  I might be projecting here, but their faces were like mine: blank, empty, and mildly stunned.  I felt like my fellow faceless bureaucrats were thinking the same thing I was: “I just spent eight hours doing something that will have no effect on reality.”  Nothing I accomplished that day had any impact on anything and to that extent I’m not sure I (or we) accomplished anything.

As I walked home, I thought that this was a good metaphor for the human condition, especially as envisaged by the writers Albert Camus and Ernest Becker.  Both men thought that there was no intrinsic meaning to the world.  Camus dealt with this by wondering if our absurd situation required suicide (it doesn’t), and Becker dealt with it by positing that all of our character is simply a denial of our existential meaningless and our inevitable death.  

To me, Camus’ position is highly problematic and the problem was reflected in the faces of my coworkers.   In Camus’s book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes of the mythological figure Sisyphus.  Sisyphus was sentenced by the Gods to roll a boulder up a hill, but every time he reached the top of the hill, the boulder would roll back down.  Camus uses this as a metaphor for the human condition–that our lives are simply a perpetual boulder rolling exercise.  Camus’ solution to our boulder rolling problem is to embrace the boulder rolling, or more accurately, to scorn the meaningless of reality and do it anyway.  “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” Camus concludes.

I find that conclusion lacking.  Scorn leads to contempt, and I can’t think of how to get from contempt to happiness.   Sisyphus can’t be happy; he can be resigned, maybe, but more likely he’s a contemptible, crotchety asshole–the guy no one wants to hang out with at the rock rolling party.

That’s why I don’t think it was scorn on the faces of my colleagues. These aren’t angry or resentful people.  Rather, they are largely normal, well-meaning people.  They don’t scorn reality, they are courageous in the face of it!

 I prefer to think of humans as courageous–In the face of absurdity and meaningless, we go on.  It’s nuanced, I admit; the difference between scorn and courage may not even matter.  But in my attempts to make my own life meaningful in the face of all this, I think courage is a far better place to start than scorn.

That’s why Becker’s explanation works better for me.  If all our character is a lie, created to keep us from recognizing the circumstances of our existence, then we can choose our own course.  We can choose to love, live, work, and play because those things matter to us.  We need not be bound to scorn, or to roll the Sisyphean rock at all.  We can altogether forget about the absurdity and live happy, well-adjusted lives.  And what’s more courageous than that?


Written by keithboyea

September 27, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. I side with you on this. However, how many people are cognizant of their meaningless existence?


    September 27, 2011 at 9:11 pm

  2. Curt,

    I’d say not many, though I would differentiate between “intrinsic meaning” and “meaning.” I think we can make our lives meaningful, it is just that we don’t start out that way. It’s a hell of a burden; responsibility for meaning is up to me, not my wife, my family, or a god.


    September 28, 2011 at 7:51 am

  3. I think I’m in the middle of Camus and Becker. I think it is relatively absurd to go about everything as you mentioned when at the end of the day there was little to no meaning for what was just done. Alas, it is all subjective and I admire your view.

    What I think we can both agree on is to never tell your wife that your responsibility for meaning isn’t up to her; hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.


    September 28, 2011 at 10:38 pm

  4. Not everyone leaves the office with blank, empty stares. Some days I leave with a spring in my step, energized at my team’s accomplishments. Other days I leave with my head down, exhausted and dejected by goals not met, but resolved to regroup and do better tomorrow. There are plenty of days in between, but there are always opportunities for bettering my situation (being recognized for performance, seeking out challenging training opportunities, increased responsibility, etc.). Maybe that’s the difference between working in the private sector and being a bureaucrat. Rather than waxing poetic about the meaninglessness of life, perhaps you should seek more challenging employment. It is out there.

    Dan Hickman

    September 29, 2011 at 8:15 am

  5. Can such effort be totally meaningless if we stay and take the pay that goes with it?

    Greg Godwin

    September 29, 2011 at 8:36 am

  6. The private is as important to the regiment as the commanding officer. Your job is far from meaningless.


    September 29, 2011 at 11:37 am

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