Albert Camus Saved My Life
Lessons from the coolest philosopher to ever live.
Upon entry into college, everything I knew (or that is to say: what I thought I knew) was in flux. I grew up in a Christian home, and I thought that because I knew the Bible well and had spent my life in church, I pretty much had this whole ‘Life’ thing figured out. At the same time, though, I was going through an intensely depressed period in my life because everything around me seemed to be changing.
For those who may be uninformed of the mysterious ways of the nondenominational Christian church, I’ll say that, for most of my life, my days and evenings were packed with church programs, evening gatherings with my friends, and simply digestible Bible lessons designed to help navigate the fraught waters of adolescent life.
Once I graduated, however, I found the support system around me evaporating as those around you in the church become less concerned with the minutiae of your spiritual growth as you begin to age out of all the programs and lessons designed to engage you in your spiritual journey. I found myself, for the first time, alone with my faith in a world that didn’t share my values, and I started to panic.
My excitement about the future turned to horror as I realized that adult life is full of realities that no one talks about in church services. These realities include loneliness, feelings of emotional isolation, comparisons to the success of others that make you feel inadequate, and a sense of futility that accompanies most of your actions.
I remember, on one of my first days of college, we watched a movie that has to be one of the most depressing films I’ve ever watched in my life, American Beauty. The film centers on the protagonist Lester Burnham, who works as a low-level accountant at a marketing firm, with a realtor wife that totes him around like a handbag to all her networking events, and a daughter that finds him nerdy and spastic. The film opens on Lester jerking off in the shower as he describes that this activity comprises the highlight of his day.
Upon arrival at work, Lester is called into his boss’ office and laid off, and he uses the opportunity alone with his boss to threaten a sexual harassment lawsuit in exchange for hush money, even though no such situation had taken place. Lester simply knew that his boss had been using company funds to hire hookers, and the money was really given to him as a way to keep this information quiet. He simply added the harassment part as a way to finesse more money out of the company before he left, knowing that his boss could never prove otherwise.
Lester uses this newfound freedom from his job to begin again, becoming more emotionally withdrawn from his wife, smoking weed that he buys from his daughter’s soon-to-be boyfriend, and working out with the advice of a gay couple that lived down the street.
Funny enough, this is the only couple that is shown to have any joy alongside their suburban counterparts, maybe because they were the only characters with the inner strength not to hide who they were from the people around them. (But that’s another essay for another day.)
Needless to say, this film sent me on an even deeper spiral of depression, and I began to wonder if all the ‘adults’ in my life that seemed to have all the answers were really just bullshitting me.
Would my life be filled with futility and angst, like the main character of the film? Would my best bet for happiness simply be the casting off of societal expectation in favor of going my own direction?
For those that don’t know, the film ends with Lester’s neighbor, the sexually repressed Colonel Frank Fitz, blowing Lester’s brains out because his son Ricky claimed that they had a sexual relationship, as a way to cover for the fact that he had been selling weed to Lester — so Ricky wouldn’t be shipped off to military school.
The lesson of the film was a simple one. Go the way of society and die a death of slow dissatisfaction, or you can attempt to escape the shackles of banal American life, and you will be ridiculed, misunderstood, maligned, and maybe killed anyway.
It seems that none of the Bible stories I had collected as a youngster could account for the emotional turmoil I was feeling at that moment. Was a nihilistic framework for life the more sensible way to go? I couldn’t make heads or tails out of what I had seen, and no one around me could offer answers to the questions I was asking. I was also afraid to ask these questions of others, unsure if everyone around me was just as emotionally fragile as I felt. I didn’t want my doubts to put anyone else at unease. I suffered in silence.
All the philosophers I studied to try to find answers brought me no solace. It seemed as though their prognosis for life was just as grim as how I felt, and their faces seemed withdrawn and sad, cursed with the same knowledge I now held in my heart.
That is, until I found Albert Camus. He was a French philosopher, and unlike anyone I had ever seen before. He had a style like James Dean and a mind like Christopher Hitchens. He was an atheist, and he shared a viewpoint that, indeed, life can seem like an exercise in futility, but he used that as reasoning for why life ought to be enjoyed, rather than dreaded.
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
― Albert Camus
He was well-spoken, good-looking, and he dressed impeccably. He drove fast cars and enjoyed the company of many attractive women. He had all the trappings of what seemed to me to be a successful life, and he was intellectually honest about the brutality of existence. In him, I found a framework for a life that could be both enjoyable and honest, refined and pragmatic.
Yes, many of his works center on the disconnect between the desires of Man and the insufficiency of life to fill those desires, but that doesn’t mean life couldn’t still be enjoyable and even fulfilling. He argues that the effort put into life, in and of itself, is the thing that provides fulfillment. Indeed, there will be moments of intense dissatisfaction in this life, and moments where it feels like the things you do don’t make a difference at all.
Nevertheless, it is the striving that makes life worth it. This is a man that enjoyed life, relished the beauty of existence, and stared into the void with bravery and abandon — seeing this as a duty to which every person on this planet is obligated. It’s joy in the minutiae of life, in the trenches, that makes it all worthwhile.
It’s true, he might argue, that life is too complex and multifaceted to know its true meaning, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the journey placed in front of you, no matter how hard it may seem.
Life and joy for it’s own sake…