If Life is a Joke I want to be the Punchline
Oh, to be a rationalist in a numinous universe. I’m a natural skeptic, but I’m not a very faithful atheist — I dare pair the idea of faithfulness with non-belief. But, that’s me, a great doubter looking for an experience of faith in this dynamic world. I’m insatiably curious and question everything, especially any notion about the inherent meaning of existence. I do think life is meaningful, but the individual is responsible for creating that meaning despite what deity or deities might be lurking nearby or hiding beneath the veil. Sometimes I think we must exist and do our will despite what the religions of the west tell us. The biblical patriarchs often found themselves needing to stand up to God. It seems that our humanity was necessary to deity. God may well need us more than we need god.
That’s me though, that despite all this mysterium tremendum life is ultimately meaningless unless I choose meaning. None of the pre-packaged containers of meaning I was presented with has ever really worked for me. Yet, I find that I just simply can’t “not believe” either. My nihilism is a bit of a giddy conspiracy — even a falsehood that I enjoy projecting. Look around the world and I find that I do tremble in fear even as I’m caught up in the wonderment of it all. To exist when I could have just as easily not existed in the first place is intoxicating.
This god, if he or she indeed exists, is whimsical and is playing with me. It is loving and cruel. I once read that Krishna was sometimes presented as the thief of hearts. He sneaks into the soul’s bedchamber at night and steals your heart. We must chase after him because until we catch up with him we will never be satisfied. There’s a certain appeal to me in that allegory. It feels compatible to my interpretations of Christianity even though Krishna belongs to a different religion and culture.
I’ve let go of most of my atheist pretensions when I caught myself quite by surprise praying. I wasn’t begging or pleading for anything. I just found myself moving through a noetic heart-song of prayer in the quiet hours of the early morning. It could be indoctrination. Even in the wishy washy Catholic church of the ‘70’s I managed to be deeply impacted by the mythology and theology of Christianity. However, Noetic prayer is more of a Greek and Russian Orthodox tradition than it is a Roman Catholic one, although the Trappists and Carmelites might be similar in some of their practices. It wasn’t one I was familiar with until adulthood. My heart is draped in these noetic gowns of numinous praise and ecstasy.
These moments of prayer have been coming more frequently in the past several weeks. It feels refreshing and odd at the same time as swimming in a lake under moonlight — a little unmoored, a tiny skiff floating along at the whim of a greater force. These might be the spiritual consolations that the great medieval Christian mystics wrote of. Be assured there are plenty of desert moments still to come. Spiritual life is dynamic. I’ve been thrown over a cliff into an abyss or two during my life. I expect there to be others.
The conflict between consolation and desolation is where we work out our “Salvation in fear and trembling,” as St. Paul advised. I’ve decided to let it be…to see where it takes me. I’d rather scrutinize and judge it mightily, but I’m refraining. I’ve a feeling that I’ve been praying all along and was never aware of it. It’s just something that is in my nature to do. St. Paul suggests that we really don’t pray, but rather it’s the spirit of god that prayers for us from within. Maybe that is what is going on. Great, I’m a nihilist with a religious imagination.
Now while I’ve let go of my atheist leanings and speak longingly of spiritual experiences I am still an existentialist. I’ve always been one even before I knew the word or had the literary tradition I needed. In my youthful angst I loved Sartre, but it was often Nikos Kazantzakis that helped me deal with my weird duality of giddy nihilism and religious imagination. Even as an ardent atheist my language was often the poetry of religion. I’m a religious existentialist to be sure, maybe even a little bit of a religious nihilist. I love absurdity so these kinds of incongruities don’t bother me.
Albert Camus instead of Jesus ended up becoming my personal savior. I doubt we really need a personal savior, but Camus was mine and his essay the Myth of Sisyphus saved my life. A Rabbi friend of mine once described Camus to me as an atheist in search of redemption. I paraphrase her poorly here, because I don’t remember the exact quote. This is a perfect description of my quest to create a meaningful life in a seemingly random and meaningless world. You should write that down on a notecard.
Read in the days while I was considering suicide the first line naturally caught my attention.
“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. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games.”
Spoiler alert: Camus advocates for life. So do I. Sisyphus woke me up to the possibility of existing for the sake that I already existed and to find purpose and meaning even though life appeared to me a grand theater of the absurd. It is Camus’s novels and essays that I return to frequently in this stage of my life and, oddly enough, the work of the great New Age Charlatan, Carlos Castaneda. I’m not sure an odder pairing of literature (I use the term loosely with Castaneda) is possible. The audacity of Castaneda and his shrewd blending of Zen with his knowledge of the lore of ethnobotanicals is quite lucid even as it is beguiling. I also find it quite fun that many people were taken in by it. Still there is something to learn.
Juan Matus tells Carlos that we live in a weird world and we must take responsibility for living in a weird world. That approach seems compatible with Camus even as the other New Age silliness of Carlos and don Juan does not. I’m often amazed how the Charlatans and tricksters — Coyote, Loki, Our Lady of Lourdes and Gospa (The Blessed Virgin at Međugorje) become surer roads to enlightenment than those teachers and agencies we find more trustworthy.
At fifty I still can’t shake my youthful notion of life as a theater of the absurd. These days, I’ve discovered that I can consciously choose the roles I want to play. And play them I do. That is taking responsibility for my place in this weird place and time. Daily I struggle, but I no longer have the crashes in my structure of personal meaning. I can pray, sing hymns or bliss out in some weird form of noetic meditation and appreciate those experiences for what they are. My personal philosophy is inchoate and appropriates all kinds of incompatible symbols and ideas from other places. That’s okay with me.
Let me be as absurd as I need to be.
If life is a joke than I want to be the punchline.
It is my boulder that I’m rolling up the hill and not yours.